Paul Nash Tate Britain exhibition to feature 'lost' surrealist sculpture

Moon Aviary, found stored in pieces in a cardboard box, goes on display with other rarely seen works by the British war artist

An important surrealist sculpture by the artist Paul Nash, lost for more than 70 years, has been rediscovered stored in pieces in a cardboard box, and has been refurbished and reconstructed for an exhibition of his work opening at Tate Britain this week.

The exhibition, the most comprehensive in a generation, emphasises not just Nash’s best-known landscape and war work, but also his close links with the surrealist and modernist movements and other artists in Britain and Europe.

The sculpture, Moon Aviary 1937, was shown in surrealist exhibitions in the late 1930s. But, made of fragile and found materials including old egg crates, wooden bobbins, ivory and stone, it was thought to have disintegrated or been destroyed long ago.

In fact it had unwittingly been inherited by the owner, whose family had a gallery in London. It had gone into storage with many other works when the gallery closed, and was only rediscovered earlier this year.

The subject relates to Nash’s earlier drawing Mansions of the Dead, with winged figures representing souls flying to airy enclosures in the clouds.

The exhibition also displays for the first time a 1936 painting, Circle of the Monoliths – one of many in the exhibition to include the distinctive slabs of the Avebury stone circle and other prehistoric standing stones. Painted on the back of another earlier work, Two Serpents, it has been mounted in a special two-sided frame to make both paintings visible for the first time.

The exhibition is the most comprehensive of Nash’s work in a generation. He is best known as a landscape artist and an official war artist in both world wars, and the exhibition includes his haunting Totes Meer (Dead Sea), where what first appear to be moonlit waves are actually an expanse of wreckage of second world war aircraft stretching to the horizon.

Detail from Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41), by Paul Nash
Detail from Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41), by Paul Nash. Photograph: Paul Nash/©Tate

Nash made many paintings of the shattered landscape left by trench warfare in Flanders in the first world war – many now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum – describing it as “the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakably, utterly indescribable”.

Highlights include his three-metre-long 1919 painting the Menin Road – originally commissioned for a proposed hall, never built, which was to represent the heroism and nobility of Britain’s war. In it, tiny human figures pick their way through a scene of utter desolation in which the road has been almost obliterated.

Nash died of heart failure in 1946, aged 57. The exhibition includes some of his last major works made during the second world war, including his 1944 Battle of Germany. There will be free admission for members of the armed forces and veterans on Remembrance Sunday, 13 November, in recognition of the importance of his work as a war artist.

  • Paul Nash is at Tate Britain from 26 October 2016 until 5 March 2017.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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