Paul Nash – Tate Britain

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 During his lifetime, artist Paul Nash (1889-1946) worked in a variety of media, for example, in theatre set design and photography. But it is his landscape paintings that endure. Dreaming Trees is the theme of the opening gallery of the Paul Nash exhibition, current at Tate Britain, evoking dichotomies of material and spiritual, reality, myth and metaphor. In the painting, Mackerel Sky (1917), the speckled sky above the countryside suggests the atmosphere in conversation with the vegetation, a narrative that runs through all of the artist’s work.

In Places, we see depictions of the places in which Nash spent his formative years. The building in Blue House on the Shore has an anthropomorphic quality, almost like a solitary human on the cliff. By the 1920’s, this anthropomorphism was manifesting as surrealism, in the mode of Giorgio de Chirico. In Night Tide (1922), we see the formations of triangular waves lashing the shore, almost as if the sea was attacking the land. Nash was not just about the sinister and disquieting, however.


Paul Nash
Equivalents for the Megaliths 1935
Oil on canvas
support: 457 x 660 mm frame: 627 x 835 x 80 mm

Behind the Inn is a charming evocation of an autumnal morning in the countryside, alongside sister painting, Berkshire Downs (both 1922). In the Room and Book gallery – see Convolvulus (1930) and Kinetic Feature (1931), are images inspired by book design. But Nash returned to his depictions of natural rather than man-made forms, investing them with a curious blend of mysticism and materiality – see Wood Fetish (1934), a rendering in paint of a simple piece of driftwood.

In the Unseen Landscape gallery,  Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) is Nash’s response to encountering the Avebury landscapes, in which mysterious geometric objects stand in place of the monoliths. Landscape from a Dream (1936) has the same sense of mystery, with its series of windows and large mirror reflecting an anthropomorphic eagle and orb, all in the unlikely setting of a cliff top.

In the Whittenham Clumps gallery, we see paintings from the 1940’s. By now, colour was flooding into the artist’s works, in contrast to his more vapid hues of earlier years, but he still painted images evoking the inherent spirituality of natural forms. Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1944) is at one level a study of the colours of the sky and the effects upon the landscape. But it is also an exploration of the mystic presences of the sun and of the moon. In November Moon (1942), we see a type of visual poetry known as equivalence, with the juxtaposition of the moon and mushroom being as much about word play as paralleling imagery. In the disquieting Landscape of the Brown Fungus (1943), the artist has placed giant mushrooms alongside of natural trees.

But nothing is ever truly natural in a Nash painting, and this exhibition is not free of the eerie undercurrents that abound in his works. In Landscape of the Moon’s Last Place (1944), paint is streaked about the hill that sits at the centre, like a giant oyster in the middle of a bombé of coloured trees, an unsettling sky of blue, pink and red, overhead. In Flight of the Magnolia, soft white and brown petals of the flower float in a pink sky, over a serene and pastel sea.

This exhibition is a must for Nash aficionados, with the opportunity to see Totes Meer (Dead Sea, 1941), a sea composed of the components of crashed planes. It is open until March 5, 2017.

(© Mary Phelan, 2016)







About Mary Phelan

I am an art historian, magazine editor and design philosopher. In addition to editing Artyonline, I have my own website, and write a blog, Design Victim, on the pain and pleasure of encountering designed objects in modern life. Readers can also follow my latest Hub Pages article that provides directions on how to create Ray Lichtenstein-type images using computer drawing software.