Paul Nash – A Modernist Paradox by Edward Lucie-Smith

The elegant new Paul Nash retrospective just opened at Tate Britain offers a welcome contrast to some of the dismal offerings that have been unveiled there in the recent past. It celebrates an important British artist and does so in a thoroughgoing way.

It does, however, have one inescapable problem, which it dodges around but can’t entirely escape. The fact was that, while Nash was an excellent Modernist artist, aware of and sensitive to the major developments that were taking place in European art during his lifetime, he is essentially not an originator, but a painter who elegantly adapted the intentions of others, and equally adroitly adapted them to British sensibilities

There were just two periods in his career when he became something different – something much more powerful and disturbing. This was during the two World Wars that punctuated his lifetime. In particular, during World War I.

The relationship between the various continental avant-gardes, both to the outbreak of the war and later to its catastrophic continuation, was always conflicted. The war was at its beginning often welcomed as a kind of cleansing: something that would sweep away a dusty, sluggish, self-indulgent epoch, and establish in its place something purified and new. The Italian Futurists, who had established themselves in the immediately pre-war years as the public advocates of the radically modern, were very much of this opinion, F.T, Marinetti, the leader of the group, proclaimed in his text The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, published in the leading French newspaper Le Figaro on 20th February 1909, that war was “the only hygiene of the world”.

The one picture in the show that rivals the Menin Road is the almost equally huge Totes Meer (Dead Sea)

When war broke out the various authorities responsible on either side for directing it, were not very quick in devising an official way of recording what was taking place. They were outstripped not only by the violence and rapidity of events but also by the role now been played by photography, in alliance with a newly developed popular press, which provided immediate, up-to-the-minute illustrations of the battlefield.

Germany never had an official war artists’ scheme. Most of the memorable German images commemorating the conflict were made after the war itself had ended – often quite long after. Otto Dix, who served throughout the war as a non-commissioned officer in a machine-gun unit, was profoundly affected by his experiences but only free to respond to them later. He published a retrospective series of prints entitled Der Krieg in 1924 and followed it up with his great triptych Trench Warfare, based on the German altarpieces of the early 16th century, and not completed until 1932, one the eve of the Nazi takeover. No British image depicting the events of World War I has anything like the savage power of this work.

Remarkably few leading Paris-based Modernists were directly involved. Picasso, for example, though already settled in France, was exempted from service thanks to his Spanish nationality. His reaction to the war was to lock it away or lock himself away from it. These were the years when he began to move away from revolutionary Cubism towards Neo-Classicism. Léger was about the only major French Modernist who saw service at the front. Almost killed by a mustard gas attack in September 1916, he painted one major work, The Card Players, during a long period of convalescence. In this, a group of soldiers in a bivouac are given mechanical robot-like forms derived from the machinery of war. Léger later said that he regarded this work as “the first picture in which I deliberately took my subject from our own epoch.”

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The painting has a curious feeling of emotional distance from events. This is also true of one of the few other really striking images produced by a French (or at any rate French identified) artist during the war. Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) was Swiss-born but had long been resident in France. When war broke out, he was already well known, as a member of the Nabis Group, prominent in the 1890s. He tried to join up but was rejected as too old. In 1917, however, he received a commission from the French Ministry of Fine Arts to record what he saw at the front. The most successful painting he made as a result of his visit to the front was one of Verdun, showing the battlefield at night, with searchlights, shell bursts and fires. A spectacle of this sort was something that the photographic technology of the time could not offer. Though it is an ambitious and radical work, the more ghoulish aspects of the war are kept at a safe distance, just as they are, in a somewhat different fashion, in the composition by Léger.

At first look, it might seem as if Paul Nash’s war-inspired masterpiece, the enormous The Menin Road (see main photo), does the same thing. Painted in 1919, it was an official commission for the Imperial War Museum and summarises Nash’s experience of the conflict. At first glance, it seems to be without human figures, but very gradually one begins to see a scattering of human actors amid the blasted tree trunks. What lingers here are traces of the apocalyptic spirit that is also to be seen at work in the compositions of the British Romantic John ‘Mad’ Martin, famous for his huge apocalyptic compositions. It does not distance the war as an immense, cataclysmic emotional force, which was what both Léger and Vallotton did in contrasting ways.

Nash was in fact offered official opportunities to record and react to the war that was largely denied to his continental counterparts, and, as the Tate show demonstrates, this was one of the perhaps few occasions in the history of Modernist art when officialdom seized its chance and was in the right.

The paintings Nash made in the interwar years are pleasing enough, but his talent returned in full force with the second global conflict. The one picture in the show that rivals the Menin Road is the almost equally huge Totes Meer (Dead Sea) painted at the height of the Battle of Britain, which shows a vast dump of crashed German airplanes.

Nash was already in somewhat poor health when this was produced, and the final paintings in the show, visionary compositions entitled Solstice of the Sunflower and Eclipse of the Sunflower, both made in 1945, suggest that their creator’s real place is much more with Romantics such as Martin, or even Samuel Palmer (despite the huge contrast of scale), than it is the with Surrealist Movement with which, in the latter part of his career, he consciously associated himself.

Words: Edward Lucie-Smith

Photos: P C Robinson ©Artlyst 2016

Paul Nash, Tate Britain 26 October 2016 – 5 March 2017 £16.50


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