The painter Paul Nash was lucky to survive World War 1, if anyone who fought in the trenches can be described as “lucky”. He broke a rib in a fall at the Front, and was sent home to recuperate. While in Britain, many of his comrades in his regiment, the Artists’ Rifles, were killed in an attack on Hill 60. Whatever else it did, the war transformed his painting, from the relatively delicate pre-war landscapes to hard angular representations of the war, notably in his “memorial” painting, ‘The Menin Road’, commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee after the war. It dominated the room it was hung in at the Tate, as I suspect it also dominated the exhibition in which which it was first shown.
The war seems to have made a modernist of him. The Unit One group—which he formed with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Edward Burra, Edward Wadsworth and the architect Wells Coates—asked the question, as Jenny Uglow notes in her NYB review of the show, “Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’”. The Tate has a room hung with works representing the Unit One exhibition, and it’s easier to see what they are against than what they are for, but the pieces exude a modern sensibility in ’30s England, when such things were as contested as they are now.
Nash had moved to the Kent countryside after the war, as Uglow notes, “[e]xhausted, his lungs damaged by gas, his mind in meltdown,” and some of the landscapes from there are as good an answer to his own question as any. His angular paintings of Dymchurch and the Rye Marshes catch the shapes that lie beneath, conveying the sense that this landscape is made and remade by man.
Nash was also a contributor to, and organiser of, the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, although you get the impression from the Tate exhibiton that he liked the idea of surrealism more than the thing itself. His own surrealist paintings feel more like a series of technical experiments rather than a commitment.
The sense of the modern continues into the Second World War, where he was again a war artist, as he had been at the end of World War 1. He became fascinated by planes and the aerial war. The Tate show doesn’t include his large canvas of The Battle of Britain, which captures magnificently the chaos and confusion of a large scale air battle, at least one fought at the speed of propellors rather than turbines. But it does have several of his other wartime works, including ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea),’ of the graveyard of shot-down German planes near Cowley, Oxford, which T.J Clark celebrates in a slightly overworked review in the LRB.
[T]he sea of machine parts shimmers in the moonlight… Gun-metal greys are played off against cartoon greens, blues, pinks, wintry dead browns; the dune yellow is savage, with a horror-movie shadow louring at its edge and great gashes of red traced across it.
His other World War II pictures on display here are on the edge of abstraction (for example his 1944 work, ‘The Battle for Germany‘. I liked them, although the War Ministry did not. T.J. Clark suggests that
it seems that the 20th century only came to Nash, as something paintable, in the form of total war… part of me regrets, I admit, that Nash never encountered another, more ordinary form of modernity – the edge of the city, the clank of the combine, the exhausts of suburbia – that he felt he could put in a picture.
But I think he’s wrong about this, at least on the evidence of the Tate exhibition. The same modernity that’s seen in the war pictures is also there in Nash’s landscapes, in the paintings of Dymchurch and Avebury, or even in ‘Landscape at Iden‘, with its pruned orchard trees and chopped and stacked logs. Modernity doesn’t require machinery.
‘Paul Nash’ is at Tate Britain, in London, until 5th March, at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 8th April to 20th August, and then at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, from 9th September until the end of January 2018.
The images are used with thanks. They are all from publicly owned collections and have been acquired with public money or gifted.