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Nash at war and peace

Tate Britain show puts artist's work 'in an international context'

29 November, 2016 — By John Evans

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1918, oil on canvas, 828 x 3175mm, Imperial War Museum London. © Tate

SIMPLY PUT “one of our great war artists” but in Paul Nash, as the curator of the Tate Britain retrospective suggests, we also have “one of the leading figures in British surrealism”.

Emma Chambers, Tate’s head of modern British art, adds that this show, with more than 160 works, including oils, water­colours, assemblages and photos, from some 60 lenders, has a particular focus on Nash “in an international context”.

Covering four decades, among the earliest works are mystical, symbolist, paintings and drawings of trees, gardens, orchards and, notably, of the Wittenham Clumps, a chalk hills outcrop in Oxfordshire.

For Nash (1889-1946) continuity of place was key to particular phases of landscapes, whether Iver Heath, the Downs or Dymchurch, the Chilterns or Cros-de-Cagnes near Nice.

Surely among the greatest images he produced are those with the strongest imagined elements. And the greatest comparisons can be made with the paintings from both world wars. On show are The Battle of Germany, 1944, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) – the sea being of wrecked German planes – and the Messerschmitt in Windsor Great Park from 1940-1, which can be seen with The Menin Road, The Ypres Salient at Night, and We are Making a New World, from 1918.

Pastoral, abstract, and visionary paintings mark a progression to a merging of dream and reality. In 1938 Nash wrote of his concept of “unseen” landscapes: “The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense… They belong to the world that lies visibly about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.”

A highlight is the first public showing here of double-sided paintings, The Two Serpents, 1929, and Circle of the Monoliths, a truly surreal landscape from 1936-7, a period when Nash was living in Hampstead. The show examines his collaborations, for example, in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, with works from artists such as Picasso, Dali, Miró, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy.

Also, how from 1933 he was a founder member of Unit One, a group which included Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth. Though short-lived, for Nash it stood “for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit” in painting, sculpture and architecture.

• Paul Nash is at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1, to March 5.


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