Paul Nash: The Landscape of Modernism

David Boyd Haycock

Amidst the unfolding violence of the early twentieth century, British artists struggled to portray modern warfare using any traditional visual style. Curator and writer David Boyd Haycock looks at one of the country’s most famous official war artists, Paul Nash.

Nash represented his experiences of both World Wars in a wholly new way by drawing upon his knowledge of Modernist and European-influenced art movements such as Vorticism and Surrealism. Having struggled to depict the human form at art school, he turned to landscape painting as a means of expressing difficult emotions stirred by his experiences of war. Later in life, he returned to the places of his youth and it was there that he came to paint a final vision of peace and hope.

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“Ever since I remember them the clumps had meant something to me, I felt their importance long before I knew their history. They eclipsed the impression of all the earlier landscapes I knew […] it was the look of them that tolled most. Whether on site, or in memory, they were the pyramids of my small world.”

We’re at Wittenham Clumps which is just outside of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, and we came here because it’s a place that Paul Nash loved through his life. It was one of the first places he discovered that he could become a landscape artist.

Nash had a strong sense of the idea of ‘place’. Place was something more than just being somewhere but a feeling you got from a particular location. A place where he could get some kind of sense of something that lay beyond and behind the landscape. Something that was a Surrealist idea – that there are two worlds; there’s the world, the surface that we see, and the emotions, the history, the psychology of what lies beneath something.

It is an amazing spot, isn’t it? It’s so beautiful.

Paul Nash is now one of the most significant and important British artists of the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in London in 1889 and went to the Slade School of Art where he was surrounded by some amazing artists: Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson – people who could draw the human form really well and they would spend hour after hour in the Slade’s life classes drawing the human figure. Nash found he really struggled over that. And he eventually found that coming outdoors, into nature, was a place where he could discover his talents and discover trees particularly. Trees would be very significant through the course of his whole career, the tree as a substitute for the human form. And that is what makes his work of the First World War so significant. When he creates through his approach to destroyed trees, destroyed landscapes, saying this is what we have done to the earth, this is what we have done to this beautiful nature that we love.

He started out as a Second Lieutenant in the infantry, spent a few months on the front line as an infantry officer, was injured falling into a trench one night, broke a rib, was sent back home to London. He then returned as an official war artist in 1917. The war artist scheme gave Nash the chance to get as close to the front as he possibly could. And Margaret Nash, Paul’s wife, would say in her memoir, that Paul was more in danger of being killed as an official war artist than he had been as an infantry officer. That there were machine gun bullets going over his head, there were shells landing, that even he was incorporating mud from shells into his pictures.  And it was the aftermath of the Battle of Passchaendale. Quagmire, destroyed trees, tens of thousands killed and Nash wanted to do whatever he could to end the war; to bring the message of what was happening on the Western Front back home to everyone in Britain so they can see what we’ve got ourselves into.

The great painting that Nash produced from the First World War was actually his first oil painting, called We are Making a New World. There are shattered trees in the foreground, in the background there is this blood red sunrise. The picture grabs you, then you see the title of it: We are Making a New World. What world are we making? It’s a cynical, pessimistic idea of, ‘what have we done?’. We start a war with great hopes and look what we’ve got. Desolation, destruction, bloodshed.

I first saw that painting when I was 16 and it really struck me. It’s about this loss, this great destruction. That was what it was like to be on the Western Front – Nash has captured it. And it’s strange, it’s weird, it’s eerie, it’s surreal, not like anything we’ve quite experienced before.

I think the First World War dramatically changed Nash’s life, and that it was a different world that came afterwards. Prior to the First World War, Nash hadn’t really been involved in the big movements such as Vorticism, but after the war he experiments. Nash would talk about ‘being British and going Modern’, this idea of trying to keep his Romantic traditions, but also looking at how artists were approaching all subjects in art and trying to change the way we saw the world, the way we painted it.

Harbour and Room was his first real Surrealist work, which he painted down in the South of France in Toulouse. He had a room in the hotel by the harbour and a mirror in the room reflected the French naval ships, so that the ships almost came into a room, and you have this meeting of the outside with the inside, which is so much what surrealism is all about. It’s bringing two opposite forces together.

When the Second World War came in 1939, it would give him another chance to explore many of the great themes in his work. He was employed by the Air Ministry. He painted crashed airplanes just outside of Oxford at the Cowley Dump, where wrecked German aircraft were being brought to be recycled into new planes. And he explored this site and he made a particularly significant painting, Totes Meer, ‘the Dead Sea’: this landscape of airplanes, tangled metal. And he cast it in the moonlight and it seemed as though it was almost alive, that it was a sea. And it touched him. Here was the dead; these planes had come to destroy and had been destroyed in turn. And yet it’s still a landscape.

The idea of life and death, decay, dreams, flight; those appear in all those late works. And he talks of the soul escaping the body and flying up, flying away. It’s ironic that he was working for the Air Ministry but because of his health he couldn’t go up in an airplane. But flying was a very significant symbol for him.

In the First World War he’d seen himself as a propagandist for peace, but in the Second Wold War he wanted his art to be used as propaganda in support of this war – whatever little bit he could do to defeat Hitler. He wasn’t able to serve, he was too old, he was too ill, but he knew that as an artist he would give everything he could to the cause.

He knows almost by the outbreak of the Second World War that he’s not going to live long. His wife suggested he was gassed as an official war artist of the First World War. He certainly suffered very badly from asthma. So the last paintings of Wittenham Clumps are his swan song. It’s a man who knows he is approaching his own end.

You have the equinox, you have the flowers – the sense that the world is growing old. But then also, equally, the hope that it will renew so that Nash knows that these are amongst his last works. He’s signalling off and saying, here is the eternity of life, and though we have death, we have life as well and re-birth.

I think Nash would be proud to be remembered as a war artist, but he wouldn’t want that to be everything that he was remembered for. He dedicated himself to the landscape and I think he’d see himself as an artist who re-dreamt the English landscape in a Modernist manner and who succeeded in doing that.

With thanks to

Earth Trust

Imperial War Museum

Tate

The Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts

 

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

Granger Historical Picture Archive

Photo 12

Pictorial Press Ltd

Science History Images

Tate

The British Museum

The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

The National Portrait Gallery

The Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts

Tullie House

World History Archive

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Full list of images shown:

Wittenham Clumps

Paul Nash, 1912

Tullie House

 

Portrait of Paul Nash

Unknown photographer, 1930-1932

NPG x4089

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

Portrait of Paul Nash

Unknown photographer, n.d.

© The Imperial War Museum: IWM Q80651

 

The Cherry Orchard

Paul Nash, 1917

Tate

 

Wire

Paul Nash, 1918-1919

© The Imperial War Museum: Art.IWM ART 2705

 

Canadians Wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele

Unknown photographer, 1916

World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

 

WWI, Battle of Passchendaele

Unknown photographer, 1917

Science History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Photograph of the Canadian 16th Machine Gun Company in Passchendaele

Unknown photographer, 1917

Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Stretcher bearers during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge

Unknown photographer, 1917

Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Paul Nash

Bassano Ltd, 1918

NPG x19066

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

Men Marching at Night

Paul Nash, 1918

© The Imperial War Museum Art: IWM ART 1605

 

Sunset: Ruin of the Hospice, Wytschaete

Paul Nash, 1917

© The Imperial War Museum: Art.IWM ART 1147

 

The Mule Track

Paul Nash, 1918

© The Imperial War Museum: Art.IWM ART 1153

 

Battle of Passchendaele: British troops salvage an 18-pounder gun from the mud

John Brooke, 1917

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

 

WWI, Battle of Passchendaele

Unknown photographer, 1917

Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

 

The Menin Road

Paul Nash, 1919

© The Imperial War Museum: Art.IWM ART 2242

 

We are Making a New World

Paul Nash, 1918

© The Imperial War Museum: Art.IWM ART 1146

 

Passchendaele, Canadian soldiers and German prisoners crossing a battlefield in Belgium

William Rider-Rider, 1917

Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Portrait of Proud Paul

Paul Nash, 1922

The British Museum

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

 

Paul Nash

Helen Muspratt, 1932

The National Portrait Gallery

 

Landscape at Iden

Paul Nash, 1929

Tate

 

Landscape from a Dream

Paul Nash, 1936–1938

Tate

 

Harbour and Room

Paul Nash, 1932-1936

Tate

 

Black and white negative, wrecked aeroplanes at the Cowley Dump

Paul Nash, 1940

Tate

 

Totes Meer (Dead Sea)

Paul Nash, 1940-1941

Tate

 

Battle of Britain

Paul Nash, 1941

© The Imperial War Museum Art.IWM ART LD 1550

 

Battle of Germany

Paul Nash, 1944

© The Imperial War Museum Art.IWM ART LD 4526

 

Paul Nash sketching

Unknown photographer, c.1940

© Tate Archive TGA 7050PH/869

 

Landscape of the Summer Solstice

Paul Nash, 1943

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

Paul Nash

Bassano Ltd, 1918

NPG x19065

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

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