- 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
Progression of Art
We are making a new world
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.
Oil on canvas - Imperial War Museums
The Menin Road
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.
Oil on canvas - Imperial War Museums
Equivalents for the Megaliths
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.
Oil on canvas - Tate
Landscape from a dream
This painting is widely considered to stand as the culmination of Nash's personal response to Surrealism, in which he had taken an interest since the 1920s. The work was completed shortly after Nash visited the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938 and it is inspired by the Surrealists' fascination with Freud as well as by their principle theories surrounding the power of dreams. At the time, Nash had also recently met and become a good friend of the Surrealist artist, Eileen Agar who like Nash spent a great deal of time walking the coast and finding inspiration there. Along with connections to Agar, the dominant cloud filled sky and central objects placed in a mystical landscape bear strong resemblance to the work of René Magritte. Magritte was a long-standing influence for Nash and one that he returned to towards the end of his career when painting his "aerial flower" series.
The painting shows a hawk contemplating itself in a mirror, in which there is also a landscape and several spheres. The action is set within another landscape - the Dorset coast - though it is contained between screens. The mixture of the unusual activity at the centre of the painting combined with the recognisable surroundings outside it, results in an overall impression that is both unsettling and intriguing. This combination of familiar and unexpected has much in common with the nature of dreams. Nash later explained the symbolism of each of the elements in the painting: the hawk represents the material world and the spheres, the soul.
The artist and historian Roland Penrose praised Landscape from a dream, drawing a similarity between the bird looking at itself in the mirror and the viewer contemplating the painting. He wrote that just as the bird "watches itself in a glass, waiting for the image to move so as to know which is really alive, itself or the image", Nash's paintings "[assert] their independent life". This idea of movement becomes more complex in view of the fact that Nash painted the bird from an Egyptian carving. Thus the "real" hawk is immobile and the flying hawk in the mirror is an illusion. The carving from which the hawk was painted now adorns the artist's grave.
Oil on canvas - Tate
Totes Meer (Dead Sea) was painted during the Second World War. Nash wanted to title the work using the original German as he intended the picture to be seen by the German people and to reveal the fall and failure of their military attempts to dominate Europe. As such, the work can in a way be viewed as a subtle, patriotic statement in support of the British war effort. It was submitted to the War Artists' Advisory Committee in 1941 - for whom Nash worked intermittently throughout WWII - and shows a "dead sea" of destroyed German planes.
Nash based this painting on sketches and photographs that he had made and taken at the Metal and Produce Recovery Unit near his Oxford home. He then collaged his collection of images together to create a fragmented sea of battered remnants. He particularly wanted to represent German planes (as opposed to the British ones occupying most of the recovery unit) so as to illustrate the fate of the "hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores". His unrealised vision was to distribute a postcard of this image throughout Germany as propaganda. Somewhat grimly, he even creating a version of the painting with Hitler's head collaged on to the damaged aircraft, for this purpose. A year later, he extended this interest and made the work Follow the Fuhrer (1942), whereby a squadron of German aircraft fly through the sky accompanied by a huge flying shark. Here Nash successfully uses techniques of Surrealist collage to convey the colossal and brutalising force of Adolf Hitler.
Paradoxically, the inclusion of the moon in the background of Totes Meer adds "incongruous beauty" to the painting and in typical Nash style, suggests the unwavering power of nature, in spite of man's atrocities. The landscape beyond the broken sea of planes suggests that salvation remains a possibility and that the destruction, though horrific, is not total. Kenneth Clark called Totes Meer "the best war picture so far", and this is an opinion still held by many. Of this painting and The Battle of Britain (1944), Clark further commented on Nash, "you have discovered a new form of allegorical painting. It is impossible to paint great events without allegory ... and you have discovered a way of making the symbols out of the events themselves".
Oil on canvas - Tate
Battle of Britain
The composition for Battle of Britain was inspired by a 19th-century lithograph showing a storm over Paris, which Nash's wife Margaret had shown to her husband's pupil, Richard Seddon. At first glance, the coastal landscape, brilliant blue sky, and carefully rendered cloud formations dominate this painting, which takes a view from Britain in the foreground - across the English Channel - to France in the background. However it soon becomes apparent that the scene is set in the midst of an aerial battle, the Battle of Britain, and that the landscape is under attack. Entwined with the clouds are the trailing paths of airplanes, whilst darker trails of smoke are signs of combat and of damaged, sometimes falling planes. At least one of these black smoke trails was not painted by Nash but by his student, Richard Seddon, who advised his teacher that he should add more of these destructive marks to the work.
Nash painted this work during the battle itself, explaining that it contains characteristic elements such as the winding river across the parched countryside, the cumulus clouds after a summer day, and the trails of airplanes in the sky, both those that are still flying and those that are burnt and falling. The Germain air force (Luftwaffe) can be seen advancing in formation, whilst - in a midst of vapour trails, cloud, smoke, parachutes and balloons - British RAF pilots break up these forces at the centre of the painting. The British planes rise almost from the earth itself, lending the landscape more grandeur, poetry, and dignity than is seen in Nash's earlier, more devastating paintings.
Characteristic of Nash's work at this time, the painting is not entirely true to life but takes on an imaginative and symbolic edge, which in part is demonstrated by discrepancies in scale between the action in the sky and the landscape below. Rather than render a particular, realistic battle scene, the painting speaks of large-scale, dramatic aerial conflict. Nash wrote "The painting is an attempt to give the sense of an aerial battle in operation over a wide area and thus summarises England's great aerial victory over Germany." In this sense, it could be considered a patriotic work.
Oil on canvas - Imperial War Museums
Battle of Germany
Battle of Germany was the last painting that Nash completed under his official employment for the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC). The commission had stated that the committee would like a sequel to Nash's Battle of Britain (1941), a picture that would depict a flying bomb. Nash, however, was not inspired by this idea at all, writing "It has fallen through I think. I did not find any point of departure, no bomb site as it were to launch into a composition." Instead, Nash chose to paint a German city under attack from aerial bombardment. In order to do so, he was given access to reports from crews who had participated in German air raids. Despite such detailed research, there is very little evidence of this in what is essentially a predominately abstract canvas.
The composition of Battle of Germany is divided into "the suspense of the waiting city under the quiet though baleful moon" on the left, and the city under bombardment on the right. The former is characterized by stillness and quiet whereas the latter shows the "violently agitated" sky and sea. In the center, smoke and a red blaze loom over the city, whilst patches of color across the canvas suggest further blasts and spreading disruption. The group of small circles in the foreground represent parachutes, which poignantly and poetically mirror the form of the large moon. Overall, the painting is generally seen as the culmination of abstraction in the artist's work.
On seeing the painting, the Chairman of the WAAC Kenneth Clark responded with both admiration and confusion. Finding the "different planes of reality in which it is painted" - possibly the combination of abstract and figurative elements or the juxtaposition of two landscapes - difficult to understand, he nevertheless saw in the painting an innovative stride towards the future and to post-war art.
Oil on canvas - Imperial War Museums
Eclipse of the Sunflower
From 1942 onwards, Nash had been visiting his friend and fellow artist Hilda Harrison's house in Oxfordshire, nearby his childhood home. Here he observed sunflowers obscuring his view of the Wittenham Clumps during summer. A curator at the Tate Gallery refers to his interest in the "rhyming shapes" of the rounded sunflower heads, hills, moon and sun - a fascination that is reflected also by We Are Making a New World (1918) with its shafts of sunlight, and the steady moon in Totes Meer (1940-1). Eclipse of the Sunflower is one in an intended series of four paintings in which Nash wanted to use the life cycle of the sunflower to represent the sun in the sky - referring to his ambition as "exalt[ing]" the image of the sunflower. Before his death in 1946, the artist completed both this work and Solstice of the Sunflower (1945) but did not manage to paint The Sunflower Rises and The Sunflower Sets.
There are two sunflowers in Eclipse of the Sunflower, one in the bottom left, lying dead and withered, and one floating high in the position of the sun. This sunflower in the sky is healthy, but is perhaps about to be eclipsed. The head of the dying sunflower has just become detached from its stem and thus some critics suggest that the picture represents looming death and the moment that the soul leaves the body. The inky background may have been inspired by the illustrations of William Blake, with details that are reminiscent of earlier landscape paintings, for example the painterly cloud formations and waves in the bottom right corner. There is also a strong sense that the life cycle of the sunflower mirrors the waning and waxing of the moon, and thus the painting illustrates one of Nash's primary interests, that of death and rebirth and the ongoing continuum of natural forces.
Eclipse of the Sunflower is ever the more poignant image given Nash's first-hand experience of death during war and now, that it is made shortly before his own life came to an end. Although he was only 57, the artist had been diagnosed with bronchial asthma and would die of pneumonia shortly after making this work. The artist having become particularly interested in the idea of renewal through death (inspired by poetry and religious myth), was influenced particularly from James Frazer's painting The Golden Bough (1926), which describes a Midsummer ritual of rolling burning "fire wheels" down a hill to imitate the movement of the sun, and William Blake's beautiful poem "Ah! Sunflower" (1794). With the life cycles of nature on his mind, Nash wrote in his essay Aerial Flowers (published posthumously in 1947): "Personally, I feel that if death can give us [a solution], death will be good."
Oil on canvas - British Council Collection
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