Well, this one was a surprise. This vast new Paul Nash retrospective at Tate Britain has been overshadowed somewhat by bigger names and big blockbuster exhibitions on elsewhere. Yet this show is terrific. Powerful, moving and surreal, it traces Paul Nash’s artistic development from his traumatic experience in the First World War, through his abstraction and surrealism, to his final paintings as a witness to the return of war.
Paul Nash made his name as a war artist in World War One though he started his time as an Army officer. He served briefly at Ypres during a relatively quiet period, but an accident in the trenches saw him invalided back to England for recuperation, and during his period of convalescence most of his unit were killed in an assault.
This affected Nash deeply and he worked on the many sketches he had completed whilst abroad – Nash previously having been a student at Slade School of Art – and these drawings were well-received when they went on display, leading Nash to take on a commission as an official war artist.
The war had deteriorated significantly however by the time Nash returned to the front and he was a witness to the daily bombardments, shellfire and suffering that was the hallmark of the First World War. His powerful paintings of this period show a scorched earth bereft of light, life and hope.
Sunrise, Inverness Copse, 1917, We Are Making a New World, 1918, and many others from this period show ruined landscapes, dead trees under dark skies… Nature utterly ruined. A world changed irrevocably. There is real trauma in these works, though it’s interesting that the show itself does not bring out the personal effect the War had on Nash, as for many soldiers who survived. Perhaps it is enough to let his paintings speak for themselves.
The darkness of these paintings is humbling and profound, yet as the years passed and the memories started to fade (if only a little) light breaks into Nash’s work. This was a man drawn to the beauty and tranquillity of the British countryside and its landscape.
The Rye Marshes, 1932, is all yellows and blues, and The Shore, 1923, shows a bright, clear day breaking over a pristine Dymchurch shore. There’s a fascinating geometry to these works – order from chaos, perhaps. Yet this hallmark gradually disappeared as Nash increasingly embraced abstraction and surrealism, investigating compositions, bending away from the expected and the norm.
Nash formed strong relationships with other prominent artists, such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson, with whom he founded the Unit One group in 1934, which committed to celebrating contemporary painting, sculpture and architecture.
One of Nash’s most recognisable paintings from this period is Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935, where vast cylinders and rectangles dominate an idyllic British landscape like an oversized and abstract Stonehenge. New with the old. Building on the past to create a brighter, different future.
Nash, now a leading figure in British art, was a key member behind the ground-breaking Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in 1936. The show was a sensation, attracting 30,000 visitors across its short three week run. Nash had his work on these walls too, alongside icons such as Dali, Miro and Picasso and the Tate has some terrific photos from this show on display.
But, of course, the shadow of war loomed ever larger and this Nash retrospective that starts with war must also end with war, for the outbreak of World War Two saw Nash return to a subject which had forged his name.
Only this time, the violence and trauma of war was blended with surrealism. And this blend reaches its zenith with the awesome Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1940-1. At first glance, this is a violent sea in a storm. But on closer inspection, the crashing waves are the destroyed wrecks of Luftwaffe bomber aircraft – the distinctive cross visible on the destroyed aircraft wings, as is a faint swastika.
The show finishes with Nash’s achingly moving sunflower series. His final paintings. Bursts of orange and yellow as vast flowers consume pale blue skies; a despairing reflection on the world coming full circle. From war to war. Nash would die soon after completing this series of works, surviving just long enough to see the end of the war in 1945, yet just long enough to hear Truman’s announcement heralding in the start of the Cold War.
The wheel turns, nothing changes.
Tate Britain, to March 5, 2017
Admission £15 (concessions available)
1. Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917 1918, Imperial War Museum, London ©Tate
2. The Rye Marshes, 1932, Ferens Art Gallery ©Tate
3. Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935, Oil on canvas support: 457 x 660 mm frame: 627 x 835 x 80 mm ©Tate
4. Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-41, Oil on canvas Support: 1016 x 1524 mm frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1946