A RETROSPECTIVE of the work of the work of Paul Nash, one of the greatest war artists and landscape painters of the 20th century, opens at Tate Britain in London. Nash played a significant role in the discourse between British art and International Modernism and was a key figure in the development of British surrealism. The exhibition, which takes its title from the artist’s name displays paintings, sculpture and collage, including his collaborative work with British surrealist, Eileen Agar, paintings from the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 and works by the avant-garde artists of Unit One, of which Nash was a member.
Nash was fascinated by the mystical power of the landscape, moonlight and trees, themes with which he maintained a strong affinity. The exhibition begins with his early illustrative work inspired by Pre-Raphaelite poetry and a fantastical seascape of sand dunes and pyramids. Nature assumes unearthly forms such as the tall elms at his family’s garden in Iver Heath which Nash described as “ … three heads fused in cascades of dense leaves spreading out like the crown of a vast fountain.”
Drawn to ancient landmarks, Nash painted the chalky hills of Wittenham Clumps and the prehistoric stones at Avebury, the latter of which inspired his abstract depictions of megaliths.
In wartime, his trees ceased to be places of refuge and tranquillity, as in his early work. With their branches hacked off by artillery fire, his trees became disfigured stalks that scar the landscape. Letters home to his wife, Margaret reveal that in the aftermath of battle, Nash sought comfort in the regeneration of nature, “Nearly all the battered trees have come out and the birds sing all day in spite of shells and shrapnel.”
During the Second World War, Nash decided to convey war differently and nature became a metaphor for destruction. In his famous work, Totes Meer, an owl surveys the skeletal remains of aircraft wreckage under a watery moon. The artist remarked, “…it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead. It is metal piled up, wreckage.”
by Miranda Charalambous
The exhibition, Paul Nash opens from October 26, 2016 to March 5, 2017 at Tate Britain, London SW1P 4RG
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Front page image: The Rye Marshes 1932 by Paul Nash. Ferens Art Gallery, Courtesy of the Tate Gallery