Paul Nash’s devastating war paintings have only one real equal: Picasso’s Guernica, says Waldemar Januszczak
There is, of course, the slim chance that Nash, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Goya, Picasso, Gauguin and all the other fierce pacifists of art were wrong about war and Blair is right. When the chronicles of humanity reach their final page, it could be that Blair v Goya or Blair v Picasso would end in a big Blair victory. But somehow I don’t see it. Paul Nash, the greatest war artist this country has ever produced, saw absolutely clearly what politicians and spinmeisters lose sight of as soon as the chauffeur-driven Jag turns up at their door: which is that life is holy and that no government in any situation ever has the right to waste it.
Anyway, enough of this naivety and impracticality. Let us re-adopt the sensible modern exhibition-strolling mode, dismiss the emotive flounderings of those eminent war artists, wipe the tears from our eyes, and re-begin our admiration of Paul Nash with our wits about us.
Nash was the son of a barrister, born in 1889 in Kensington, of all places. His family had plenty of country connections, though, and young Paul spent enough weekends and holidays away from the smoke to know which side of the modern household coin he preferred. Being born in the city, he valued the landscape more actively than most country folk do. There is so much eagerness in his first landscapes. He had a thing about trees. Each tree, he insists, in one of the extremely helpful boxes of information dotted about the show, is as obvious an individual as any human. Botanically incorrect, no doubt, it’s an extremely helpful viewpoint from which to draw elms. In large, bold watercolours, Nash’s elms grow into strange and distinctive triffids, billowing up and out into amazing umbrella silhouettes.
Scientists will balk at his outrageous anthropomorphism, but it led to exciting art and some of the most interesting trees you will ever see.
Also worth noting in the opening room, and throughout, is the telling absence of humans. Gesturing stick-people pop up here and there to give an image scale or a sense of mystery, but they are rare. In general, Nash keeps us out of his pictures and lets the natural world do all the emoting. This absence of humans casts a curious shadow of privacy across the whole show and gives you the feeling that Nash and nature are lovers enjoying a secret tryst, and that the rest of us shouldn’t be there. I’ve been making a film about Van Gogh and he too went into these kinds of private ecstasies before nature. The sensations he captured are almost sexual. The ecstatic rushes of feeling conveyed in Nash’s landscapes certainly have an orgasmic quality, too.
While the exciting opening gallery teaches you how to look at English nature, the war room that follows beats you up and devastates you. Nash enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in December 1914 and was sent to the front at Ypres. Invalided out after he fell into a trench, he returned as an official war artist just in time to record the aftermath of Passchendaele, at which 310,000 British casualties were counted. Nash, in his second greatest picture, the huge view of The Menin Road, painted in 1919, the Imperial War Museum’s most definitive possession, doesn’t show a single one of them, yet he achieves an image of the conflict so horribly visceral that it dumps you trembling at the front line.
It’s the absence of people — of corpses — that is once again his masterstroke. If you look closely, there are a few scampering soldiers discernible among the bomb craters, but they’re tiny. All the big feelings here are conveyed by the dead mud, the broken trees, the smashed machinery, the squalid pools of grey water, the frozen explosions, the aggressive arc lights cutting the sky to shreds. Something mightier than any human corpse has been killed here: hope.
English painting may not have contributed much that is crucial to the history of 20th-century art, but in Nash’s depictions of the obscenity of war it has only one real equal, and that is Picasso’s Guernica. That’s how important The Menin Road is. Yet, remarkably, one world war later, Nash went on to better it.
There was, at least, a decent interlude. In 1920, he holidayed in the dank-looking Kentish seaside resort of Dymchurch and produced a memorable series of empty coastal landscapes, in which two types of harshness, nature’s and man’s, are simultaneously admired. Later in the 1920s and, alas, for most of the 1930s, he took up surrealism and was very bad at it. He could do implicit so brilliantly, yet insisted, in terrible picture after terrible picture, in attempting to be surrealistically explicit. Thus a giant peregrine falcon comes across a full-size mirror propped up on a coastal headland and stops to stare into it meaningfully, as if amazed by his own powers of flight. Ouch.
This clunky surrealism is so bad that it makes his superior response to the second world war even more remarkable. He was once again made an official war artist, the only such artist to serve in both world wars, and like a great boxer with one winning effort left in him, Nash roused himself splendidly for the final round. This time it was the battle in the skies that fascinated him, and he produced a spooky series of English horizons crisscrossed by vapour trails and explosion clouds, as British guns and German planes played noughts and crosses in the heavens. In 1941, he painted his most memorable war image, Totes Meer, a metal sea of broken enemy planes, washed up on an English beach, in which the scattered insignia of the Luftwaffe, black crosses on white backgrounds, stand in for the tombstones in a graveyard.
There isn’t as much raw horror in Nash’s second stab at being a war artist. He’s been there and done that, and this time is cool enough to observe a mad and im-moral beauty in the crisscrossing vapour trails and the multicoloured airbound explosions. Two different wars. Two types of indictment. A rare career. A great show.