- Paul Nash: Outline, an AutobiographyOur PickEd. by David Boyd Haycock
- Brothers in Arms: John and Paul NashBy Paul Gough
- Paul Nash (British Artists)Our PickBy David Boyd Haycock
Important Art by Paul Nash
Having returned from his service in WWI with many watercolors and pastel sketches depicting the landscapes he had seen, this is one of Nash's first oil paintings, based on the drawing Sunrise, Inverness Copse (1918). Both his drawing and painting that followed depict the war-torn Western Front, where the trees have been burned or beaten away and the earth has become scarred and undulated by shell holes. There are no people, but the tree stumps have an eerie human presence. Indeed, the trees are either personified or they stand as gravestones for the men no longer standing there themselves.
Despite a tone of pessimism and a scene wrought with destruction, the sun beats down and continues to illuminate this land. This light works on two levels; it shows a glimmer of hope that Nash cannot let go of, but also introduces a tone of mockery with regards the purpose and intent of war. The latter rings particularly true when considered in respect to the title of the work - We are making a new world - which acts both as a parody of the naive ambitions of war and as a description of how the landscape has been subjected to such destruction that it is almost unrecognisable. Former curator at The Imperial War Museum, Roger Tolson, affirms "In Nash's bitter vision the sun will continue to rise each and every day to expose the desecration and to repeat judgment on the perpetrators. This new world is unwanted, unlovable but inescapable."
This work is generally considered to be one of the most memorable images of the First World War and has been compared to Picasso's Guernica (1937) - the Spanish Master's legendary response to the bombing of the eponymous town. Nash poignantly subverts the usually peaceful and picturesque English landscape tradition and introduces a new element of horror. As such, the painting well embodies his comments of the previous year with respect to his role as a war artist: "I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever." This message, he claimed, would reveal the "bitter truth" of war.
The proposed title for this work was A Flanders Battlefield. It had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1918, on the theme of heroism and sacrifice, and was intended to be shown in a Hall of Remembrance dedicated to "fighting subjects, home subjects and the war at sea and in the air". The Hall, however, was never built, and the painting is far from a celebratory depiction of war. It shows a flooded trench, ground split apart by shells, stumps of trees, and other broken debris including wire, metal, and concrete. In the background, smoke suggests that the destruction is ongoing. Nash himself suggested the following caption for the painting: "The picture shows a tract of country near Gheluvelt village in the sinister district of 'Tower Hamlets', perhaps the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War."
This is Ypres in Belgium, an area that was entirely destroyed during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge. The extent of the devastation is further emphasised by two soldiers at the centre of the picture who attempt to follow the road that no longer exists. Every inch of the picture is filled with some form of rubble, and none of the small criss-crossing paths reach the horizon. The resulting impression is that there is no escape or relief from this horror. As art historian Paul Gough notes, the viewer seeks a way through the obstacles, but "the horizon is unreachable, locked in some unimaginable future". Even the beams of sunlight that pierce through the scene have some resemblance to the barrels of guns. Man has utterly betrayed nature in this scene.
The color scheme of the painting has been said to derive from Flemish tapestries, whilst the artist and critic Wyndham Lewis's description: "an epic of mud" also calls to mind images of historic battle tapestries. Indeed, Gough praised Nash for capturing the disfigurement of the landscape and agreed with the artist that this was one of his finest works. There is a trace of Vorticist influence in these early war paintings by Nash. This was the English movement headed by Wyndham Lewis that aimed to express the dynamism of modernism through art and poetry. Nash has most in common with C.R.W. Nevinson - with both adopting an angular style for the battlefield - but this influence did not really become particularly decisive for him and did not impact his work anywhere near as much as his love for English landscape traditions from the nineteenth century.
In 1933, Nash visited the village of Avebury, in Wiltshire, southwest England. He became "excited and fascinated" by the Neolithic monuments and standing stones that he found there, in which he saw at once "magic" and "sinister beauty". He painted the landscape several times in different styles, and in this case he introduces abstraction to further highlight the sense of mystery encountered at the site. In a letter to the then Director of the Tate Gallery (from 1951), Nash's widow wrote that Equivalents for the Megaliths had "a beautiful design, and is, in my opinion, the most important of the Megalith series of paintings".
In Equivalents for the Megaliths, Nash re-imagines the historic standing stones as abstract forms typical of contemporary sculpture. In a statement on the painting, written in 1937, the artist speaks of the monuments' dual appeal: their impressive age value and their capacity to represent bygone eras; and their formal, geometric appeal ("lines masses and planes, directions, and volume"). The artist felt that both the history and geometry of these stones lent them a mystical presence.
Indeed, Barbara Hepworth's Two Forms With Sphere (1934) could have been an influence on this painting, as may have been the nineteenth century artist, Thomas Guest's Finds from a Round Barrow at Winterslow, Wiltshire (1814), a fellow artist deeply interested in archeology and the ancient remains of past English civilizations. Some critics have also noted the painting's similarity to his brother John Nash's The Cornfield (1918) in the geometric and ordered treatment of landscape. This is perhaps in deliberate contrast to Nash's previous war paintings, which are characterized by chaos, ruin, and disarray, an attempt in pictures to re-establish harmony and balance.
At this point Paul Nash had fully recovered from his breakdown in the early 1920s that had come about as a result of "war strain". During the decade that followed he built a friendship and artistic relationship with fellow English modernist, Ben Nicholson. As result, in 1933, Nash formed a group called Unit One that included Nicholson and his wife, Hepworth. Equivalents for the Megaliths was exhibited during the two years that Nash was affiliated with this group. He shares his subdued, understated, and pastel palette with Nicholson and the interest in organic geometrical forms with Hepworth. Furthermore, the two great painters both had a love for landscape but whereas Nash always remained more lyrical, Nicholson engaged further with abstraction.
Influences and Connections
- Dan Peterson
- Michael Alford
- James Hart Dyke
- Eric Ravilious
- Edward Bawden
- Graham Sutherland
- Eric Fitch Daglish
- War Art
- Unit One
- British modernism