Monday, 30 November -0001

Paul Nash

Best known for his depictions of war, Paul Nash was in fact an artist of great breadth, at this exhibition reveals

Written by Hugh St Clair

Most of us know Paul Nash’s haunting images of war but this exhibition has brought together superb examples of his other work to celebrate his important contribution to the modernising of British art in the 20th century. Influenced strongly by Samuel Palmer and William Blake, he drew on history to produce his unique work yet he also embraced the future. He was a leading surrealist and abstract artist, forming art group Unit One in 1933 to promote the work to a very shocked and very conservative British society.Hugh-St-Clair-colour-176

Paul Nash was brought up in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire and was one of three children. His mother died in a mental institution when Paul was 20. He and his younger brother John, also an artist, took solace in the surrounding countryside following their mother’s death. The brothers were close but different in temperament. Paul was ambitious and inquisitive and began to interpret the world differently. He was deeply affected by the First World War and wrote, ‘I am no longer an artist… I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to go on forever… and may it burn their lousy souls.’ John preferred to follow the quiet life of a landscape artist and gardener in Suffolk. As a young man Paul’s work had a spectral, other-worldly quality.

In 1912 and 1913 his beautiful pen and inks are of woods and trees, often by night and often with heavenly figures hovering overhead. Nash isn’t very good at painting people. He did once admit that he painted trees ‘as though they were human beings’. His trees assume personalities, from the tall, romantically entwined ones of his early work to the grim stumps of the battlefield through to the more softly executed colourful woods after the Second World War. In between he was up with the best of the European surrealists, such as de Chirico, and gives cubists Braque and Gris a run for their money. Nash invests poignant meaning into his photographs, assembled objets trouves made into small sculptures, just as successfully as in his paintings of large rocks and fighter plane wreckage.

This is an exhibition that must be seen because it shows so well the breadth of this man’s achievements. In the catalogue though I would have liked the explanatory boards at the entrance to each room reproduced alongside the erudite essays.

Until 5 March 2017 at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1: 020-7887 8888, 

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