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
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