Today is Battle of Britain Memorial Day so this week’s choice of picture is Paul Nash’s Totes meer (Dead sea). It was painted in 1941 following the painter’s appointment as an Official War Artist and was inspired by the sight of twisted wreckage from German fighter planes at an aircraft dump in Cowley.
The archives of the Imperial War Museum contain a letter from Nash to the Secretary of the War Artists Advisory Committee, about the genesis of his bleak memento mori:
“The thing looked to me, suddenly, like a great inundating sea. You might feel under certain circumstances – a moonlight night for instance – this is a vast tide moving across the fields, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no; nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead. It is metal piled up, wreckage. It is hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores (how many Nazi planes have been shot down or otherwise wrecked in this country since they first invaded?). Well, here they are, or some of them. By moonlight, the waning moon, one could swear they began to move and twist and turn as they did in the air. A sort of rigor mortis? No, they are quite dead and still. The only moving creature is the white owl flying low over the bodies of the other predatory creatures, raking the shadows for rats and voles…”
Nash’s lengthy apologia for his own work may have been provoked by the knowledge that some members of the War Artists Advisory Committee regarded his painting as too morbid and obscure. The artist could count on the enlightened support of Dickey, as well as that of Kenneth Clark; but Air Commodore Peake, the Air Ministry’s Director of Public Relations, made no secret of his dislike for Nash’s work, complaining that his aeroplanes insufficiently resembled real aeroplanes and arguing that, in any case, what the country really needed from its War Artists was military portraiture. (Peake, predictably, much preferred the contributions of the now largely forgotten painter Eric Kennington, whose portraits of young Squadron Leaders and the like were so unremittingly heroic that one sitter is said to have complained that he could not possibly live up to his own image.)
Nash was in addition regarded as politically suspect. While working on his absorbing study of the painter’s wartime work, Aerial Creatures, Charles Hall unearthed Air Ministry briefing documents describing the painter as “a bit leftist” and someone “with ideas”. Yet notwithstanding that he was still deemed “acceptable”. The British Government made much of the fact that it was prepared to allow its official artists a degree of creative latitude that would never have been countenanced in Nazi Germany. When Lord Halifax opened an exhibition of British War Art in New York in May 1941 he was careful to emphasise that “the artist maintains his right to exercise his imagination in a free country even in wartime.”
Totes meer has a mournful, elegiac quality and despite its undeniable power as a work of art it is easy to see why men like Air Commodore Peake might have been less than overjoyed by it. It seemed to hark back to the works which the painter had produced during the First World War, when he had also been an Official War Artist – desolate images of war-torn landscapes such as We Are Making a New World or The Menin Road, which did not celebrate British military prowess but sought to expose the pointlessness of a murderous and cynically prolonged conflict. “I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever,” Nash had written in 1917. “Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”
However, during the 1940s Nash was fully behind the British war effort and incandescent in his hatred of the Nazis and their leader, “that academic artist-failure, Adolph Hitler”. He thought of his pictureas a vital blow in the propaganda battle. “What is needed immediately is a counter-imaginative thrust which by its suddenness and novelty will strike straight at the mind as no armoured or explosive blow will at the counter-armoured body.” He dreamed of millions of reproductions of Totes meer, perhaps in postcard form, with a line or two printed on the back “saying it is mainly the impression of an actual scene I have recorded”: visible proof of the sheer number of enemy planes downed.
Despite his patriotic ambitions for it, Nash’s low-toned depiction of a scarred landscape cluttered with the debris of war does not seem well calculated to raise spirits during the nation’s darkest hour. What his nocturne captures is the unsettling strangeness of a world at war, as well as the speed with which nature, when men are intent on killing each other, can be supplanted by an evil parody of itself. The owl flies over the steel sea. The Surrealists had painted their dreams in order to upset the applecart of bourgeois aesthetic expectation; Nash saw that modern war was inherently surreal and painted it like the fulfilment of a prophecy, a bad dream come true.
His picture may also owe its despondent mood to the artist’s personal circumstances. When Nash painted it his married lover, the painter Eileen Agar, had put an end to their relationship and was resolutely refusing to answer his letters. He knew, also, that his life was coming to a close. He was only in middle age but his lungs had been irreversibly damaged by mustard gas in the First World War and he was finally to capitulate to asthma and pneumonia in 1946. His friend, the cartoonist James Thurber, recalled that Nash was terribly frightened of dying and “was able to face the awful and too early discontinuance of his life, largely by persuading himself that the experience of death was akin to flowers aerially borne, a kind of eternity of fragrant and gentle drifting.” But when he painted Totes meer he saw only a tangle of grounded metal – not the floating being he dreamed of becoming in death, but only broken wings.