He discovered the Hardy novels, and in time the painter Nash; the hills and trees and standing stones, flowers that broke from their moorings to sail the sky, fossils that reared in ghostly anger from the rocks. Suns rolling their millstones of golden grain; and it seemed he heard, far off and far too late, the shock of distant armies.
Keith Roberts, The Chalk Giants, Hutchinson, 1974, p21
Coming across that passage in the mid-1970s would have been the first time I came across the name Nash. Much later, I added a forename, Paul (later still I discovered there was another Nash, John, his brother and also a painter, though I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with his work). But even with a name, I wasn’t sure which Paul Nash I knew about. There were two that seemed to appear, work occasionally glimpsed in magazines or on the television: the weird, surreal artist, and the one who did all those pictures from the First World War. It would be some time before I realised they were the same; it would be even longer before I saw that they were the same.
Still, the first time I saw “Solstice of the Sunflower”, very probably the first Paul Nash painting I ever saw, I recognised it immediately as the picture that Roberts was referring to in The Chalk Giants. And having made that connection, I began to see how important Nash was in the work of Keith Roberts. Even without mentioning Nash specifically, or drawing attention to any particular painting, you can see the Nash aesthetic at work behind scenes in Pavane and the Kaeti stories, as well as The Chalk Giants which is overtly his Paul Nash novel. And of course when you look at Roberts’s own pictures you see the same angularity, the light falling like a solid object, the small objects that lift the image out of the real even if they never quite make it surreal.
The more you look at Paul Nash paintings, particularly those he produced between the late-1920s and his death just after the Second World War, you can see exactly why they spoke to Roberts. This is the landscape that Roberts’s stories inhabited, the rolling hills and small formal woodlands of Southern England, a landscape from which fragments of the past emerge like the roots of dead trees. (If Roberts had been a more urban writer, I think his influence might well have been Giorgio de Chirico, who was, of course, a significant influence upon Nash.) Following de Chirico, Nash would imbue his landscapes with odd shadows and strange, angular intrusions that suggest a story we can’t quite grasp, a story somehow in mid-flight whose conclusion cannot be known and may never be reached. And those were the stories that Roberts was telling, the story of “The Signallers”, the story of “Monkey and Pru and Sal”, stories imbued with mystery and arrived at by shadows and allusions and hints. This is why Roberts’s natural form was the fix-up, a mosaic of stories that collectively implied the whole without any of the parts ever actually being the whole.
And as I loved the work of Keith Roberts, so I loved the work of Paul Nash, even if I didn’t know so much of it. Even if, as it turned out, I knew even less than I thought. Even if Roberts caused me to (perhaps) misinterpret a Nash painting. I never saw “Solstice of the Sunflower” as a sunflower, for me it was always the sun, detached from the sky and rolling across the landscape. When I first learned the title of the picture it didn’t make sense to me. Then, at the Paul Nash exhibition, I learned that yes it was a sunflower, but it was also a representation of a country practice in which, after harvest, bundles of straw would be tied around a cartwheel, set on fire and rolled across the field (probably a very efficient way of burning stubble). Suddenly the interconnection of sunflower, sun and burning cartwheel tied the picture once more to Roberts’s description.
For a few years in the 80s I worked across the river from the Tate (as it was then), and I would regularly mooch around the gallery for half an hour or so at lunchtime. Always, I found myself gravitating to whichever Paul Nash paintings were on display. Never more than two, as I recall. Usually one of the famous ones, “Equivalence for the Monuments” or “Landscape from a Dream”, which became the images fixed in my mind as what Paul Nash did, and consequently my view of his work was uninformed. Everyone said he was a surrealist, so of course he was a surrealist. But Roberts wasn’t a surrealist: that should have been my cue.
Then, a few days ago, we managed to get to the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain just before it closed. It was crowded and jostling and I have never more wanted to take a Kalashnikov into an art exhibition (aim low, Maureen said, at their legs, then they’ll fall out of your way and the blood won’t spatter the paintings); I particularly desired to drill the woman in four inch heels and haughty demeanour who would go from picture to picture, open a stool and plant it directly in from of the painting, then sit there for minutes on end so that no-one else could get close. And it was overwhelming: not just the heat or the crowds, but the sheer number of pictures, near enough 150 of them in room after room after room.It changes the way you see them: like this, entire rooms filled with his work, you see connections and repetitions that really are not obvious when you see the pictures piecemeal, one or two at a time.
The early pictures here, mostly black and white, crude figures (he never was particularly good with figures) on strange nighttime landscapes, looked as if they could have come straight from a Samuel Palmer exhibition we saw some years ago. But amid these a couple seemed to presage what would come. “The Cliff to the North” has a woman’s shadow stretching towards the cliff edge like some presentiment of a tragedy, while “The Pyramids in the Sea” shows two pyramids emerging from rolling waves, the angular shapes and odd juxtapositions that would mark his later, best work.
Then came the First World War and, eventually, everything changed. For the first years of the war, a member of the Artists’ Rifles, he was stationed in England and continued to paint the sorts of landscapes he had been doing before. But in 1917 he was sent to France. He was invalided home briefly later that year, during which interval most of his platoon was wiped out at Passchendaele, then he was commissioned as an official war artist and returned to France, and it was then he acquired the technique and, I suspect, the passion that informed his work ever after. Now tree stumps reared at unlikely angles, like strange architectural fragments, bursting from a lumpen, rolling, unnatural ground. Light from sun or shell bursts in harsh, jagged, tangible spears. Figures are small, bending or folding or leaning as if they are no more living than anything else in this vista. “The Menin Road” or the gloriously titled “We Are Making A New World” are stunning, breathtaking works,
even if they are rather smaller than I had imagined them to be.
When, several rooms later because the exhibition is arranged on roughly chronological lines, we came his his work as a war artist in the Second World War, and particularly to “Totes Meer”, I wanted to scream out: “No, they belong together. ‘We Are Making A New World’ and ‘Totes Meer’ are the same picture, don’t you see that?” They are: the same rearing, raging ground torn and angry, the same sense of a world that cannot be at rest, the same light from sun or moon rising over a distant skyline, the same colour palette, the same emotional impact. But maybe we don’t see that, maybe we never did. Maureen has pointed out that at one point in that crowded room everyone was watching a black and white film about “Totes Meer” and no-one was looking at the picture itself. I was reminded inescapably of “Brother John” by Keith Roberts in which the eponymous monk has been busy drawing the angular, distended shapes of victims being tortured by the Inquisition, and cries out in anguish “But I enjoyed my work!” In that moment I think Brother John and Paul Nash (brother of John?) are one and the same!
And yet, “Totes Meer” seems to be not a singular painting but a climax, a final version of something Nash was always working towards. Was “Totes Meer” there in “The Pyramids in the Sea”? I think so. And among a series of extraordinary paintings he made at Dymchurch in the 1920s, all jagged man-made angles and roiling angry seas, there was the haunting “Winter Sea”, all white and black and sharp planes just waiting for the shards of German aircraft to begin to surface.
(Parenthetically, it was at Dymchurch that he began work on a painting that would only be finished a decade and a half later. It’s called “Nostalgic Landscape”, and if I ever write enough stories to put together a collection, increasingly unlikely as that may be, this is the picture I want on the cover.)
Then, in 1928, Nash saw his first exhibition of paintings by de Chirico, and became a surrealist. That’s what he said. That’s what all the critics say. But as we walked around the exhibition, Maureen said: “I don’t think he’s a surrealist.” And I agree.
I can understand why he’d say he was. At the time, in the middle of that strange, uneasy, interwar period, there was a lot of tension between what was called national and international art. Fascist regimes, first Italy then Germany, made a big thing about promoting their national art. In Britain, isolationists and right wing critics talked about “British Art” as something completely separate from anything anyone else was doing. But Nash, along with friends such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Tristram Hillier and Ben Nicholson, emphatically identified himself with International Art. At the time the most exciting movement in international art was surrealism (something that really got up the noses of the traditionalists who proclaimed National Art), so there was clearly a sense in which to be an internationalist was to be a surrealist. And certainly people like Moore and Hepworth, Nicholson and Hillier, with whom he briefly formed the collective “Unit One”, were surrealists.
But Nash, I think, was less a surrealist than someone who would occasionally incorporate surrealist elements into work that was, in other respects, indistinguishable from the work he was doing before and after this period. True, there were straightforwardly surreal paintings, “Opening” (another picture I would choose for my cover art), “Kinetic Feature” and “Voyages of the Moon”. But others, “The Nest of the Wild Stones” for instance, or “Circle of the Monoliths” were often quite straightforward representations of the fossils he collected linked with his fascination for Avebury. Many of the more famous surreal pictures, such as “Equivalent for the Megaliths” or “Objects in Relation”, look to me like Henry Moore sculptures transplanted into the sort of landscape he had been painting since before the First World War. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition was called
“Forest”; it consisted of the wooden hand shapes that were used to stretch gloves which had been cut up and glued to a board in a way that suggested trees. These hand trees then reappeared in a painting called “Wood on the Hill”, but the wood itself was another iteration of Wittenham Clumps, which he had been painting since 1913, and which would reappear in paintings from the last years of his life.
There is, in other words, too much of the art he produced before and during the First World War, and that would recur in non-surrealist paintings such as “Totes Meer”, for these paintings to feel wholly and wholeheartedly surrealist. But then, it is the tension between all the different things he was doing that makes Paul Nash perhaps the most interesting of British artists.