September 01, 2010

Landscapes of the Surreal

Alexandra Szydlowska on an exhibition of paintings by Paul Nash, earlier this year.

I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country ... It is unspeakable ... I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger...- Paul Nash (1889-1946) writing to his wife from the Western Front, 16 November 1917

25 May 1917 was a turning point in Paul Nash’s life which saw the reluctant second lieutenant return irrevocably back to his original calling. While serving in the trenches at the Ypres Salient, the 27-year old junior officer tripped and fell in the middle of the night, breaking a rib and guaranteeing safe passage back home. Six months later he was back at the Front, this time as an official war artist for Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau. His sketches of the war-torn landscapes of Zillebeche and Vimy culminated in his first ever set of oil paintings, among them the iconic We Are Making a New World.

We are making a new world

As a modest studio artist before the war, Nash had been limited in scope and vision, imitating the Pre-Raphaelites and traditional British landscape painters. As a war artist, however, he was forceful and indignant, his paintings suffused with a technical mastery which seemed to thrive in balancing rage with melancholic ruin. A letter to his wife in 1917 reveals the sense of artistic purpose which trench-life renewed in Nash: “I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”

By the mid-1930s Nash had begun to branch out into modes of avant-garde and modernist art. In 1936 he became one of Britain’s earliest champions of surrealism, pioneering the form as a member of the British Surrealist Group, whose first exhibition opened in Paris in 1936 and included artists such as David Gascoyne and Roland Penrose.

Landscape from a dream

Landscape from a Dream remains one of Nash’s most notable works from that period. Set on the coastal line of Dorset, Landscape from a Dream blends a rich history of British landscape painting with elements of surrealism, the two styles streamlined to present an allegory to be interpreted along the lines of William Blake’s poetry. As with many of Nash’s surrealist-style paintings, a portal is opened into the unconscious world which reflects ordinary life back to the viewer, albeit in a skewed way. In the case of Landscape from a Dream, the material world is reflected in the predatory bird which perceives freedom within the red skies framed before it but cannot pass through to that vision.

The exhibition earlier this year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London attempted to present Paul Nash’s work in context by showcasing his works according to the theme of ‘elements’ – be they in conflict, harmony or refuge. While many would argue that Nash’s work resists such categorical thinking, the exhibition did show the creative process by which Nash framed objects of personal relevance against a surrealist backdrop. He was captivated by the familiar and overlooked features of everyday life: a particular tree in the back garden, perhaps, or a pattern of cumulus cloud in the sky. He then inserted these domestic elements into strange and uncanny landscapes where they gained what Nash described as a relationship of ‘equivalence’ within their surroundings, with each element playing a crucial part in what can best be described as an enigmatic visual drama.

Event on the Downs

One example of this method is in Event on the Downs, which depicts the view from Nash’s Dorset farmhouse. In this painting three of the artist’s common motifs – a tree stump, tennis ball and a cloud – hang suspended against a placid English landscape of rolling hills and chalky cliffs, displayed in strange proportions and hiding a seemingly obscure narrative taking place far from the 'real' setting.

Yet on closer scrutiny the three objects are in fact closely related, with the corresponding shapes of the cloud and stump echoing the yin-yang symbol half contained within the tennis ball. Only after the viewer has exhausted themselves in unlocking the various clues left behind by the artist, does the painting suggest that heaven and earth are balanced in harmony – and this, at least for Nash, seems to be the point of surrealism. After war has reduced landscape art to stark images of bloody skies and burn out trees, surrealism with its subtlety of form and mysterious symbols remains an obvious form of revolt.

Paul Nash: The Elements showed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in Feb-May this year.

Further reading

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Tate Collection

Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landscape from a Dream

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