Paul Nash, Surrealist and War Artist

Last week, I went to Tate Britain (in London) to see the current exhibition of Paul Nash’s works.Screen shot 2017-02-22 at 10.16.50.png

The exhibition has been on since October, but well worth the visit.

I have to declare a personal preference for early 20th Century art, so Nash is well within those dates.  His usual palette is a gentle natural stone washed colours (see left) – but in war, the colours of mud and burnt trees and steely grey machines came through.  For a quick overview of his work and main themes, see video below (5 mins).

What I particularly valued about this exhibition (and I would definitely recommend going to see it) is the scope of a lifetime’s art.  The curator has given us not just the finished, famous paintings, but also small personal works, natural objects which inspired him.  And this is where it is especially valuable for inspiration to anyone creative.  Being able to see sketches, little booklets made for friends – it becomes art which seems doable yourself. If you see only the grand, finished canvases, they seem unapproachably magnificent.  But when you can see preparatory photographs, sketches, notes – you can see how a wide range of sketchy ideas becomes the finished, powerful piece, made up of the best bits of the preparation.

 

screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-10-56-15

Paul Nash, sketching airplane wreckage, for his painting “Totes Meer (Dead Sea)”

 

Part of the exhibition was a projected extract from Jill Craigie’s film on war art “Out of the Chaos” – (still at right), the entire film is viewable, free, online, thanks to the British Film Institute.

(Paul Nash features from 7’06 minutes to 9’45 minutes)

at http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-out-of-chaos-1944/

 

Even more rewarding and personal is the four and a half minutes Tate Shots video by Simon Grant, about just one painting – Nash’s masterpiece, Totes Meer and why it is not only a piece of War Art, but tied up with Nash’s asthma (eventually fatal) and a failed love affair, making it  “one of Nash’s most personal paintings”.

 

World War 1 changed Paul Nash from a sympathetic painter of English nature landscapes into a powerful recorder of destroyed, warscarred land.  The exhibition has displayed an enlarged extract of a letter home, written November 1917,

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.

This is the other revelation from this exhibition – the powerful words and writings of Paul Nash.  Near the beginning of the exhibition is a small booklet he had printed of his own poems.  The title is something like “From me to you and from you to the bedpost”.  This is such a beautiful, personal gift – something doable for many of us.

The Tate exhibition takes us through the story of Nash’s life, in room sections titled Dreaming Trees, We are Making a New World, Place, Room and book (features still lifes), Unit One (the important international Surrealist group of which he was a part), The life of the Inanimate Object (includes inspiring stones, feathers as well as artworks by his lover Eileen Agar), Unseen Landscapes, Aerial Creatures and finally Equinox.

He was very much a painter of place.  And so to mind springs a song written a couple of decades after his death –

 

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