A vast canvas depicting the remnants of a desolated First World War battlefield dominates the entrance to the Paul Nash (1889-1946) retrospective at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. Dramatically spotlit, The Menin Road (1919) projects an intense engagement with what the artist described as ‘the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War.’ The complex composition and apocalyptic palette of what was one of Nash’s earliest paintings in oil makes for a striking introduction. However, this exhibition does not dwell on Nash’s role as an official war artist for the First and Second World Wars. Nor does it fixate on his much celebrated reputation as a painter of the English landscape. Instead, this refreshing reappraisal of Nash’s work looks more broadly at the changing ideas and creative networks that infused his vision as an artist.
Curated by Emma Chambers at Tate Britain, the exhibition brings together more than a hundred of Nash’s paintings, drawings, prints and photographs to explore how he negotiated key modernist ideas through his art, writing, and relationships with other artists. It is underpinned by an expanded approach to British art that allows Nash’s active engagement with international modernism in the 1930s and 1940s to unfold. This aspect of the exhibition sparks a dialogue with the modernist collections of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, which are on permanent display on the ground floor of the Sainsbury Centre. Moving away from the focus on ‘masterpieces’ often associated with this collection, it draws out some of the experimental ideas that artists were exploring in this period.
The exhibition is spread across the four spaces of the Sainsbury Centre’s subterranean galleries. It moves comfortably between Nash’s intensely personal experiences of his environment, his official duties, and his contributions to public debates about the conditions of modernism. The opening room takes the title of one of Nash’s most famous wartime paintings as its theme, We Are Making a New World (1918). It brings together the paintings that secured Nash’s public recognition in 1918, subtly pointing to tensions between his role as an official war artist and his horror at the devastation that he experienced. For example, while the emphasis of the display is on the desolation expressed in Nash’s original paintings, the inclusion of We Are Making a New World as the cover image of the Propaganda Bureau’s publication series ‘British Artists at the Front’ (1918) reminds us that his works were used to promote the war effort.
The second section of the exhibition steps back to examine Nash’s earliest works, focusing on the symbolism that he invested in his studies of the landscape, particularly of trees. In a series of drawings and watercolours made between 1911 and 1918, groupings of trees take on a significance and personality that are difficult to pin down. The connections are Nash’s own, introducing a personal mythology of place that he continues to develop in his later works. The shattered, burnt out trees of his official wartime paintings become part of a more private, spiritual engagement with his environment.
This was extended in his depictions of the English landscape in the 1920s and early 1930s. A number of these well-known paintings are included in this part of the exhibition, which spreads across a long thoroughfare connecting the opening room with the main gallery spaces. As the exhibition opens out into the first of these two large galleries, the focus shifts to Nash’s experiments with depicting found objects and architectural spaces.
The selection of works in this gallery mark out the impact that surrealism had on Nash’s work in the 1930s and the extent to which he aligned himself with international modernism in this period. Nash’s concern with ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object’ provides a particularly fascinating insight into this, explored here through a series of paintings, photographs, assembled sculptures and written accounts from the mid-1930s. Nash’s enthusiasm for a life force that he considered to be present in inanimate objects develops an attitude to his surroundings that was already evident in his earlier work. From the early 1930s Nash’s attachment and personification of particular landscapes extended to inanimate objects and architectural features. He began arranging what he described as ‘object-personages’, including found pieces of driftwood, stone, bone and fragments of furniture. Working closely with the artist Eileen Agar, with whom he had developed an intense relationship in 1935, Nash experimented with juxtaposing his object-personages to create photographs, collages, sculptures and paintings. The inclusion in this exhibition of Agar’s works from this period of collaboration affirms the significance of this relationship for Nash. However, it also reveals a levity and imaginative playfulness in Agar’s work that Nash’s compositions lack. His works retain a solemnity and sense of restraint that he addresses directly in his account of ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object’, written for the publication Country Life in 1937. While he describes his approach to found objects as ‘inevitably imaginative’, he does not ‘allow the prompting of the unconscious to lead me beyond a point of defensive control’. Nash’s focus was on engaging with the object itself, with releasing an inherent spirit, what he described as the mystery of ‘the living inanimate’. His references to ‘primitive’ art as a source for understanding this concept nod towards the discrete dialogue between this section of the exhibition and the Sainsbury’s diverse collection of objects from around the world, many of which were acquired in this same period.
Nash’s role as a public spokesman, articulating the concerns of the modern movement is also given prominence in this part of the exhibition. His contribution to and promotion of the artists’ group Unit One in the early 1930s and The International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London in 1936 are both given significant space. These projects locate Nash as part of an international network of avant-garde artists. They also usefully open up the impact that Nash’s own interpretations of surrealism had on the perception of this movement amongst the British public. The final room of the exhibition returns to Nash’s treatment of the landscape, bringing together a selection of the paintings that he made in the last decade of his life. While there are continuities with the concerns of his early works, Nash’s approach to the landscape had clearly been transformed by the new ideas and possibilities presented by surrealism. His paintings take on a more obviously dream-like, mystical quality. Totes Meer (1940-1), Nash’s evocative painting of wrecked warplanes, engulfed in the waters of a bleak, moonlit seascape, is shown here alongside his photographs of the dump site in Oxfordshire where the piles of twisted debris from the Second World War had captivated his imagination. The work was commissioned by the Ministry of Information and is recognised as one of the most important paintings of the Second World War. Again, this exhibition does not dwell on this aspect of Nash’s reputation. It sets this seminal work in a broader context, successfully drawing together the different ideas that were at stake for Nash as he sought to express a deep, emotional response to his immediate surroundings.
Paul Nash was on view until 20 August 2017.