Chambers, Emma. Ed. Exh. Cat, London: Tate Publishing, 2017. Texts by Emma Chambers, David Alan Mellor, Sarah Fill & Inga Fraser, 192pp., £24.99 (paperback), £30 (hardback).
Tate Britain, London, October 26, 2016 – March 5, 2017.
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, April 8, 2017 – August 20, 2017, £12 Entry.
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, September 9, 2017 – January 14, 2017, £TBC.
The Paul Nash exhibition from Tate Britain opened at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA), April 8, 2017. With 80% of the original exhibition installed, the mild fragrance of fresh paint still in the air, and the deep purple walls of the first room, ‘We Are Making a New World’ evoked emotions from the moment you entered the Crescent Wing.[i]
Paul Nash (1889-1946) is one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, not only because of his love affair with British landscape, or as an Official War Artist in both the Great War and World War II, but also because of his association with the network of avant-garde[ii] artists. Whilst there have been other in-depth exhibitions on Paul Nash, this is the first to focus on his relationship with the avant-garde since his death in 1946. Thanks to the vision of Tate curator, Emma Chambers, the selection of paintings includes that of Eileen Agar (1899-1991), confidant and friend, and British Modernist art group ‘Unit One’ members Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). Chambers also celebrates Nash not only as an artist but as a writer; and as part of the wall text for each of the rooms, Chambers selected quotes from Nash’s poetry, letters, and other writings, which is a detail that greatly enhances the exhibition experience.
When an exhibition tours it is understandable that the installation must be reviewed to fit the new space. At the SCVA, the order in which the artwork is displayed varies slightly from the original installation at Tate Britain.
Throughout the exhibition, walls of deep purple, midnight blue, ochre, and very pale pink, serve as the backdrop to Nash’s evocative pieces. These colours were borrowed from Nash’s canvases and go a long way to bringing out the mood of the paintings.
WE ARE MAKING A NEW WORLD
It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.
– Paul Nash, letter to Margaret Nash, 13 November 1917.
Nash was volunteered in the Artists Rifles[iii] in September 1914, and remained in London until his unit were sent to Ypres Salient, Belgium, in March 1917. Two months later, after falling into a trench and breaking a rib, Nash returned to England to recover. Just days after his arrival in England, most of his unit were killed at an attack on Hill 60. It wasn’t until October 1917 that Nash returned to Belgium, but this time as an Official War Artist. This group of works, which included Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood (1917-1918), The Ypres Salient at Night (1918), Wounded, Passchendaele (1918), along with The Menin Road (1919), are a minority of landscapes Nash produced in which he included human forms; but even with this rare element, Nash’s focus is largely on the landscape of war, rather than the men of war. It is in this room we see a sample of Nash’s Void of War exhibition which was held at the Leicester Galleries in May 1918.
Nash was horrified by the desecration of the landscape, and as shocking as the landscapes were, Nash was still able to capture something magnificent and yet haunting.
The next group of works, Nash’s early creations in watercolour and ink, were largely informed by symbolism and supernaturalism, influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Blake (1757-1827), and are very much the works of a young developing artist, moving away from his illustrative past. It also includes his expansion into naturalism, with works featuring tall, dominating trees that became a recurring characteristic in his paintings such as The Three (1911-12), A Landscape at Wood Lane (1913), and Tree Group (1913), which appeared to have been inspired by three mature elms which stood on the boundary of Nash’s garden.
O Dreaming trees, sunk in a swoon of sleep
What have ye seen in these mysterious places?
– Paul Nash, poem written for Mercia Oakley, c.1909.
Still, it is the works that were grew out of the Great War, after which Nash returned to to painting English landscapes, where we can see the growth of the artist, while the remnants of the impact from the war are still recognisable. This can be seen in works such as Wall Against the Sea (1922) and The Shore (1923), where the rhythm of the sea-forms mirror that of the trenches.
The influence of European artists started to feature more in Nash’s work in the late 20s, when he believed that Britain were at the beginning of the inception of ‘a new vision and a new style’ (Nash, 1988, 183). Nash endorsed the ‘importance of British artists being open to ideas from abroad’ (Chambers: 2017, 11), and welcomed modernist, and particularly, abstract art.
The more the object is studied from the point of view of its animation the more incalculable it becomes in its variations; the more subtle, also, becomes the problem of assembling and associating different objects in order to create that true irrational poise which is the solution of the personal equation.
– Paul Nash, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object’, Country Life, May 1937.
At SCVA, it was easy to find a way into Nash’s surrealist phase with his exploration of ‘object personage’, his new theme of colonnades, and the formation of Unit One. Situated in a single room divided by deep blue colonnades, unique to the SCVA exhibition, we are introduced to not only works by Nash, but a selection of pieces by Agar, whom he met in 1935. The significance of this relationship was recognised by the Tate’s curator, Chambers, who decided to embrace these works including Untitled (Box) (1935) and Marine Object (1939). However, Agar wasn’t the only alternative artist on display in the Paul Nash exhibition.
Unit One may be said to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognized as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture, and architecture.
– Paul Nash, letter to The Times, 12 June 1933.
In 1933, Nash announced the formation of Unit One, which largely consisted of surrealists and abstract artists, including John Armstrong (1893-1973), John Bigge (1892-1973), Edward Burra (1905-76), Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), Tristram Hillier (1905-83), Nicholson, Moore, and Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949), along with the architects Wells Coates (1895-1958) and Colin Lucas (1906-84). For Nash, Unit One was about having an interest in ‘design … considered as a structural pursuit: imagination, explored apart from literature or metaphysics’ (Nash. 2000, 98-99). Though Unit One only lasted until 1935, it was vastly important to Nash, and once again, Chambers wanted to include a room dedicated to these artists, inviting us to explore works such as Burra’s Serpent’s Egg (1934), Armstrong’s On the Balustrade (1933), Moore’s Composition (1933) and Bigge’s Composition (1933), as well as Nash’s Northern Adventure (1929) and Voyages of the Moon (1934-7); the latter being a continuation of Nash’s love of reflections which he began to explore along with the merging of interiors and exteriors, such as Harbour and Room (1932-6).
Nash completed Harbour and Room in 1936, the year his relationship with the surrealists was strengthened further when The International Surrealist Exhibition opened at the New Burlington Galleries in London between June 11 and July 4, 1936, exhibiting works by André Breton (1896-1966), Salvador Dalí (1904-89), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), Man Ray (1890-1976), and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).
The final room in the Crescent Wing was the installation of Nash’s work from the mid-30’s through to his death in 1946.
We see the continuation of Nash’s surrealist landscapes, which are more refined and stylistic, with the ‘object personage’ revisited. The influence of the Great War now completely absent from his artwork, we can see a confidence in his style in works such as the famous Event on the Downs (1934), Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) and his ongoing external love affair with abstraction manifested in Circle of the Monoliths (1937-8).
Then the War came.
When the War came, suddenly the sky was upon us all like a huge hawk hovering, threatening. Everyone was searching the sky waiting for some terror to fall; I was hunting the sky for what I most dreaded in my own imagining. It was a white flower … the rose of death, the name the Spaniards gave to the parachute.
—Paul Nash, Aerial Flowers, 1945.
Nash was recruited to be an Official War Artist once again, this time remaining in England. On a far wall, a segment of a black and white film called Out of Chaos directed by Jill Craigie (1911-99) displayed images from the war. The original film featured artists such as Nash, Moore, Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), all of whom were making art as Official War Artists at the time. The footage shows the inspiration for Nash’s Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-1), which depicts a twisted mass of crashed German planes. Totes Meer was commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1940. This is one of Nash’s finest pieces. However, there is a distinct contrast between the horror of the landscapes Nash produced in the Great War, and the subtle palette of his World War II works.
The exhibition came to a calming end, with a harmonious palette of artworks oozing with influence by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), particularly his moon, which can be seen in the wonderful Pillar and Moon (1932-42), Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase (1944) and Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (III) (1944). Ending with Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945), visibly influenced by Blake and his illustrated poem ‘Ah! Sunflower.’
Everything I am thinking of and imagining now tends towards objects poised, floating or propelled through the middle and upper air, earth, the spaces of the skies and the miraculous cloudscapes that constantly form, change and disappear. … I have become increasingly absorbed in the study of light and the drama of the great luminaries. Particularly the moon and her influence upon all nocturnal objects.
–Paul Nash, letter to Dudley Tooth, 1943.
On July 11, 1946 Nash died in his sleep as a result of long-term Asthma that has been anecdotally attributed to the effects of gas in the trenches. A memorial exhibition for Nash, attended by the Queen, was held at the Tate Gallery in March 1948.
Paul Nash is one of the most evocative exhibitions I’ve seen at the SCVA to date, and although only 80% of the original Tate exhibition, there are over 100 works to immerse yourself in, and it is already very popular.
This review was initiated by a Members only tour led by SCVA Exhibition Coordinator, Laura Peterle and SCVA Director Professor Paul Greenhalgh, who together added a tremendous expanse of knowledge and conversation to the exhibition. It was whilst we were discussing Nash’s Pillar and Moon that Prof. Greenhalgh said something profound that not only summarised Pillar and Moon perfectly, but the entire exhibition theme: ‘You think that what will be there forever isn’t, and what you think is perennial is eternal’.
Chambers, Emma. Ed. (2017), Paul Nash. London: Tate Publishing.
Nash, Paul (1988), Outline. London: Columbus Books.
Nash, Paul (2000), Writings on Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wall text, Paul Nash, Tate Britain, London.
Causey, Andrew (2013) Paul Nash. London: Lund Humphries.
Haycock, David (2016) Paul Nash. London: Tate Publishing.
Nash, Paul (2016), Outline. London: Lund Humphries.
[i] The Crescent Wing is an underground gallery space in the SCVA, an extension of the original building, which opened in 1991.
[ii] The term avant-garde (from the French, meaning ‘advanced guard,’ ‘vanguard’ or ‘fore-guard’) is often associated with the visual, literary, or musical arts, referring to the heralds of cultural change. Works considered to be ‘avant-garde’ are often unorthodox and experimental, and at the cutting edge of expression. Art Movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism, Fauvism and Impressionism, which were at the forefront of Modernism, are considered by many theorist and historians to constitute the true avant-garde.
[iii] The Artists Rifles was a British Army Reserve Regiment, originally raised in 1859 by the art student Edward Sterling, which saw active service in the Second Boer War and the First World War.
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