Paul Nash may be one of the best loved British artists of the 20th century, but he’s an oddly contested figure, a painter who can be seen as world-changingly progressive or essentially conservative depending on your viewpoint. He was undoubtedly one of the pioneers of British modern art, alongside Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. His paintings give a sense of digging into the ancient sinew of the landscape that few other artists have been able to achieve, while his iconic images of the two world wars ring immediate bells across a whole swathe of the British viewing public.
But there’s also a sense these days, as with other British artists of his era – including Moore and Hepworth – that slight excuses have to be made for him: that it takes a leap of the imagination to believe that this work once seemed radical, even dangerous. Nash, however, asked questions about whether it is possible to be “modern and British” – about whether this country should be looking inward or outward – that feel strikingly relevant today.
This exhibition, the largest devoted to Nash in a generation, has no doubts about how it wants us to see him, introducing him as “a key figure in debates about British art’s relationship to international modernism through both his art and writing”. If that feels a weirdly dry and passionless way to present this crucial figure, it sets the tone for an exhibition that contains many great works but has a particular axe to grind in promoting Nash the modernist and takes the currently fashionable antibiographical approach to exhibition-making to ridiculous lengths – largely, you suspect, to back up its own argument.
We’re thrown in at the beginning, with no information about Nash’s social background or education: is this because Nash, born 1889, the son of a barrister, is considered too “posh” for current politically correct norms? We have to scour the information panels simply to learn that he grew up in Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire. Throughout the exhibition, crucial facts are omitted. Lord knows the work should be allowed to speak for itself, but depriving us of basic information has the obverse effect of making making us think more about his life that we otherwise would.
Nash’s formative landscape stood at the eastern end of a corridor through southern England – Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Dorset – whose landscapes were to obsess him throughout his life. Indeed, his principle preoccupations are already strikingly apparent in the first room of early watercolours and prints influenced by William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites: a taste both for primordial landscape features, such as Wittenham Clumps, two hilltop beech copses in Oxfordshire, to which he returned again and again, and for imbuing natural phenomena with an almost animistic sense of personality. A group of fantastical watercolours, meanwhile, show that he was a kind of instinctive surrealist long before the term had even been thought of.
These apparently idyllic beginnings were disrupted by the First World War, in which Nash served in the Artists’ Rifles (a volunteer infantry unit comprised of painters, musicians, actors and architects), his experiences on the Western Front providing material for paintings commissioned by the Ministry of Information at the end of the war. The largest, The Menin Road, is undeniably evocative, with its tiny figures picking their way across a battle-ravaged wilderness, but it feels like a calculatedly monumental work, constructed from small details. More immediately powerful is the ironically titled We Are Making A New World, in which the sun rises through red mist onto a starkly-patterned morass of shell-holes. Even in the midst of battle, Nash’s feel for the rhythms of landscape didn’t desert him.
After the war, Nash suffered a severe breakdown. The exhibition neglects to mention that, but once you know it, it imbues his powerful paintings of Dymchurch in Kent, with its treeless shoreline and long bare seawall, where he lived from 1921 to 1924, with a sense of traumatic aftermath. The uncompromising bleakness of Winter Sea, with its jagged, cubistic waves, and the severe, almost abstract The Shore, make these to my mind two of the great British paintings of the 20th century.
Nash wrote of wanting to free the imagination from “the literary and the metaphysical”. Here, on the wintery edge of Britain, he succeeded in doing that. But once back in the comforting, wooded landscapes of Buckinghamshire, a sense of the self-consciously mystical returns in quintessential Nash works such as Wood on the Downs with its sculpted, windblown trees, an undeniably charming work that leans a little too much towards picturesque illustration.
Nash’s feel for the essential, suggestive form all but deserts him in a roomful of cluttered still lifes. Notes of brilliant colour in works by Ben Nicholson and Edward Burra – in a display devoted to Unit One, a group of avant garde artists convened by Nash in 1933 – highlight the mutedness of Nash’s own palette. Browns, greens and washed-out pinks – the typical colours of English watercolour – predominate even in experimental cubistic paintings, lending these once ground-breaking works an air of slight fustiness. Surrealist collages, illustrations and paintings of stones, driftwood and shells, created during an intense affair with the surrealist artist Eileen Agar, feel genteelly tasteful rather than provocative – and the exhibition doesn’t, of course, tell us about their relationship.
If Nash was too much of a well-mannered Englishman to be a full-on, taste-defying surrealist in the manner of European counterparts such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, his natural inclination towards the fantastic is seen in visionary landscape paintings in which natural forms transmute into dreamlike objects. It is here that the exhibition really gets into its stride, as clouds take on the weight of chalk-encrusted flints and ancient megaliths become ambiguous half-animal presences in the wonderful Nocturnal Landscape.
Nash’s mythic feel for the British landscape was associated at the time with Neo-Romanticism, a turning away from modernism in the calamitous political climate of the Thirties; an influential strain in British art right into the Fifties, which saw Nash grouped with like-minded artists such as John Piper and Graham Sutherland. None of this is even mentioned here, which is rather like mounting a David Hockney retrospective without referring to Pop Art. While the curators want understandably to distance Nash from quaint provincialism, there’s a point at which editing the past becomes simply dishonest.
The Neo-Romantic taste for haunted, nocturnal scenes inflects Nash’s most significant creation as a Second World War artist, the extraordinary Totes Meer or Dead Sea. A moonlit morass of wrecked German aircraft parts, it is now considered one of the greatest evocations of the futility of war. While the large Battle of Germany configures images of aerial bombardment into a semi-abstract apocalypse, its more uplifting counterpart Battle of Britain, with its blue skies and spiralling vapour trails, is absent – a critical omission, whatever the reasons.
We’re left with a sense of an artist caught, sometimes uneasily, between the future and the past. At its weakest, Nash’s work now looks rather whimsical and of its time. At its strongest, it gives a sense of powerful spiritual connection to the land that you won’t find in any other artist. If there are a few too many make-weight pieces here, there are more than enough superb works to make this one of the year’s essential exhibitions.
It all comes together in the final room, where the colour becomes stronger and richer as Nash returns to Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, the mystically charged landscape of his youth, in paintings evoking the idea of the equinox, with day and night, the birth of the year and the death of the year, visible simultaneously. In these works, created shortly before his death in 1946, he found a final ecstatic release from the gentility that was the bane of his art, and of every other British artist of his generation.