12 June 2017
Paul Nash study visit
The study visit was held at the Sainsbury’s Centre for the visual arts in Norwich and was hosted by tutor Hayley Lock. The exhibition was essentially the same one that appeared at the Tate, London earlier in the year.
Paul Nash (b. 1889, d. 1946) was a British painter whose work spanned the period of both World Wars. Initially trained as a designer/illustrator, he served in active service during WWI, becoming an official war artist during the latter parts of the conflict. Nash experienced the full horror of the trenches, and had to endure the death of close colleagues. As a result, later suffered mental illness (which we would now describe as post traumatic stress disorder). He also suffered physical illness; notably severe asthma.
During the inter-war period, Nash continued to paint and draw, being especially influenced by landscapes, found objects (the life of the inanimate object), the prehistoric, ancient architecture, natural history and the emerging surrealist movement. In addition to painting, Nash continued as a writer, author of natural history and artists’ books and photographer. He later painted powerful images depicting the destruction of WWI, most notably the airframe scrapyard in Cowley, which he depicted as a sea of tangled metal in “Totes Meer” (1940-1) (Tate, n.d.a) In his latter years, Nash reverted to landscape paintings returning to favourite scenes and the recurring themes of mysticism and spirituality.
Focus on specific works and areas of interest:
Paul Nash was a prolific artist and it is possible to see development in style and influences over the course of his career.
The first of these is the crossover between his background in illustration: Nash’s work shows a characteristic interest in the use of straight lines and angles in the form of triangles and zig-zags. Theses feature are present is almost all of Nash’s works.
Nash was interested in the spiritual (perhaps with a Pagan slant?), and his work is full of symbolism. The sun, moon, moonlight regularly feature in his paintings, as does the idea of the viewer “floating above” the subject matter of the painting; suggesting an otherworldly detachment from the scene. Also present is the suggestion of an “underworld”, the idea of there being a hidden world underneath the soil or water. The fruiting bodies of fungi feature frequently in Nash’s work. However the bulk of a fungus is in fact the mycelium; a strange branching, thread-like fibrous material permeating the ground or substrate from which the fruiting body appears.
Throughout his career Nash used a very distinctive colour palette; yellow ochre, pale blue, black and grey, soft brownish pink, olive and viridian greens. He also used a distinctive oxide red, as in the dock leaves in his famous WWI oil painting “The Menin Road” (1919), (Imperial War Museums, 2017) and the red tress and brick wall of “Behind the Inn” (1919-22) (Tate, n.d.b)
Throughout his career, Nash frequently bent the rules of perspective, deliberately using it to make his paintings more intriguing, for example “Nostalgic landscape” (1923-38) (Artuk, n.d.), “Pillar and moon” (1932-42) (Tate, n.d.c)
For the 1930’s, Nash became increasingly interested in Surrealism and became a pioneer of the Surrealist movement, promoting it through the International Surrealist exhibition of 1936 (Parker, 2017)
A recurring theme of Nash’s work is the English landscape. We saw in his early works that he had painted landscapes close to his home in Iver Heath, and the “Wittenham Clumps” (1913) (Nashclumps.org, n.d.) (twin beach woods on the site of an Iron Aged fort he had visited in Oxfordshire). After WWI he moved to Dymchurch is Kent and many of his paintings of the period (1921-25) reflect this seaside landscape, such as “Wall against the sea” (1922) and “The Shore” (1923) (Holford, n.d.). Many of these themes reoccur in this later work.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition from a student’s point of view was room 4 ‘Life of an inanimate object’ – essentially a study on how to develop a concept. This part of the exhibition gave insight into how Nash took an idea (e.g. a piece of wooden driftwood or found object) and worked it up into sketches, collages, photographs, exploring and focusing on particular elements, thinking about groupings, contrasts, or perhaps how the objects would look if placed out of context.
What can I learn from the exhibition and how will it translate to my practice?
- The exhibition demonstrated a process of how to use everyday objects to identify and develop ideas for visual art.
- It made me look at still life in a different way (i.e. that it doesn’t need to involve obvious/conventional grouping – for example his surrealist work).
- Elements of Nash’s practice which I could translate to my own work include mark-making and the use of line (in particular fine straight lines for texture), his colour palette, the intentional distortion of perspective.
Atuk (n.d.) Nostalgic landscape (1923-38) At: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/nostalgic-landscape-81330# (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Benson, E. (n.d.) Inspiring landscapes 3: “Wall against the sea”. [Pinterest pin, n.d.] At: http://pin.it/qrtwkDo (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Chambers, E. (Ed) (2016-17) Paul Nash. London. Tate publishing.
Holford, J. (n.d.) “The Shore” (1923) [Pinterest pin, n.d.] At: http://pin.it/s0wSjs5 (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Imperial War Museums (2017) The Menin Road (1919) At: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20087 (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Nashclumps.org (n.d.) Paul Nash and the Wittenden Clumps: Wittenden clumps (2013) At: http://www.nashclumps.org/early.html (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Parker, P. (2017) ‘Paul Nash’s commitment to the English landscape’ In: Apollo magazine. 13 January 2017. [online] At: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/paul-nash-tate-britain/ (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Tate (n.d.a) Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41) At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nash-totes-meer-dead-sea-n05717 (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Tate (n.d.b) Behind the wall (1919-22) At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nash-behind-the-inn-n04259 (Accessed 5 July 2017)
Tate (n.d.c) Pillar and Moon (1932-42) At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nash-pillar-and-moon-n05392 (Accessed 5 July 2017)