Appropriately, at this time of remembering the world wars – Armistice Day – the BBC has rereleased an excellent documentary of the war artist Paul Nash, viewable here. This reminds me of my personal view of a retrospective of his life and work, earlier in the year.
The BBC one hour programme, presented by the great TV art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, provides depth as well as breadth, surveying the artist’s life.
Here are summary notes on the BBC programme –
Paul Nash: The Ghosts of War
On 25th May 1917, war artist Paul Nash climbed out of his trench to sketch the battlefields of Flanders near Ypres. So focused was he on his work he tripped and fell back into the trench, breaking his ribs. Stretchered back to England, Nash missed his regiment going over the top at the Battle of Passchendaele. His regiment was wiped out.
Above all Nash painted war-torn landscapes: the mortar-scarred mud of Flanders, festooned with barbed wire and awash with pools of viscous, oily water. He left out the dead and the injured, partly because their wounds were so horrific that he believed it would have been disrespectful to depict their mutilated faces and bodies: instead, he anthropomorphised the landscapes of war, depicted scorched earth and churned up soil with a violence that implied the disfigurement of flesh.
Nash was scarred by the war and the ghosts of those experiences haunted his work throughout his life. A lover of nature, Nash became one of Britain’s most original landscape artists, embracing modern Surrealism and ancient British history, though always tainted by his experiences during two world wars. A private yet charismatic man, he brought British landscape painting into the 20th century with his mixture of the personal and visionary, the beautiful and the shocking. An artist who saw the landscape as not just a world to paint, but a way into his heart and mind.
After the war, Nash turned to Surrealism, an art of enigmatic forms and mysterious, nightmarish juxtapositions which seemed, to many, the perfect reflection of a world gone mad. His lungs had been damaged by mustard gas and his life would be sadly cut short while he was still in middle age. But Nash lived long enough to see the Second World War and become one of its greatest chroniclers in paint. Totes Meer, or Dead Sea, his depiction of a great wave of downed German fighter planes, is one of the most haunting British paintings of the twentieth century. It was also, sadly, one of Nash’s last creations.
Earlier in 2017, I visited the large Nash retrospective at Tate Britain and was suitably blown away by the experience. See previous, substantial blog post on that here.
This exhibition was running at the same time, and overshadowed by, the blockbuster restrospective of the better-known artist, David Hockney. I’ve had people who visited it saying to me “Did you see the David Hockney show?” And I tend to reply “Yes – did you see the Paul Nash one?” Because I happen to have books by Hockney and he is well-covered by documentaries and of course, his work still appears in large shows like the RA Summer Exhibition, as he is a living, practising artist. However, to see so much work by Paul Nash was a more unusual treat.