A good friend first introduced me to Nash’s work. We were writing in response to art at his dining room table. With copious cups of strong coffee, served with shortbread and mid-afternoon melancholy, he showed me an image of Paul Nash’s painting, ‘Totes Meer.’
Here I am, years later, at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and this painting is hanging directly in front of me. It’s twilight, “a private viewing,” the gallery officials smile and share my luck at being the only person here, half an hour before closing. There’s a real sense of ending in this artwork, possibly half an hour before doom, a visceral finality and I love the metallurgy of it. Combining seascape and landscape, this is a Second World War graveyard.
"Battlefield, disorientation, carnage, devastation
and utter desolation are all here.."
Death and mortality feature heavily in Nash’s work, of course he was official war artist, but more than that even, in his earlier work, there are clinical drawings and angular designs, although some do catch an element of fluidity in their composure, with humility alongside this. ‘The Ypres Salient at Night,’ has pyramids of light, very close to Blake, whom he was a reverent admirer of, and an honest veracity which I much admire in Nash. Battlefield, disorientation, carnage, devastation and utter desolation are all here, including the biblical flash of shells. War is depicted with necessary provocation for the viewer, Nash leaves the final verdict of the atrocity of war for us to visualize.
The mood in the gallery is sombre, dark and silent. I am imagining Paul Nash as an isolated character, living and fighting through two world wars, an essentially solitary person, until I’m drawn to an unexpected piece of information. Nash was the founder of Unit One, a group of Nash and his artist contemporaries who shared the same timely movement from abstract to realism in the 1930’s, and included Hepworth, Moore and Ben Nicholson, amongst others. They held an important exhibition. They shared intellectual and artistic ideals whilst not conforming to each others styles. They publicly announced their place in contemporary art of the time. I am leaving the gallery with faith in the power of collective, fine humanity, and hope.
The Paul Nash exhibition closes on January 14th. Image: Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash @Tate London 2015