Paul Nash review – pain, wonder and inescapable menace

Tate Britain, London
Whether he’s painting the peaceful English countryside or the wartime trenches, the artist usually has something up his sleeve – and it’s not always pleasant

With worlds under huge moons, Oxfordshire hilltops and Berkshire downs, autumn woods and mackerel skies, Paul Nash was almost a neoromantic painter of a small, domesticated island. Willows thrashing in a gale over a secluded pond; the empty coast at Dymchurch, with its groynes and coastal defences; marshes at Rye subjected to a severe geometry, where even the clouds are rhomboids. What odd, contrary paintings they are.

But geometry really worked for Nash in Winter Sea, with its fractured and folding planes, flattened under a night sky. Illuminated by an unseen moon, Winter Sea, to which Nash returned several times between 1925 and 37, is a deceptively simple painting of inescapable menace. For me, has a kind of absolute gravitas, like a hollowed-out future disappearing into the distance. It stops me dead.

Not everything Nash did was equally good. He was never what you could call a great painter. Yet we keep returning to him, because his art is full of mystery and strangeness, suffering and wonder. He saw fallen elms in a field as prowling monsters, bits of white flint as bleached human encounters. He could paint a withered plant in a pot, reflections of spherical lamps in a restaurant mirror, a meeting between a tree stump and a tennis ball on a clifftop and lend them all a peculiar significance. Sometimes the strain shows, as though surrealism wasn’t really what he was aiming for, even though, at the time of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 he was dubbed England’s surrealist-in-chief. But something uncanny and unhomely persists.

Nash’s We Are Making a New World, 1918
Nash’s We Are Making a New World, 1918 Photograph: Imperial War Museum/Tate

This is the second Nash Tate retrospective since 2003 (the first was in Liverpool), but it covers much more ground. As well as tracing the development of Nash’s painting from the 1910s until his early death in 1947, it includes his previously undervalued photography, his assemblages (some made in conjunction with his sometime lover Eileen Agar), and an entire room devoted to Unit One, a loose affiliation of British artists, designers and architects who, in the 1930s, saw themselves as connected to a wider European modernism. In this room we also find a small, recently rediscovered and reassembled sculpture by Nash (found in pieces in a cardboard box), which was undoubtedly influenced by the surrealist work of Alberto Giacometti, especially the Swiss artist’s 1932 The Palace at 4am. Another of Nash’s lost sculptures, The Archer (only known as a photograph), also has clear echoes of Giacometti’s 1932 Flower in Danger and his 1928 Man and Woman.

Nash in surrealist mode … Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935.
Nash in surrealist mode … Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935. Photograph: Tate

Nash may have encountered Giacometti in dissident French surrealist Georges Bataille’s subversive magazine Documents. Unlikely though it seems, Documents appears to have been the model for Nash’s Shell Guide to Dorset (part of a series, sponsored by the petroleum company and aimed at the car-driving tourist, under the editorial control of poet John Betjeman). Nash has the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset alive with prehistoric lizards. What was really singular about him was a sense of the visionary and of things impending, as if an unseen world were about to reveal itself.

Nash’s experience during the first world war marked him physically and psychologically. A gas attack at Passchendaele in 1917 wrecked his lungs, and his experiences in the trenches left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. A sense of the immanent was already there in Nash’s sensibility, but the war gave it focus. The blasted trees of his 1918 We Are Making a New World and the spectral starburst in The Ypres Salient at Night, from the same year, have a terrible, almost mystical authority.

The exhibition labels keep reminding us of the influence of Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico on Nash’s art. Nash’s still lives, set at the window of a flat overlooking London’s St Pancras station, show the influence, but not the spirit. But what some of the best of Nash’s work shares with De Chirico, prefiguring any influence, was a profound sense of emptiness. This was already there in Nash’s early watercolours of trees and gardens, and a distant vista, where a vision of the artist’s mother looms in the evening sky.

Wood on the Downs, 1930, by Paul Nash.
Wood on the Downs, 1930, by Paul Nash. Photograph: Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections

Here, the influence is more likely Samuel Palmer, and though it might be attractive to see some of his early watercolours and ink drawings as connected in some way to European symbolism, to Odilon Redon, their most likely progenitors were writers of supernatural fiction, such as Algernon Blackwood and MR James. But then we would have to ask what attracted Nash to those authors in the first place.

Although one early painting shows two young women walking in an Edwardian shrubbery, people are largely absent from Nash’s work, apart from the frightening images he painted during the first world war, with soldiers silhouetted in the light of flares and explosions in the sky, and corpses strewn in the mud of no man’s land. Even here, Nash is as much concerned with blasted trees, shattered concrete, an upturned helmet floating in a flooded crater, or bits of twisted metal, as he is with the soldiers. Later, in the second world war, Nash painted a scrapyard of downed German fighters and bombers at the edge of Oxford. Totes Meer is a dead sea of metal under a cold moon. A short clip of film in the exhibition shows Nash, elegant in suit and hat, sketching among the mangled wreckage, which he also photographed.

I suspect that Nash, like JMW Turner, just wasn’t that great at painting people, but this provided an opportunity to find other ways to invoke their presence. The diving stage, with its levels and platforms, and other skeletal architectural structures that occur in Nash’s art in the 1920s and 30s, are mysterious signs of human activity. Just because you can’t see anyone doesn’t mean there’s no one there.

Nash’s Battle of Germany, 1944.
The ever-present moon … Nash’s Battle of Germany, 1944. Photograph: Imperial War Museum/Tate

The moon, as it was in his earliest work, is always present. It hangs huge in a break in the clouds and smoke of his 1944 Battle of Germany – a painting that is not so much a panorama as a kind of abstracted Europe under bombardment (it is not a wholly successful painting, but that doesn’t really matter). It rides over his strange, late painting in which a sunflower careens over the hills like circular-saw blade, and rises over landscapes that have a strange, day-for-night light. Full of vanishing points and visual fissures and occlusions, Nash’s late, equinoctial landscapes are unsettling. It is hard to tear myself away from them. I keep expecting something to happen, someone to appear.

Nash’s Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945 and Eclipse of the Sunflower at Tate Britain.
Nash’s Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945 and Eclipse of the Sunflower at Tate Britain. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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