Seeing the World Transformed: Paul Nash at Tate Britain
Career-spanning exhibitions are not always kind to artists. Early brilliance is sometimes shown slipping into repetition or recycling in later years, the promise of breakthrough work perhaps not fulfilled in maturity. As the National Gallery’s recent show devoted to the late works of Rembrandt made clear, there may be a final flourish to celebrate, but the longer the career in question the greater the risk that a retrospective can show the stop-start nature of an aesthetic life rather than its seamless progress. Even Picasso is, perhaps, better seen in ‘periods’ than in allowing his seventy-plus years of work jostle for our attention as we try to keep pace with its creator.
Tate Britain’s survey of the career of Paul Nash is a wonderful exception to this rule. In room after room we see an artist developing as the world around him undergoes tumultuous change, his style retaining trademark elements re-worked in new ways as he finds his own reality altered by two World Wars. From the Aestheticism of his early work (all Burne-Jones and Blake in style) to the trauma of the trenches in 1917 we see a man whose reality was rendered frighteningly strange by his wartime experience. Works like ‘The Menin Road’ are English landscapes re-modelled in hell: the ponds and trees that Constable would have painted now as blasted and poisoned as the men who cower amongst them. Many of these paintings are regularly on display across the Thames at the Imperial War Museum, but to reach them here after seeing Nash’s early, almost Symbolist views of trees makes the scale of his disgust at the reality of the trenches impossible to ignore. The tree stumps of Flanders clearly become the nightmare cousins of the elms that once featured in Nash’s Edwardian pastorals.
With the First World War as such a rupture Nash’s embrace of Surrealism in the 1930s feels like a strangely logical step, as though a man whose sense of reality was forever off-kilter recognised in the movement the potential to celebrate strangeness and allow the unconscious to find expression. Again, a sense of process is crucial: the Sussex Downs and the Kent coast become necessary stopping-off points on his artistic journey, places where he could work through his relationship with the post-War world.
Surrealism led Nash into the avant-garde experimentation of the ‘Unit One’ artists, and the exhibition makes excellent use of the work of Moore, Hepworth, Nicholson and others to show that in that group Nash found a sense of belonging when he arguably needed it most. To step from there into the world of the Shell County Guidebooks may seem like a strange move but it is a measure of the Tate curators’ skill that it feels oddly fitting here. Embracing the possibilities of photography, the qualities of the ‘found object’ and the potential to celebrate the strangeness of the country he saw around him Nash’s contribution to the inter-war boom in domestic sightseeing was to offer a host of ‘sights’ aimed at rendering England ‘rich and strange’ to its own inhabitants. In his paintings from this time the stone circles and monoliths of the prehistoric past assume surreal properties, often places within landscapes that owe more to the topography of the unconscious than any locations that could be found by consulting a motoring guide.
With the Surrealism of the 1930s in mind, the room devoted to Nash’s work from World War Two assumes greater context. ‘Totes Meer’ (‘Dead Sea’) with its breaking waves composed of the wreckage of Nazi aircraft at the Cowley Dump is linked back to the coastal landscapes of the 1920s and shown to be another work in which the human destruction of war is visible in objects rather than bodies. For the wrecked trees of the Western Front we now see wrecked aircraft in the English landscape; their fragments as out of place in the fields of Britain as the gigantic tennis ball that looms large in a Surrealist work like the pre-War ‘Event on the Downs’. Rather than reflect Nash’s own sensibility his second spell as a War Artist found him recording a reality that had caught up with things his imagination had shown him a decade earlier. Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’ was a Surrealist one.
Nash survived the Second World War by a few months, and in the final room of the exhibition the viewer finds him returning to the landscape but using the phases of the moon to imbue the scenes with unearthly light. Focusing on the liminal moment of the ‘equinox’ his final works take the viewer back to the trees of his earliest ones, but now they are coloured, literally, by all that their creator has seen and done. The world has been made strange in order that it may be seen again.
Rarely in my experience has a retrospective captured so completely this sense of progress in an artist’s career whilst reminding the viewer that the journey is one not of movement onwards and away from the sources of initial inspiration but a constant loop of creative return in which each new development refines and revalues the ones before it. Here, one of Britain’s greatest painters has received the exhibition he deserves, and everyone involved in it deserves praise for the thought and care that have made it possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. If you have seen it, go again and marvel at the cumulative brilliance of Paul Nash’s artistic life.
‘Paul Nash’ is at Tate Britain until 5th March 2017. Details can be found at the link below: