Curiouser and Curiouser: Paul Nash at Tate Britain

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; The Menin Road
Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919 (Imperial War Museum collection)


Dream-like. Haunting. Bizarre.

No, this is not the answer to some obscure job interview question but the words that spring to mind having seen Tate Britain’s blockbuster Autumn/Winter exhibition – a retrospective of Paul Nash.

It is rather fitting to review this exhibition with Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday arriving at the end of the week.

The life of Paul Nash, probably one of Britain’s most well-known War Artists, spanned not one, but two world wars. He was in the trenches as a boy and saw the wreckages of the Battle of Britain as a man in his fifties. His reactions to both wars and everything in between is displayed in this exhibition and highlights what a sensitive and imaginative fellow he was.

If you’re thinking about going to see the exhibition – be prepared, it’s pretty vast and deals with some abstract and surreal themes that Nash warmed to in the 1930s. So, I would recommend a strong coffee to fuel you through the rooms.

It is hung chronologically and, as a whole, feels like you are walking through the strange and mystical world of the artist’s mind.

A work by the young artist, The Three in the Night, 1913. (Tate Collection)

To begin with, you meet the young impressionable boy whose love for the landscape and the magic of silhouetted trees against a luminous moon is evident throughout his work. Very rarely do figures appear, but when they do, they take on an otherworldy, alien appearance. Nash was particularly fond of trees (something you’ll find throughout his whole career) and believed them to be as alive as humans themselves.

We step from this safe haven of twinkling nocturnal landscapes into the nightmare of WWI. In the second room hangs, for me at least, some of Nash’s most powerful and haunting works.

You are met with the destruction of war (see the above painting The Menin Road) and its impact on the environment and yeah, you guessed it, the trees. As if in a nightmare, the trees stand eerily regimented and echo the lives of the soldiers who have fallen.

Whilst Nash was at first optimistic about the war, the loss of his entire squadron at Passchendaele whilst he was on sick leave due to a broken rib shook him to the core. The Tate has done a brilliant job at letting the artist speak for himself and provided many voiceover excerpts of Nash’s letters on the audio guide.You can hear his despair at the destruction he saw around him and understand how a man, so in love with natural beauty, could produce images such as these.

As if jolted from your sleep, the next room shows a selection of paintings he did at Dymchurch on the south coast where he went to live after the war. The colours are more muted and cold light floods the empty compositions.

It was during these years, in the early 20s, that Nash suffered from PTS due to his WWI experiences and you can see a certain numbness in his oeurve (fancy word for an artist’s work) at this time. This is emphasised by the curation of the large room with pale coloured walls to provide a setting for this selection of images.

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Equivalents for the Megaliths
Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935 (Tate)

Over the next few rooms, you quite literally step into the surreal as Nash began to engage with Europe’s Surrealist movement. Remember those melting clocks and pipes with personality disorders? Well, it would appear that Nash was down with that and began to pioneer the Modern British Surrealist movement and edged towards complete abstraction.

This was, by far, the strangest and perhaps most overwhelming part of the exhibition. You begin to feel yourself falling through the rabbit hole into an artistic world that is so full of such strange and fascinating concepts that you begin to lose a sense of the young artist so obsessed with trees… Large, geometric forms sit within wheat fields and the lines around what is an object are, quite literally, blurred.

But all is not lost and, as if approaching consciousness from a deep sleep, we enter into the world of WWII.

This final part of the exhibition is a combination of the artist’s fascination with the surreal and his reaction to the return of war. Objects still appear strewn in wheat fields but this time it is the wreckage of a German fighter plane.

One of his most iconic images of WWII also hangs here. Totes Meer (German for Dead Sea) presents a sea of the broken bodies of German planes that had fallen on to British soil during the Battle of Britain. Here you have the artist, in his final years, witnessing a real-life surreal scene: an endless flood of ruined flying machines.

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Totes Meer (Dead Sea)
Totes Meer, 1941 (Tate) Believe it or not, this isn’t a coastal scene…

This painting, for me, provided a solid bookend to the end of the exhibition. It is here that you can see the artist as a boy, fascinated with landscape, and as a man exploring surrealism coming together in one image.

There is no doubt that Nash was an iconic War Artist capturing images that have come to define the horrors of those times. But this exhibition also proclaims his interest in the surreal and his pioneering painting for Modern British Art.

Whilst overwhelming at times, this exhibition picks you up from a child’s romantic dream of landscapes and transports you though the horrors of war and complexity of abstract artistic concepts. Towards the end, it places you back on your feet, re-introducing you slowly into the real and tangible again.

Quite a feat for clearly quite an unusual and visionary artist.


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