Welcome to Nash-ville
The art of Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) attracts many labels, from “poetic” and “lyrical” to “Modernist” and “Surrealist”, but none of them sticks altogether convincingly. Though his pastoral landscapes (the peacetime ones, at least) are realised in quiet colours or simple monochrome clearly not designed to jump out and grab the viewer, they have an insidious quality, tugging towards the implications and possibilities that make them so unforgettable. This is not an art of high drama - there’s very little human presence except that effected upon the land over long centuries – and often only the sea or the changing moon suggest movement. That’s the essence of Nash’s vision – a world passing through time, tide and seasons, shaped by cycles of growth and decay, changed for a moment into something metaphysically enduring.
If this all sounds a mite theoretical, don’t worry. The paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and assemblages gathered at the Laing don’t demand any explanation, though a bit of background does help. It’s the dates, perhaps, that are the most revealing. Paul Nash (his brother John also became a notable painter) was born into the family of a London barrister with rural roots. As his mother’s mental illness and the cost of her care disrupted their affluence, Nash almost drifted into design and, via a year at the Slade School of Art, into painting. That was enough, though. International styles of Modern Art were already making waves through the English art establishment, the Bloomsbury Group was spreading the message, and the allure of abstraction hovered in the atmosphere. Nash took from this as much as he needed, with a stylish simplification of form and a hint of Cubism, which he applied to the (real) places he loved, managing not to disrupt the Great British Landscape Tradition by contagion with anything too outlandish. (He famously raised the vexed question whether an artist at this period could both “go Modern” and still “be British”.)
Perhaps it was the 1914–18 War that intensified his vision. Sent in 1917 from the Artists’ Rifles to the Belgian trenches, he quickly returned home with an (accidentally) broken rib and a portfolio of sketches that earned him the status of an official War Artist. Returning to the Front, however, he found a bleak winter landscape of mud and devastation, still under bombardment and showing no hope for regrowth and renewal. Perhaps he never recovered from this experience – his letters to his wife reflect the fury and horror that would be revealed in his finished paintings. There is no glory in Nash’s war pictures, just a hellish sense of depletion, of a world saturated with despair and drained of all energy. Though smoke, flames and searchlights may activate the sky, below them the earth is a grave where lopped, leafless trees no longer reach for the light. The bitter title of the Imperial War Museum’s “We are Making a New World” says it all. Towards the end of his life, too frail to travel towards any battlefields, he was again an official artist for World War II, fascinated by aerial conflict and painting a moonlit Dead Sea of crashed German planes.
But during the inter-war years there was re-birth, albeit for a changed man already suffering from the asthmatic condition that would kill him at 57. Unlike pure abstraction, a new strand of modern art, Surrealism, offered fresh ways to encode a sense of depth and mystery without abandoning the landscape that he loved. His involvement in the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition, alongside such luminaries as Dali, Magritte, Ernst and Picasso, earned him a reputation as England’s leading Surrealist. Nash characteristically juxtaposed natural forms against man-made geometric shapes - cylinders standing in for Neolithic megaliths, tennis balls dominating the Downs - while his photographs recorded such real objects as troughs, steps and uprooted tree trunks that were translated by the process of painting into the glyphs and symbols of a visual language on the edge of knowing. This wasn’t arcane, ivory-tower stuff – at the same time Nash was writing and illustrating, exploring found objects, designing textiles and producing “The Shell Guide to Dorset”, arguably the only popular motorist’s handbook to suffuse its topic with a sense of Surrealist wonder.
The exhibition includes his most notably Surrealist painting, “Landscape from a Dream” (1936-8) where the familiar Dorset coast becomes a mirror for the unconscious, moulded by the symbolism of borderlands - sea/sky/land disrupted by the grid of a transparent screen, tumbling spheres and the possibility of flight thrown back from the reflection of an uncanny sunset. Only
Nash’s own words - "a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place" – come closest to capturing the mood of his work.Paul Nash, until 14 January 2018, Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle. Charges apply (children 12 and under free). laingartgallery.org.uk