An exhibition of Paul Nash’s paintings is wandering around the country. They were in London last year; now they are in the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia (UEA); soon they will be off to Newcastle. I caught the exhibition at the UEA and then, after deciding it to be fair to middling, I put it from my mind. It kept springing back though, insisting that I think it through properly. And the only way to think through anything properly, of course, is to write about it.
The Sainsbury Centre was designed by Norman Foster and there are Henry Moores plonked around it on the grass. The UEA is today a kind of modernist outpost or slum. You can walk to the Sainsbury Centre through the core of the campus and, at any given time, you will be probably alone on a carton-coloured walkway with sepia windows above and below you. When immersed in this unvarying superstructure, it is as though you are a visitor to some subterranean level of a termites’ nest. At a weekend in the summer, when there is no student footfall, the walkways have an eeriness that was doubtless present in the stillness of the architect’s drawings.
If you lived in this world and you went to an art gallery, it would contain the sort of paintings that were painted by Paul Nash. If you were an inhabitant of this world and you ever did something, you might be this iron man by Antony Gormley who has climbed naked on to the roof to contemplate infinity. Very far away, like a trembling on the surface of his iron skin as a lorry passes, is the fussing of the twenty-first century. The iron man might “trigger” the lesser, inferior people who live in this later century into copying his supposedly suicidal stance. There has been a petition and lots of concerned commentary amongst the student body. The type of pettiness that might cause a real man, who is naked and made of iron, to chuck himself off a building with exasperation.
But it is summer and most of the students have departed, to scratch about in the pettiness of their own lesser century. Their petition has been and gone, and so have they, and the iron man is still here. A deathly tranquillity has fallen over this cityscape and he is at peace with it, like an iron gazelle blending into a beige-grey concrete savannah.
And now we have gone too. We have gone to see the Paul Nash exhibition.
Paul Nash was a modernist and a Surrealist, but he had that huge appetite for the freshness of landscapes that is more characteristic of the Impressionists. If you take all of the geometry out of his paintings, then there is a sneaking, rather hopeless passion for the idyllic. Nash communed with Nature and he admired the mystical writings of W.B. Yeats and Algernon Blackwood. Had he been born a contemporary of Paul Cézanne, then he might have been happier, pottering about in the countryside and painting portraits of trees. But World Wars kept butting in.
Nash fought and painted during the First World War and he just painted during the Second. His most famous paintings depict landscapes that are pulverised by war or littered with its detritus. Yet the landscapes fight back and his inflexibly geometrical trees poke through the slime of the trenches. The humans do not realise it but they are all of them, together, fighting a war against the ancient powers of nature. They have no weapons against enduring rocks and patient hillsides. Nash’s dead sea (“Totes Meer,” 1940) is a scrapyard of mangled machinery. His “Bomber In The Corn” (1940) resembles a Neolithic standing stone and we could be well viewing it from thousands of years hence.
In the trenches, Nash was ultimately not on the side of the British or even on that of humanity in general. From the perspective of the high command, this at least offered a mercifully depoliticised vision of the war. If Nash had sided with the shattered trees, he wasn’t siding with the Germans or a betrayed and potentially mutinous working class. “We Are Making A New World” shows green vegetation teeming up towards the rising sun. It is not exactly the triumph of the human spirit and more the indestructability of moss.
Sometimes Nash’s pictures of the trenches are rather too vibrant or naïve for comfort. “Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood” (1917-1918) is a beautiful, sunlit painting, and this is surely Nash’s problem in one. Shouldn’t he be howling with black rage at what he has seen and flinging blood at the canvas? The title “Spring in the Trenches” sounds like that of an ill-conceived musical. It brings to mind Graham Greene’s sinisterly innocent Captain Fellows who had never felt happier than when “in the ravaged landscape of trenches.” Yes, there are satisfactory ironies at liberty, but the ultimate meaning of this painting is that the sun has come out and dried up all the war. The soldiers in Nash’s warscapes elsewhere look like half-drowned ants, who are inexplicably clinging to a landscape that is waiting for them to leave. In “After the Battle” (1918) the men are dead but the rain is having a party.
The exhibition shrewdly airs Nash’s bold wartime masterpieces to begin with, before turning the clock back in the second gallery to the soft-focus whimsy and innocence of his pre-war years. This gives emphasis, since emphasis is very much needed, to how his painting became harder and more serious during the war. Next, we flick forward to the post-war years when Nash was suffering a nervous breakdown. He had fallen unconscious for a week and they had rushed him to a London hospital for nervous diseases. His work from this time is flat and hard to the point of brittleness; he lays down the land around the Kent village of Dymchurch in slabs, as if he has dipped his paintbrush in liquid concrete. By the 1930s, Nash had moved on to an interlude of Surrealist playfulness that comes across as scrappy or at least lacking in any urgency. In the final gallery, he returns to war-ravaged landscapes and his canvases are once more grand again.
Anthony Bertram, Nash’s biographer, writes that “… he was a man of exceptional integrity… He was a kind man…” I was surprised to read this, not because it was unexpected that Nash might be a nice man, but because it had never previously occurred to me that he might have any personality at all. It is simply not transmitted by his design-tech compositions, any more than a table-maker might signal his views on life and love through his tables. Nash was one of these weird artists who never painted his spouse. I imagine that it must have been awkward – the dryness in Mrs Nash’s voice as she praised paintings of the bodies of trees that her husband had been absorbed in for hours on end. At one point, the exhibition mentions that Nash had visited Morocco. We might marvel that Nash could find inspiration in an advertisement hoarding from around the back of a railway station, and not in Morocco’s festival of colours.
Perhaps I am only registering the limitations of Nash’s chosen genres – the innate dispassion of landscape painting and the dreariness of English Surrealism. Perhaps the individual novelty of Nash’s works is lost when they are all clumped together. By the time that you are in the final room of the exhibition you are scanning these canvases, which are always quaint and interesting, for anything friendly. In this context, the falcon in “Landscape from a Dream” (1936) looks almost human as it stands apart from the rocks and wreckage and slabs of grass.
Where there are people in Nash’s painting, they are much like Gormley’s iron man – distant, featureless figures who are wrought from some inhuman substance. The critic Donald Pittenger, in an amusing online curation of Nash’s paintings, has suggested that the artist “had a deficiency exposed while at the Slade: he wasn’t very good at depicting people.” I think this is too pat: Nash didn’t want to draw people and he never bothered learning. There is naturally a little awkwardness when hundreds of people turn up to a gallery and try to engage with his paintings.
The scholar S.T. Joshi once described the mysticism of Algernon Blackwood as “really a religion of Blackwood’s own making.” This quote comes back to me when I ponder Nash’s landscapes. This is his private world and we are only allowed to peer at it over his shoulder. We are not necessarily trespassing in Nash’s landscapes but we have a purely nominal right to roam.