Saturday, 5 November 2016

Paul Nash at Tate Britain

The new exhibition at Tate Britain is a retrospective of the work of Paul Nash, apparently the most complete exploration of his work for a generation. I've seen his works before in exhibitions about early 20th century painting or British schools, but this is my first full exhibition on Nash. So, I'm aware of him, but not terribly familiar with him. That made it quite strange to walk through the door into the exhibition, have a glance round the walls to decide where to start looking and having a distinct feeling that I'm going to enjoy this. And I did.

The exhibition is organised thematically and chronologically so we can see how he developed and experimented but what remains consistent is his love of landscape and nature, sometimes magical, sometimes scarred by war, but always there. One room focuses on his art using found objects and we also get some of his photographs of fallen trees as dragons. The rooms also have quotes from Nash on the walls and I think the curators have done an excellent job at picking just the right sentences to create a different atmosphere in each room.

The first room is full of Nash's early works in ink and watercolour, all relatively small works of trees and more trees and mysterious landscapes with trees, trees as ancient beings that have watched humanity over the centuries. 'Dreaming Trees' is a great title for the room since that's what these paintings evoke with deep dreams of the past of England's mysterious countryside that Nash loved.

They're not all dark and mysterious and some are flooded with the sunlight of a summer's day, with feathery branches and foliage. I really liked 'Summer Garden' and 'The Cherry Orchard', paintings I'd happily have on my wall. I also liked 'Wittenham Clumps', a group of trees on a hill in the middle of the countryside that Nash painted in different ways throughout his life. The cultivated fields surrounding the hill with the magic of the Clumps at the top with birds in the sky and the mystery of what might be inside that group of trees - civilisation and ancient mystery together.

The next room is a complete change in mood as we are presented with some of his paintings from the First World War and we see scenes of devastation and horror.

This room is titled 'We Are Making A New World' after his painting of the same name. We're told that  Nash joined the Artist's Rifles in 1914 and the writing on the wall includes an exerpt from a letter in 1917,

"It is unspeakable, godless hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious... Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls."

Landscapes still feature but they are tortured and desolate and the war to end all wars raged on. 'The Menin Road' is the largest painting in this group, painted in 1919 after the war but Nash is still trying to cleanse his soul by showing the  smashed and barren result of the long war. Soldiers struggle to walk through the desolation left by four long years of war. It's a painful image. It normally hangs in the Imperial War Museum but perhaps it should hang somewhere more prominent as a reminder to politicians and the media what the results of their policies can be.

The exhibition moves on to a series of rooms with paintings and other works based on themes of  'places' and 'rooms' and 'inanimate objects' to 'unseen landscapes' and his involvement with the surrealist movement in Britain between the wars. There are also some works by contemporaries such as Eileen Agar and Ben Nicholson

There are some lovely paintings in this section of the exhibition including a return to mysterious trees but painted very differently as his style developed and he experimented with different ways of looking. I particularly liked 'Wood On The Downs' in which Nash explored shapes and muted colours. We see some of his work with found objects of twigs and stones (and some lovely collages with leaves by Eileen Agar) as well as his weirder work like 'Equivalents for the Megaliths' (the painting used as the poster for the exhibition shown above) where he turns the standing stones of the ancients into geometric shapes.

Sadly, Nash had to experience another war and this time he painted scenes of downed aeroplanes, of roses of death (parachutes) falling from the sky and destruction. 'Totes Meer' (Dead Sea) is a strange painting in which he sets the carcasses of downed German planes from the Battle of Britain from the scrap yards outside Oxford to present them as the rolling sea crashing on the shore at night. It's only as you get closer that you notice wings and swastikas.

A painting that stood out for me was from a few years later when he painted 'Battle of Germany', one of the largest paintings in the exhibition and given it's own stand-alone space to be better seen. The destruction is from a distance and we see plumes of smoke rising into the sky as the city is slowly eaten into and destroyed.

Nash didn't have a long life and died in 1946 at the age of 57. The last paintings in the exhibition move back to landscapes and mystery, paintings of the seasons and equinoxes and giant sunflowers, one eclipsing the sun and one rolling down a hill. It is a nice way to close the exhibition, returning to bright colours and a bit of wonder.

This is a really good exhibition that covers many aspects of British art in the first half of the 20th Century in the shape of one man and his work.  Go and see it if you can.

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