A new exhibition reveals a Paul Nash who, while only sometimes brilliant, possessed a modernist vision ahead of his timeby Ben Lewis / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
We are Making a New World (1918): eerily contemporary
Full of optimism, I enter an exhibition of a British modernist. I imagine a new era dawning, which overturns the consensus of generations of international art historians that British 20th-century art has always been third-rate, following far behind France, Germany and America, and possibly not much ahead of Argentina or Sweden. Francis Bacon has belatedly become recognised as an internationally important painter—who’s next? Perhaps the British surrealist landscape painter Paul Nash (1889-1946), the subject of a comprehensive new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
I am greeted by Nash’s most famous work: an empty first world war battlefield, We are Making a New World (1918). His first major painting, it is a remarkably pared down composition in colour and structure. Muddy green craters and the spiky stumps of blown-apart trees form a pattern into the distance; above the horizon, the blood-red clouds of dawn part for an abrasively white sun. The scene is backlit. Barely a brushstroke has been wasted. The painting has the confidence and urgency born of outrage. It’s mercifully low on sentimentality—none of the mothers and children of Henry Moore, or the church spires of John Piper—and high on horror. In fact, this is one of Britain’s best paintings of the 20th century: our very own Guernica. How appropriate that that seminal war painting of modern Spain—the land of Goya and José de Ribera—is full of people and animals screaming in pain, while ours is about nature.
The power of this picture, however, lies not so much in its subject matter as in its relationship to its genre. For this is also a painting about other paintings. Its execution is loosely that of modernist cubist-expressionism. But Nash chose to work in this style not because of an abstract allegiance to its principles, but because the new kind of landscape produced by mechanised warfare looked expressionist-cubist. The scene brings to mind one of Samuel Palmer’s idyllic rural landscapes, framed by trees, with sheep and shepherd crossing the foreground. Then there is the title, We are Making a New World. Its bitter mockery—like a slogan lifted from an advert—catches you by surprise. Nash seems already to understand and undermine the utopian promise of technology in modernism.
Yet I didn’t leave this exhibition having found a Francis Bacon for the first half of the 20th century. Nash dabbled too inconsistently in modernist styles. He tried analytic cubism, synthetic cubism and De Chirico tropes—but one searches the rest of this exhibition in vain for works of a similarly iconic and prophetic quality. A recognisable project, however, emerges.
Nash’s palette is distinctive, with its strong ochres, olive greens and sky blues. The brushwork is a delight: economical, dedicated to describing forms rather than real things, characterised by his concise stub-like strokes. As many art historians have noted, Nash developed a recognisably British version of surrealism, wedded to the country’s landscape—as Graham Sutherland and the overlooked Edward Wadsworth also did.
Beyond this, however, there is something peculiarly contemporary about Nash’s paintings. A room of his fascinating, though not always brilliant, photographs offers a clue—a crumbling old pier, a derelict mineshaft or set of stone steps. Nash was not just interested in landscape: he liked enigmatic man-made structures, their purposes unclear or obscured by the framing of his composition. The End of the Steps (1922) is an odd scene from the village of Dymchurch in Kent, where he spent the early 1920s, recovering from the trauma of the war. Its focus is a curious block of masonry (a bunker, a fortress?) around which are geometric arrangements of stone steps and wooden fencing. In The Archer (1930), Nash creates his own bizarre scenography out of an assemblage (the term for sculptures made from found materials, invented by Picasso) and objets trouvés, then paints it.
There are three eerily contemporary qualities to this work. First, its impetus can be understood as an eccentric British search for real scenes that resembled modernist styles—the opposite of the French approach at the time, but a strategy widely used by artists today. Second, Nash, like many photographers of the past 20 years, is interested in the human narratives that can be read in empty architectural settings and unpeopled views. Hence another war masterpiece, Totes Meer (1940-41). Instead of an image of aerial combat, Nash paints the dump where the wreckages of shot-down German bombers are taken. They look like a surging sea of wings and fuselages—and here’s the third contemporary quality: its cool objectivity. There’s not a trace of patriotic celebration in Nash’s Luftwaffe graveyard.