War presents paradoxes. It lowers men to the level of rats and raises them to the heights of heroism. It harnesses science for death and healing. It leads to outpourings of destruction and creation. The last of these contradictions is reflected in the work of artist Paul Nash, for it was the First World War which led to the launch of his career, which was one of artistic fruitfulness.
Nash’s work, although both wide-ranging and prolific, has remained surprisingly neglected. But, with this forthcoming exhibition, that may be about to change. Inga Fraser, Assistant Curator at Tate Britain, says: ‘This exhibition will be the first full retrospective of Nash’s work for over 40 years, giving visitors the opportunity to view Nash’s characteristic landscapes and paintings produced as a war artist, but also his lesser-known work as a modernist and Surrealist, revealing the true visionary nature of Nash’s lifelong project as an artist.’
Who was Nash? Born in 1889, he entered the Slade School of Art at age twenty-one. From the outbreak of the First World War until 1917, he served in the Artists’ Rifles. In that year, arguably, came the turning point of his career – an exhibition of his pictures of the Ypres Salient in Belgium led to his appointment as an official war artist. This role was a double-edged sword. He could depict the battlefields of the Western Front, but in a limited way. He couldn’t show their full horrors: that would be left to a later generation of artists, such as Otto Dix with his bitter depictions of war-wounded Germans, backed-up by the work of writers such as Robert Graves and Erich Maria Remarque. But Nash did as much as his official position would allow. No one can see such pictures as his ‘We Are Making a New World’ (1918), with its shell holes and blasted trees, and be unaware of the human suffering that would have taken place within that landscape. Its title, too, can be seen as ironic comment on the stated war aims of the Allies. His irony was prescient: the conflict would not make the world safe for democracy; homes fit for heroes would not materialise until after the Second World War.
After the war, Nash moved to Dymchurch in Kent. He had a great love of nature, and was horrified by the damage done to it which he had witnessed on the Western Front. Now he had a chance to explore and celebrate the natural world with land and seascapes as well as floral still-lifes, with the nearby Romney Marshes providing the setting for part of his work. But he didn’t follow in the footsteps of previous portrayers of the countryside such as Constable. He experimented with Surrealism – giving his work a disturbingly dreamy yet sharp feel – and with wood engraving, as well as using found objects such as driftwood. Nash also started teaching at Oxford and, later, the Royal College of Art, as well as writing as an art critic for BBC magazine The Listener. At the request of the poet John Betjeman, Nash wrote the Shell Guide to Dorset, which was published in 1935.
In 1939, the outbreak of the Second World War led to Nash’s appointment as a full-time salaried war artist with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Air Ministry. In 1940, The Battle of Britain – an air campaign fought over southern England to forestall Hitler’s invasion plans after the fall of France – had been decisively won by the RAF. From this would come two of Nash’s outstanding wartime works, ‘The Battle of Britain’ (1941), and ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’ from the same year. The former shows an air battle over what seems to be the Thames Estuary widening out into the English Channel beyond, with anti-aircraft fire explosions and vapour trails forming curvy, flower-like patterns. The latter shows the practical result of the conflict – a heap of destroyed German aircraft. In September 1944, a few months short of final victory over Nazi Germany, Nash’s appointment ended and he was able to resume his nature works.
But this return to Nash’s former beloved subject matter was short lived. His health had never been good. Throughout his life he had been plagued by asthma, and it started to take its final toll on him. Before the Second World War he had lived in Dorset and, after revisiting parts of that county, he died in July 1946.
Why didn’t Nash’s work get more recognition? Was it overshadowed by the personal and political impact –– upon millions of people – of the conflicts which he painted, with him being seen as just another war artist? In an age before being a multi-media artist was a mainstream practice, did he spread himself too widely and unconventionally by working in different materials and following a variety of roles? Was he not metropolitan – that is, cliquey – enough? Was his pastoral work too decoratively floral for some, or was his war art too disturbing, like a bayonet thrust, for others? This exhibition may prompt reflections on these possibilities, as well as stimulating reconsideration about Nash and the recognition which is his due. It may also make us think about the wider paradoxes of how creativity can spring from destruction in art and life.
The Paul Nash exhibition will run from 26th October 2016 till 5th March 2017 at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG. For further information, including details of purchasing tickets, visit Tate Britain online (http://www.tate.org.uk)