A Chimeric Birdman

Head down to Pimlico again, this time to take a look at the Paul Nash exhibition that’s just opened at Tate Britain.  And, having had a moan the other week about the horribly expensive £19 full price ticket to get into the relatively small and unsatisfactory display of Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, I suppose it’s worth noting that the equivalent charge today is a slightly less punishing £16*.  It’s still a bit steep but at least the Tate has put on the full ten-room retrospective:  a nice sensible, straightforward, chronological survey exhibition showing clearly and comprehensively how the artist’s interests and styles developed over the course of his creative career.  Other than a smallish show of Nash’s work held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago, I think this is probably the first major survey of his output for a very long time which makes it particularly useful for anyone, like myself, with an interest in trying to piece together the jigsaw of British art history during the volatile first half of the 20th century.  And while I’m broadly familiar with Nash’s work, having probably seen a score or so individual paintings cropping up in various thematic survey shows over the past few decades of gallery-going, it’s good to be able to see the full, expanded story of an artist who, as the accompanying gallery guide very reasonably puts it, was ‘a key figure in debates about British art’s relationship to international Modernism’.


Having said all that, however, there are no great surprises in the exhibition, no unexpected revelations are made and, sadly, no unfamiliar masterpieces are unveiled.  Textbooks will not need to be revised and neither will my own previous, generalised opinion of Nash as an interesting and reasonably competent artist – perhaps, in fact, better described as a talented graphic designer than a proper, actual fine artist – who diligently used his fairly limited range of technical skills to experiment with ways of restructuring and updating the genre of landscape painting to try to make it relevant for the modern era.  Just how well he succeeded in achieving this aim through the production of his simplified scenes of hills and dales, trees and glades is open to question.  And when so much of continental Modernism was being propelled by a machine age aesthetic and the energy and excitement of an electrified urban environment, it does seem a particularly quirky British preoccupation to concentrate so much effort on a re-examination of aspects of the countryside and a reframing of all things rural.  For me, Nash seems to be almost the perfect embodiment of the kind of unexceptional, parochial British Modernist who was content to plough his own path in the shadows while much of the rest of Europe was exploding with the excitement of an artistic revolution that ran all the way from Impressionism and Fauvism through to Dada and all the various forms of Abstractionism.

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Anyway, if you want to know where Nash was coming from then I think it’s probably fair to say that he sets out his stall at the very start of the Tate exhibition with The Combat, one of his early ink drawings.  Here he shows an awkward angelic figure standing on a hill of tiny trees holding out a sword in an effort to try to stave off the unwarranted advances of a chimeric birdman who is swooping in for the attack.  It’s a pretty enough sketch but the draftsmanship is all a bit awkward and stiff, the perspective skewed and the simple symbolism harks back a century or so to the mystic religiosity of William Blake.  And I think it’s fair to say that Nash would probably have been quite content to continue playing around developing the kind of themes suggested by this work that linked the natural forms he saw around him with a sort of higher spiritual world view that came from above.  But if that was the case then those hopes were horribly terminated by the advent of the First World War, during which Nash first served as a foot soldier before being elevated from the trenches and given a role as one of the official war artists whose job was to help make a record of the scenes and situations of those terrible times.  It was, however, during this period that Nash was inspired to produce some of his most famous works, in particular with his successful creation of the defining image of the desolate, dystopian battlefield with its columns of trees shredded of all foliage, the earth roiled up into frozen waves of mud and the shell craters filled with grubby pools of water.

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Having witnessed those kinds of horrors it’s perhaps understandable that, post-war, Nash sought some kind of solace in redrafting visions of the more sane and peaceful landscape to which he returned.  And equally understandable that the images produced from examining such views were so low key in comparison with the work created during the years at the front of the conflict.  As time passed, Nash, who was obviously very much aware and interested in the radical trends racing through continental European art at the time, tried to update his own stylised visions of the British landscape by imbuing them with a touch of Surrealistic iconoclasm.  But he was far too reticent and well-mannered to do it properly and so the results are quizzical and charming rather than startling or even faintly disturbing and with none of the monsters and monstrosities typically found lurking in the lands through which Ernst, Dali and the rest of the A-team Surrealists were travelling.  I think it’s probably fair to say that Nash’s journeys into the subconscious just never really got very far.  And for his versions of a state of altered reality it was sufficient just to foreground an ethereally floating tennis ball, an out-of-place wooden screen or maybe a big flinty megalith or misshapen pieced of driftwood in front of some rolling hills, and leave it at that.

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From a psychoanalytical point of view, I suppose the reason why Nash’s Surrealism was so undemanding and relatively soft-core was that he had a very understandable reluctance to seek inspiration by delving too deep into his inner thoughts and half-erased memories.  Presumably the fear of resurrecting too many unpleasant reminiscences associated with all the real life destruction and carnage that he’d witnessed meant that he was quite content with trying to use art as a source of comfort rather than the more typically confrontational strategies favoured by the continental Surrealists.

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As such there’s a terrible irony that it’s only with the return of war when Nash, reprising his role of official war artist, is required once again to consider and record the impact of an awful, serious subject matter, that at last he regains the inspiration necessary to create his final major works.  Curiously the Tate isn’t showing his famous Battle of Britain painting with its swirling vapour trails recording the heroic victory but then there’s something perhaps even more impressive about the subdued, elegiac imagery of Dead Sea which shows a timeless moon floating above a graveyard of shattered German war planes washed up against a murky yellow beach.  It’s as if the evil chimeric birdman, that Nash had described three decades earlier at the beginning of the show – despite having grown a new steely carapace – has once again been repelled and destroyed by the forces of righteousness at the close of the day, or something like that.  Finally, when the war ended Nash once again reverted to experimenting with imagery from the countryside, although this time with decidedly darker overtones.  It was a short-lived reprieve however and these paintings, centering around flower motifs which apparently held some personal symbolic reference as an augury of death, proved to be his rather sad valedictory works.


Included amongst the substantial number of paintings, drawings and photographs by Nash there are also a few contemporaneous works by some of his compatriots amongst the other small band of British Modernists working in the inter-war years.  So, there are paintings by Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth and a pair of small carvings by Moore and Hepworth.  But perhaps less familiar, and certainly more interesting, are the Surrealist assemblages by Eileen Agar constructed from starfish and ramshorn, seashells and shingle which, alongside her curious collaged photoportrait, surely make a strong case for the Tate considering giving her a proper retrospective or at least including her amongst a suitable survey show of work by some of the other notable but unrecognised British female Surrealists.



*For regular visitors it’s probably worth paying the annual fees to become members of the various artistic organisations which allows for free unlimited entry into their shows – currently the National Portrait Gallery charges £50 and the Tate £70.

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