Coun­try seer

The art of Paul Nash in­vested land­scape with sym­bolic mean­ing, em­brac­ing de­vel­op­ments in the in­ter-world War avant-garde to achieve a sin­gu­lar vi­sion, says Matthew Den­ni­son

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

Only an artist of the first half of the 20th cen­tury could have pro­duced land­scape paint­ings like those of Paul nash. De­fined by their am­bi­gu­ity, un­set­tling in their com­bi­na­tion of the fa­mil­iar and the un­fa­mil­iar, they have a vis­ual im­pact that is si­mul­ta­ne­ously tan­gi­ble and elu­sive.

nash’s ma­tur­ing as an artist be­tween the World Wars co­in­cided with a pe­riod of en­er­getic Modernist ex­per­i­men­ta­tion across Europe. His med­i­ta­tions on the English coun­try­side are those of a man ex­cited by emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and new ap­proaches to paint­ing; they are also the work of an artist in­flu­enced by his pre­de­ces­sors, in­clud­ing the ro­man­tic vi­sion­ary Sa­muel Palmer.

In nash’s hands, land­scape pos­sesses a spir­i­tual di­men­sion of fath­om­less age and mys­tery. It also ex­ists in the here and now, a rest­ing place for ten­nis balls and de­cap­i­tated dolls’ heads, stones, mega­liths, mush­rooms and pe­cu­liar, mon­u­men­tal mech­a­nised struc­tures serv­ing no ob­vi­ous pur­pose. In its ar­rest­ing lyri­cism, nash’s paint­ing achieves the im­pos­si­ble.

In a par­tial au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Out­line, pub­lished in 1949, three years after his death, nash claimed: ‘I be­longed to the coun­try.’ A new ex­hi­bi­tion at Tate Bri­tain, the largest in 40 years, demon­strates that the coun­try to which nash be­longed was wher­ever he hap­pened to be at a given mo­ment, as much an idea as a re­al­ity. His life had a peri­patetic qual­ity. Re­peat­edly, he moved. His work de­picts coast­lines and in­land fields, hills, cliffs and copses, the Ken­tish shore­line, Ox­ford­shire wood­land, views from london win­dows.

In place of any re­gional qual­ity is a sense of in­tense en­gage­ment with his nat­u­ral sur­rounds, a di­a­logue that is both ex­ul­tant and fear­ful. The paint­ings he com­pleted as an of­fi­cial war artist in the sec­ond half of the First World War are an­gry, vig­or­ous, star­tling and ex­per­i­men­tal.

Cer­tain of those char­ac­ter­is­tics re­cur in his land­scape pictures for the next 30 years.

Con­ti­nen­tal Sur­re­al­ism and the work of his con­tem­po­rary C. R. W. nevin­son colour these war paint- ings, in­clud­ing the well-known We are Mak­ing a New World of 1918 and The Menin Road, painted a year later. The vi­sion is as dis­tinc­tively nash’s own as the ice-cream­coloured land­scape Novem­ber Moon (1942), Land­scape of the Ba­gley Woods (1943) and Cu­mu­lus Head (1944).

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, he was again com­mis­sioned as an of­fi­cial war artist. His images of planes and blaz­ing skies, such as Bat­tle of Ger­many (1944), have a bal­letic, febrile beauty. Totes Meer, in which the waves of a tin­grey sea are made up of bro­ken aero­plane wings, is as dev­as­tat­ing in its res­ig­na­tion as the im­pas­sioned protest of the war paint­ings he had com­pleted three decades ear­lier. In each case, land­scape is re­duced to bold com­po­nents and in­vested with pow­er­ful emo­tions.

The present ex­hi­bi­tion seeks to con­tex­tu­alise nash’s work. Born in 1889, he stud­ied at the Slade: an in­tel­lec­tual di­men­sion formed a no­table as­pect of all his paint­ing. He re­jected the in­su­lar­ity of much

Land­scape from a Dream (1936–38) echoes the Sur­re­al­ist fas­ci­na­tion with the power of dreams and the un­con­scious

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