Paul Nash was one of the most revered and influential war artists of the twentieth-century, producing work across the two world wars that deliberately painted a “truthful” picture of the nature of the conflicts he served in. And it has been a very long time since he was given a proper retrospective in the UK which Tate Britain has rectified with their new show that unites his war art with a considerable number of pieces which flirt with ideas of surrealism and mysticism.
The Tate claims that this show will ‘reveal Nash’s important to modern art’ – which is something I think we already knew – and in its thematic layout charts Nash’s changing interests in landscapes, still life, surrealism and his involvement in particular exhibitions and artistic movements. For some reason, modern galleries seem particularly afraid of showing work in chronological order, and the Tate’s themed approach implies separation between all these elements of Nash’s work, whereas if you look at the dates these pieces reveal he was trying out several different approaches simultaneously. And with varying degrees of success; an artist who, I would argue, needed the drive of war to shape the emotional impact and style of his work.
Launched at the end of this summer’s Somme commemorations and to coincide with Remembrance Day, this exhibition will largely attract those interested in Nash’s superb images of conflict, which surprisingly are few and far between. It opens with some pre-First World War mysticism images influenced by William Blake and Gabriel Rossetti which are a charming introduction to the exhibition and reiterate the notion that the V&A suggested in their fantastic Constable show two years ago, that artists initially learn by copying the style of their forebears, something you can see in Nash’s approach.
But for many the second room ‘We are Making a New World’ will be a key draw and here Nash’s experience in the First World War led to some of the most important and extraordinary paintings of the era. By Nash’s own admission, he saw himself as a “messenger who will bring back word… to those who want the war to last forever”, and in his fantastic oil paintings, full of drama, suffering and devastation he does exactly that. On display, and dominating the room, is ‘The Menin Road’ which he painted on commission from the Ministry of Information to feature in an exhibition of remembrance which was never created. It shows two soldiers running between craters filled with water and shell-damaged trees, with two beams of light shining through the clouds – either referencing God or canons depending on your interpretation. Also in the room is the painting that gives this section its title, depicting ravaged trees on an undulating red landscape as the sun beams through the clouds – no people, just nature, one of Nash’s core themes. There’s also a nicely executed, and rarely seen, image of stretcher bearers carrying soldiers in Passchendale, entitled ‘Wounded’ which contrasts the smoky lightness of the sky and its reflections in the water – often a feature of Nash’s work – with the brown ravaged landscape and people.
Yet from here it all starts to go a bit wrong and what follows are several rooms that zig zag across the 1920s and 30s taking in a large amount of Nash’s work that covers several types of expression… the trouble is, on the whole most of it is just not very good and the space the Tate has given to it is rather unnecessary. In Room 3, ‘Places’ the focus is on Nash’s post-war obsession with particular locations, views of the countryside and places like Dymchurch by the sea. Strangely in the same picture you can see a clash of highly skilled work and elements that are mediocre at best if not bordering on amateur. In one scene Nash paints the edge of a barn with clusters of trees around it, and while the trees are distinctively Nash, going right back to his pre-war styles of lollipop foliage and cutting the tops in straight-ish lines, the building itself has an off perspective, crudely drawn and sitting uncomfortably in the foreground. Similarly a particular poor image of Dymchurch promenade gets the straight lines of the walk all wrong, while the sea is full and vivid.
While the Tate is trying to make the case that Nash’s work in these new avenues is important and varied, by contrast – if you defy the layout and take the work chronologically – you see an artist who is experimenting with style and form alongside his more recognisable landscapes and natural subjects, managing to produce work which is highly variable in quality. By ramming it together thematically, the Tate makes Nash look like a poorer artists than maybe he is, whereas he was just doing lots of things but found his core purpose and focus in times of war.
There are still some accomplished pieces in these rooms including a series of plant paintings which have a delicate simplicity reminiscent of early twentieth-century French styles, which are more naturalistic and display Nash’s ability to compose nature in more angular forms. One series shows a vase of flowers set against a window which are particularly good, while another sets the same vase on a table which angles against a bookcase and is extremely effective. Take these alongside the 1930 picture ‘Wood on the Downs’, an almost sculpted copse, against flowing hillsides, this reiterates the idea that Nash hadn’t abandoned his First World War style but continued it alongside rather than instead of other approaches.
There’s a whole section devoted to Unit One, a group of artists who exhibited everything from painting to photography at an exhibition in the mid-1930s, which contains more work by other people than by Nash himself which only delays your progress to the Second World War where once again the Nash we know and admire finally comes to the fore. His obsession with aircraft by this time results in a number of important and beautifully constructed works of British and German planes crashing into the tree-filled landscape including ‘Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park’.
While the Tate doesn’t seem to have gotten hold of ‘The Battle of Britain’ it does have what could be considered Nash’s finest picture ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’, an image he took from a real life graveyard for broken Allied and enemy planes. In this picture the angular wings and edges of the planes, peak and wave across the picture, their ruined grey-blue exteriors glinting in the moonlight as they seem to crash against the sandy bank. Although the curators argue that this picture has come from Nash’s surrealist work in the 1930s, on the contrary it sits consistently among his fascination with landscape, water and movement that go back beyond the First World War.
It ends with a bit of whimper unfortunately, some more surrealist stuff that explores the sun and moon, some of which is produced before the stunning war work in the previous room. Nothing here really catches the eye and seems a shame to send people home with this as a final image. The work here – including ‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’ which looks like a mug and a sun, as well as ‘Flight of the Magnolia’ which has an unfolding flower and an egg-shaped structure – is a little underwhelming, but again shows that Nash was doing this work as well as producing his stunning Second World War pictures, which frankly should have ended this show.
Paul Nash was a very fine war artist but on the basis of this exhibition, it’s hard to consider the effect of his work on anything else. Possibly just the curation is at fault here, but Nash was clearly a man who found his greatest expression in wartime when the emotional and physical consequences of his experiences gave rise to some of the greatest work of the last century. Yet while he continued to experiment with other forms, I’m not convinced the Tate full backs-up its claim that his influence is equally felt in these areas. With a lot of not that interesting work given a lot of space, this is not the Nash show it could have been. This show is going on tour to Salisbury and Newcastle in 2017, but rather than pay £16.50 to see his brilliant war work, just wait till they’re back in the Imperial War Museum when you can see them for free.
Paul Nash is at Tate Britain until 5 March 2017. Tickets cost £16.50 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1