Is the 1930s revival a prophecy of doom?

Geoff Hands

In times of economic and political turmoil it is challenging to recognise the positive developments in culture when the Prophets of Doom warn us of the burgeoning neoliberal agenda. So, if you have not thought about, or looked at, Paul Nash’s work for a while this is the time to visit a fascinating retrospective at Tate Britain and to reassess. For those aficionados of landscape painting, with an especial interest in the British landscape tradition, they will be well aware of Nash’s international connections, especially during the 1930s when he truly came of age as one of Britain’s major 20th century painters.

The 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression on both sides of the Atlantic, is also an era that, in the visual arts, saw the contemporary Euro-centric art-world start to reallocate from France to the USA. The UK has always remained somewhere in between, not only geographically, but in absorbing influences.

If the pre-WWII decade is of particular interest in current and forthcoming exhibition programmes, the American Painting in the 1930s show currently on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris will enable a broader transatlantic overview of trends in contemporary, and not so forward looking, modern art. Paul Nash at Tate offers a fascinating microcosm of the advent of Modernism in Britain via a particularly English painter.

Despite a fairly conservative persona, it can be argued that Nash was a European artist who was professionally aware of such other contemporaries as Giorgio de Chirico, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst – and, of course, the various adherents of Cubism and Surrealism. With the founding of Unit One in 1933 (in the company of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and others, including architects) we can add Abstraction to Nash’s wide pool of interests and influences.

In fact, if we could have been taken straight to the centre of this show, the white walled Room 5 (of 9), an interesting 1930s axis from which to survey Nash’s past and future would have been a suitable starting point. Here the curators (Emma Chambers and Inga Fraser) have also mixed things up by including representative works by other members of Unit One. It’s just a smattering of course, but Tristram Hillier’s, ‘Pylons’ (1933) might remind us of Belgian, Paul Delvaux’s surrealism; and John Bigge’s, ‘Composition’ (1933) and Edward Wadsworth’s, ‘Dux et Comes I’ (1932) have Miró-esque overtones. Ben Nicholson’s, ‘1933 (milk and plain chocolate)’ (1933) makes clear stylistic reference to the Spaniards, Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. A sampling of Henry Moore, with ‘Composition’ of 1933, and Hepworth’s, (‘Mother and Child’, 1934) places Nash at the epicentre of the international scene that was transforming the insular, tradition-bound foundation of British art.

The most well known painting of Nash’s in this room was, ‘Voyages of the Moon’ (1934-7) from the Tate collection, a composition that visually fuses interior and exterior space into one of his most abstract images. Inevitably, Nash holds back from total abstraction, which might be reason to criticise his English traditionalism, or a sense of the artist being born a generation too soon. In this painting, two ‘zips’ of white vertical stripes that link the top to the bottom of the canvas, might remind us that Barnett Newman invented this devise in 1948. Two other paintings that stood out for less modernistic reasons were, ‘Druid Landscape’ (1934) and ‘Stone Tree’ (1934), where the typical dichotomy of the past and present that flavours so much of Nash’s work was realised as a combination of Cubist-type forms and colour palette – but with titles (and subject matter) that referenced the distant, pagan landscape.

In reflecting on the chronological layout of the exhibition it occurred to us that, from the vantage point of the Unit One display, the two directions to choose from to oversee next were either back to the past, to Nash’s early career steeped in his native landscapes, the trauma of war and a burgeoning internationalism: or moving forwards to the eerily affective portrayal of the destructive spirit of yet another war and his final years as a consummate landscape artist. Either side, and integrated with, the Unit One section were strongly Surreal phases of Nash’s career and, of course, this psychological and imaginative characteristic is evident at all stages of his life’s work.

Rather like book ends, Nash’s solid landscape foundations were displayed at the start and finish of the show. In Room 1 (entitled ‘Dreaming Trees’) the wistful, symbolist and illustrative (and Max Ernst-like) imagery of, ‘The Combat’ (1910), or ‘Vision at Evening’ (1911), are spookily proto-surrealist. In the next room, ‘Spring in the Trenches – Ridge Wood’ (1917), offers a melancholic trio of soldiers looking either bored, or beyond emotional reaction to the devastated landscape beyond. But when we read on the accompanying wall plaque that Nash’s comrades from his Company were mostly all killed in August 1917 we realise that this, and the following images, are poignant, commemorative images.

His anger and disgust with the war is astoundingly controlled in one of the most memorable images in British art, the simplified language of, ‘We Are Making a New World’ (1918). This anti-landscape is virtually deadpan, were it not for the subtle drama of the deep red clouds and white, bright sun that illuminates the churned up mud and silhouettes the branchless trees. The year before, he had written to his wife, Margaret: “It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger…” Thereafter, his imagery is all the stronger for offering a cool sort of reportage, rather than a vexed drama. Three more figures appear in, ‘The Ypres Salient at Night’ (1918), which interestingly has Italian Futurist and English Vorticist overtones in the angularity of the painted forms of men, land and light.

Next, in displays entitled, ‘Places’ and ‘Room and Book’, Nash is able to return to his homeland for imagery. This period of his life produces the almost totally abstract, ‘Winter Sea’ (1925-37), and the stage-set surrealism of ‘Landscape at Iden’ (1929). During this period, in getting away to the French Riviera, the chalky hued, ‘Blue House on the Shore’ (c.1929-31), has an early Florentine Renaissance feel to it and we imagined Fra Angelico adding a figure or two. There’s a similar feel of something quite uncomplicated, inherently plain and modest, in ‘Opening’ (1930-1), that like the aforementioned, ‘Voyages of the Moon’, combines interior and exterior spaces that suggest a world of integration rather than disintegration.

Beyond the central hub that is Unit One, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object’ section could be a two-person show in its own right. We are still situated in the 1930s and the collaboration between Eileen Agar and Nash pushed their respective works in to ever-deeper Surrealist territory. The inanimate object is not only represented as painted subject matter, but forms are photographed, collaged, and presented as weird and transformative object trouvé. Although 10 years younger than Nash, Agar had spent time in Paris, meeting André Breton and other Surrealists, which would have brought her up-to-speed with the avant-garde aspirations of the time.

This section leads to Room 7 – a combination of ‘Unseen Landscapes’ and Nash’s contribution to ‘The International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London of 1936. The stand-out paintings here are, ‘Equivalent for the Megaliths’ (1935), which is featured on the catalogue cover and banners for the exhibition, and ‘Landscape from a Dream’ (1936-8), which is his final conscious and intellectual response to surrealism before the outbreak of the second world war.

‘Aerial Creatures’ is the curators’ choice of title for the penultimate section of the exhibition. This late stage of his shortened career (he dies prematurely in 1946, aged just 57) establishes Nash in the public eye once more as a ‘war artist’ and ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’, of 1940-1 is most probably his ‘masterpiece’. Unlike other images of the British at war (since the Norman invasion in 1066), the conflict is brought home to Nash’s beloved countryside of southern England. The sea reference perhaps accounts for an island nation’s sense of seclusion from mainland Europe. Although the wrecked aeroplanes are clearly alien, the presence of the moon is a recurring motif in Nash’s oeuvre. And so we see many more representations of the sun and moon in the final section of the show. ‘Equinox’ consists almost entirely of works produced from 1942 to 1946, although, ‘Pillar and Moon’ is dated 1932-42 and seeps with a feeling of melancholia. Thankfully, the final canvases are joyfully uplifting. Nash’s ‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox’ series introduces a more colourful (though still balanced with some pastel mixes) vision of nature transformed by his fertile imagination – and perhaps the real and not imagined premonition of his untimely death.

November 25, 2020