How serious were the British about Modern art? When the first Post-Impressionist exhibition arrived in London in 1910, students at the Slade School of Art were banned from attending, for fear it would corrupt them, although of course they sneaked in anyway. This attitude was common in the first half of the twentieth century. As late as 1949, the President of the Royal Academy, Alfred Munnings, recalled – in a broadcast heard by millions – Winston Churchill once saying to him, “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?”, to which Munnings replied: “Yes, Sir, I would!”
The gulf between avant-garde and traditional art is epitomised in the work of Paul Nash (1889-1946), whose career is considered in this new show at Tate Britain.
Nash is probably best known as a war artist. Like many young men during the First World War, he’d been enthusiastic at the start: “I’m as excited as a schoolboy”, he wrote home, adding that the countryside of France was “not unlike Sussex”. Both Nash and the landscape soon changed. Appointed an Official War Artist, he gave his painting of the shell-cratered battlefield a bitterly ironic title, “We Are Making a New World” (1918). Nash wrote: “Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls”.
Nash’s career may have been book-ended by the two World Wars, but this show rightly concentrates on the intervening period, when his most important work, mainly landscapes, was done. It places him at the forefront of progressive art in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933 he established a modernist group called Unit One, which included like-minded artists such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Later, Nash was a leading light in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936.
Nash was a born Surrealist. Always highly suggestible, as a child he’d been kept awake by far-off galloping sounds. “It’s the rats”, the maid whispered to him, “they’re hunting; have you heard their horns?” He loved weird juxtapositions. The series he called “Monster Field” (1938), inspired by the sight of trees blasted by lightning, shows his fascination with the uncanny. He added them to his stock of motifs: ancient stones, strange found objects, crescent moons, and mist-shrouded Iron Age hill forts, “the Pyramids of my small world”.
“The landscape, as a scene, ceased to be absorbing”, he wrote: “some drama of beings, after all, seemed necessary”. These are landscapes of the mind, or, as Nash put it, of genius loci (the Spirit of Place). Although he sought inspiration from Continental artists such as Picasso and de Chirico, he also looked at sources much closer to home: the painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and earlier Romantic artists like William Blake and Samuel Palmer. The influence of this traditional British art can be seen in his student drawings, long before his exposure to Modern art.
Within a year of “Monster Field”, real aerial creatures were stalking the land, in the form of Hitler’s air force, the Luftwaffe. Attached to the Air Ministry, Nash made sketches at the vast dump of downed enemy planes outside Oxford. In the resulting painting, “Totes Meer” (Dead Sea, 1940-1), one of his most successful works, Nash transforms the wreckage into a great wave of tangled metal. Set in a moonlit landscape, an owl glides over the scene, as if reasserting his territory in defiance of the intruders.
Frequently prostrated by asthma, by the end of the war Nash was a sick man, dying aged only 57 in 1946. The last room is devoted his final project, a series of paintings chronicling the changing seasons. They show Nash at his most visionary, but also most misunderstood. When one of them, “Landscape of the Vernal Equinox” (1943), was bought by the then Queen Elizabeth, her daughter Princess Margaret exclaimed: “Poor Mummy’s gone mad. Look what’s she’s brought back!”
This comprehensive survey, showcasing over 200 works, covers Nash’s output of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, ‘installations’ and other objects. He emerges as more responsive to modernism than most of his contemporaries, though still unmistakably a British artist. The reactions of Winston Churchill and Princess Margaret were more typical. After all, there’s only so much Modern art a chap can take.