British art of the first half of the twentieth century remains somewhat underrated and underappreciated. Over the last few years the Dulwich Picture Gallery has been quietly campaigning for a reappraisal of the work of key figures of the time, including Graham Sutherland and Walter Sickert. Now comes “Paul Nash: The Elements”. The show focusses on the landscapes created by the artist between about 1911, when he first set out on the path of a painter’s career, to 1946, when he died.
The exhibition tells the story of a sadly curtailed life, and of an art shaped by the trauma of the two World Wars. As a young man Nash read the verse of the Romantics, from Wordsworth to Rossetti, and wondered if he might himself become an idiosyncratic draughtsman-poet in the mould of William Blake. His earliest works include a series of small, dark pen-and-ink drawings in which Nash strove to develop his own equivalent to Blake’s symbolic language. An angel struggles with an eagle in a world of midnight obscurity. Pyramids persist by the light of the moon. Nash communed with the ghost of Samuel Palmer as well as that of Blake, but he soon developed his own, distinctive sense of English pastoral. He had a sense of the world as a place charged with wonder, where he could roam at will. He depicted the wide-open landscapes of Oxfordshire, where ancient burial mounds struck him as England’s very own version of the pyramids; he drew trees as if they were people, or perhaps guardian spirits watching over him.
Then came the First World War, and the ending of his innocence. His response was the blackened, brooding depiction of a landscape raped. With dark irony, he called it We Are Building a New World. The picture contains not a single human figure, but the line of blackened and branchless trees standing in the churned-up mud of battle surely represents the millions of dead lost in the conflict. Nash was working as an official war artist, but the picture could hardly be described as propaganda for any nation’s cause. He painted it in the same spirit as the war poets wrote their poetry. He wanted those at home who still supported the war to know what it was really like; he wanted, he said, “to burn the truth into their lousy souls."
This is a small show, but it has been carefully selected to show Nash at his best. The compression also brings out the essentially tragic contours of his life. After the war, he developed a stunned language of disaffected pastoralism, painting image after image of the desolate sea. He developed his own form of Surrealism, employing its language of shock and dissonance to express dislocation and loss. The open field became the closed door and the blocked path, littered with the symbolic objects of disillusionment.
The Second World War roused Nash to create the masterpiece of his later career: Totes Meer (Dead Sea), of 1940, which was inspired by the sight of the wreckage of German warplanes at a dump in Cowley. Nash, who hated Hitler with a vengeance, wanted to create an image to raise public morale during wartime. In truth, Totes Meer was rather too bleak a painting to accomplish that goal. When Nash painted it, he knew that little time was left to him. He had never recovered from having been gassed during the First World War. His lungs barely functioned. The tangled aeroplane wings and fuselage officially proclaimed the defeat of the German aggressor, but in Nash’s own private symbolism they signalled his own impending death.
This week is also the last chance to see another exhibition about a distinctly unfashionable British painter. “Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius”, at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, is a rich and surprising study of Reynolds’ roots in the West Country. Serious, scholarly, and full of revelations about the difficult journey of a novice from Plymouth to the doors of the Royal Academy, this is a show well worth catching before it closes.