Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Hard-won Image: Paul Nash at Tate Britain

In the first, dark room there were trees.  Lots of them lining the walls.  I was standing in the Paul Nash exhibition in Tate Britain, just over a week ago and it was very crowded - very popular, and a little oppressive. And on the walls are a series of mainly watercolours, mainly of trees.  The types of trees are clearly articulated. Figures are rare and those there are seem somewhat awkward.  There is a general tightness of technique.  It is very pastoral and delicate.  And there the main themes of Nash's work are established.  He remained faithful to them throughout his working career.
Even in the the second room, where the contrast in subject matter and technique could not be greater, the themes remain.  This is the first of two rooms dedicated to Nash's response to conflict.  In this case World War I.  The work on display is on a far greater scale to that first room, the medium is now oil. That particular change seems to have come out of the blue.  There is a sense of place and there are trees too, blasted and shattered things.  These are not images so much of a world shattered by mechanized warfare, but a world denuded of meaning, shorn of immanence.  Victim, perhaps of Modernity itself.
Nash (1889 - 1945) is credited with being among the first Neo-Romantic artists.  Neo-Romanticism is a rather nebulous grouping of 20th century British artists - there was never such a thing as a manifesto - but what they did do was combine Romantic sensibility with elements, such as the visual language, of European Modern Art. Neither does it share the formalism of the Bloomsbury group such as Roger Fry, for it is an art of place, sensibility and ideas.  And, I think, Nash is first and foremost an intellectual artist.  And one, I suspect, for whom the image is hard-won.  There is an almost utilitarian quality of the painted surface, none of the sensuality of paint one would associate with either Singer Sergeant or Lavery. Although the work he produced in the high intensity of WWI is influenced by the Vorticists his interests are essentially different from theirs.  Their attitude to Modernity is far more ambiguous.  And this, it can be argued separates the Neo-Romantics in general from European Modernism.  I would argue too that these two great cataclysmic conflicts of the twentieth century partially, at least, release Nash from the tightness of technique and awkwardness of composition I have talked about above.
Pictures of Nash seem to show a large robust man with a face like a Hanoverian monarch.  These images belie the truth that Nash's health was seldom good and the effect on him of the battle fields of the western Front was traumatic.  To recover he buried himself in nature, in place, and the work of this period we see the growing influence of European Modernism.  Perhaps my favourite work of this period is 'Wood upon the Downs', a work of strange mystery. Nash seems to have absorbed any number of, sometime contradictory, influences - Cezanne, de Chirico, and I think it telling that all those influences the most important on Nash were those of the Surrealists, an art of the mind if ever there was.  The art of this period was on the whole new to me.  I found the interiors and the assemblages of found images the most intriguing.  But still the Nash, like British art has continued to be throughout the 20th century, was obsessed with both place and object - the extraneous subject to the canvas.  Nash's interest in contemporary Modernism perhaps was partly utilitarian in that it provided him with a language in which he could explore certain themes both intellectually and emotionally upon the canvas.
In the final two rooms (there are six in all), the rooms dedicated to work Nash produced in the last five years of his life, there is some of the most moving and a times radiant work produced in the last century by any British artist.  'Totes Meer' of 1940-1, with its great swelling sea of crashed German aircraft, is truly outstanding work of deep emotional impact and resonance, but it those last landscapes painted when he was to all intents and purposes dying and was living in Oxford, that all those influences and interest reach a synthesis which of all his work seems the most effortless.  In these final works he returned to one of the places and subjects of the early works of that first room of the exhibition, the Wittenham Clumps - a group of trees that sprout from a couple of hills on the southern edge of the Thames Valley on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border.  A place rich in cultural resonances. Nash first visited them in 1911, and said of that they were of a 'beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten'.  I think the same could be said for his art.


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