In the years following the First World War, Paul Nash (1892–1946) struggled to recover from the stress which the war had imposed.
Cotswold Hills (c 1920) shows a view of the rolling countryside of the Cotswolds, near the family home in Buckinghamshire. Although it breaks from the military regularity and desolation of his war paintings, the shafts of sunlight are worryingly reminiscent of those in his Menin Road of just a couple of years before.
The Nash family moved to Dymchurch, on the south coast of Kent, to help Paul get over the war and its inevitable mental wounds. In the early 1920s he concentrated on motifs which he found along that stretch of the Kent coast, produced a volume of wood engravings (Places, 1922), and started to paint some floral still lifes.
Eventually Nash was able to free himself more from his war images. Berkshire Downs (1922) shows his return to more conventional landscapes, here seen in the autumn, probably when he was visiting his father in his home at Iver.
Granary (1922-23) has a more exotic look to it, with the trees appearing more like palms, although it shows a small farm pond somewhere in the Home Counties in south-east England. His brushstrokes in the foliage of the central trees may have been influenced by Cézanne’s ‘constructive’ brushstrokes, which were prominent in Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist concepts at the time.
The Shore (1923) is one of the many strongly geometrical paintings and prints which Nash made of the south Kent seafront and coastal defences. The stark straight lines of concrete divide the canvas up into a series of flat planes; even the sea, caught in a moment of calm, forms a plane.
In 1924 and 1925, Nash taught part-time at the Royal College of Art in London. Among his students there were Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, who were both greatly influenced by Nash’s work. He enjoyed some commercial success in his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London, which generated sufficient income for the Nashes to overwinter on the Mediterranean coast of France, and visit Florence and Pisa.
Later in 1925, he moved west and inland to the village of Iden, near the Romney Marshes in East Sussex, which became the focus of his paintings in the later 1920s.
St Pancras Lilies (1927) is one of a series of combined floral still lifes with views of the strongly geometric facade of Saint Pancras railway station in London. Nash’s choice of flower is curious, and probably to deliberately merge the white of the lilies with the pale stone and windows of the building, to bring their images together rather than make them contrast. Other paintings used more abstract grid effects as well.
Oxenbridge Pond (1927-28) is one of Nash’s last conventional landscape paintings, and I think one of his best. It shows a pond at Oxenbridge Farmhouse, Iden, not far from his home. Patterns of brushstrokes are assembled into the textures of foliage, ivy covering a tree-trunk, even the lichens and moss on the trunk closest to the viewer, at the right edge.
The mirror-like reflection on the water’s surface makes a contrast, although Nash does not appear to have been concerned with the optical fidelity of the reflected image. Like Cézanne, he painted what he saw in his mind, not from the laws of optics.
Towards the end of the 1920s, Nash became more experimental in his painting, incorporating more abstract elements, and showing signs of surrealism.
About a year later, Landscape at Iden (1929) shows the transformation which had taken place in Nash’s landscapes. This is also a view of Iden, that from his studio. The barren fruit trees are a reminder of his Cherry Orchard from twelve years earlier. They are set in the middle of an odd, faintly surrealist, collection of objects.
A pile of logs for firewood looks as if it has reversed perspective and great foreshortening of the logs. The grass forms a flat plane, uniform in colour and devoid of texture. Two purposeless panels frame the view and exaggerate the perspective, while in the distance is a bank of hills which look almost flat. In the middle of the foreground, a smooth woodbasket containing logs looks completely out of place.
Nash’s Lares (1929-30) takes this geometric abstraction even further. Its title refers to the Roman protective deities most characteristically associated with roads and crossroads, but often confounded with household deities associated with the hearth. The painting is based on Nash’s fireplace, within which flames have been represented as thin upward zig-zags. Upward-pointing triangles of the fire are associated with drawing instruments (a T-square and set-square) in the foreground, which would otherwise be completely out of place.
Nash saw the work of Giorgio de Chirico at the first exhibition of his work in London in 1928, and this probably motivated him towards this type of surreal composition.
In 1929, following his father’s death, the Nashes moved from the village of Iden to nearby Rye. The following year, Paul started writing for The Listener magazine, which had a reputation for highbrow art criticism and was widely respected. Nash was not only becoming a practical pioneer of modernism, but was helping to shape opinion of it.
In his overtly surrealist painting Nest of the Siren (1930), Nash again brings the incongruous together. The painting is framed by brightly-painted walls with pillared decorations, perhaps ornate wainscot panelling. In the middle of these is what might be a painting, but also seems to be a three-dimensional plant trough containing sinuous shrubs. In the middle of those is a small nest, like an acorn cup.
Standing in front of this is a structure resembling a weather-vane, mounted on a turned wooden shaft. At the weather end of the vane is a faceless figure of a Siren; the leeward end appears purely decorative. Three red rods appear to have detached themselves from the walling, two protruding from the plant trough, the third resting on the floor.
In a decade, Nash’s art had come a very long way.
There is still just time, if you are in or near London, to catch the last few days of the exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, which closes on 5 March 2017. Sadly it is not planned to move on to another location, but the Tate has the largest single collection of his work.
Wikipedia – an excellent and detailed account.
Chambers, Emma (ed) (2016) Paul Nash, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 84976 491 9.