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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Paul Nash

Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1940-41, Paul Nash                                       
War is ugly. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, or any artist who tries to depict beauty in the organized chaos of mortal combat is a liar. War is the very antithesis of art. Art is creative; war is destructive. War has a tendency to anesthetize to human suffering those who fight. It fundamentally changes who they are. Even those who survive its horrors find something has died within them. As the "war to end all wars" (WW I) demonstrated, war does not solve problems. It simply changes them, postpones them, multiplies them, and intensifies them as it leads to the next war. As surely as WW I led to WW II and that war led to two generations of "cold war" in Europe, and Korea in the Pacific, we have seen and, in fact, ARE seeing, the same thing happening in the Middle East today. Perhaps because artists tend to be more sensitive to the world around them than most people, they are also more vulnerable to the terrors of war. The British war artist, Paul Nash, is a near perfect example. Thank God we no longer send artists to war to paint such horrors for public consumption after the fighting is done. Today, they "paint" movies like American Sniper (bottom).
Paul Nash, 1940--another war to paint.
Paul Nash was born in 1889, the son of a London Barrister (lawyer). Young Paul grew up in West London until the age of thirteen. In 1902, Paul's mother began showing signs of mental illness so the family moved to Iver Heath, a far western suburb of London not far from Windsor Castle. She died eight years later in a mental institution. By that time Paul Nash was off to become a naval office like his grandfather, but even after remedial training, he could not pass the entrance exam. So, he returned to what we Americans would call high school where he began to consider becoming an artist. He began taking classes at Chelsea Polytechnic and later studied photo engraving and lithography while also dabbling in poetry and writing plays. Eventually he enrolled in the Slade School of Art where, stacked up against fellow students such as Ben Nicholson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, Dora Carrington, Christopher R. W. Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth, he found himself struggling just to be mediocre. He left after just one year.
Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917,
 1918 , Paul Nash
Even after having quit art school, Nash did not give up becoming an artist, and in fact, had two shows in 1914 while continuing to paint watercolor landscapes of areas around London. That same year, shortly after the start of WW I, Nash enlisted as a private in the home service of the Second Battalion, the Artists' Rifles. Nash's duties included guard duty at the Tower of London. This allowed him time to continue drawing and painting. Also in 1914, Nash married an Oxford-educated women's suffragette. Shortly thereafter he began training and was sent to the Western Front as a Second Lieutenant. On the night of May 25th, 1917, Nash had a unfortunate/fortunate accident. He fell into a trench, breaking a rib. He was sent back to London to recuperate. A few days later, his former unit was all but wiped out by a German assault.
The Ypres Salient at Night, 1918, Paul Nash
Not your typical post-war
While recovering from his injury, Nash began using drawings he'd made on the front to create paintings, mostly emphasizing the springtime recovery of the war torn landscape he'd seen. His Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood , 1917 (above, left), painted in 1918, accompanied by twenty pen and ink-watercolor drawings were exhibited in several prestigious London galleries, their critical acclaim eventually leading Nash's to apply for an assignment as an official war artist. While preparing to return to combat, Nash received word he'd been accepted. He would be going back to the front, but not to shoot and kill. This time he would have an assistant (called a "batman" for some odd reason), a car, and a chauffeur. Though still often under fire, Nash was far more outraged by what the war was doing to the land as by the fighting itself. His letter to his wife (here edited somewhat) captures in words what his paintings later sought to portray:

"We all have a vague notion of the terrors of a battle, and can conjure up with the aid of some of the more inspired war correspondents and the pictures in the Daily Mirror some vision of battlefield; but no pen or drawing can convey this country--the normal setting of the battles taking place day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God's hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all though the bitter black night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. 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 for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls."

No Man's Land, 1918, Paul Nash
Upon returning to London after but six weeks on the front, Nash worked day and night to prepare for a one-man show in May of 1918.  He called the show "Fifty Drawings of Muddy Places." Even before the show opened, Nash was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee, to paint a battlefield scene for the Hall of Remembrance project. He choose to depict a section of the Ypres Salient which had been devastated during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge. Once his work for the "Void of War" exhibition was complete in June 1918, Nash began work on a huge canvas, called The Menin Road (below), which was almost sixty square foot in size, completing the piece some nine months later. The painting depicts a maze of flooded trenches and shell craters while tree stumps, devoid of any foliage, point toward a sky full of clouds and plumes of smoke bisected by shafts of sunlight resembling gun barrels. Two soldiers at the center of the picture attempt to follow the now unrecognizable road but see to be trapped by the landscape.
The Menin Road, 1919, Paul Nash
After the war, not without good reason, Nash began to suffer from what was then called "shell shock," today known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Fortunately, Nash had his art to aid in recovering his mental health. He retreated to the peaceful southeastern coast of England where he painted landscapes and seascapes, gradually turning toward Surrealism. During the 1920s and 30s, Nash gained no small amount of success and recognition for himself and his work. When yet another world war arrived, much of it this time fought in the skies over England, Nash was appointed by the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC) and attached to the RAF. Nash produced two series of watercolors, "Raiders and Aerial Creatures" and "Marching Against England," which was a series of crashed German aircraft set in English rural landscapes with titles such as Bomber in the Corn, and The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park (below).
The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park, Paul Nash, 1940
Nash's relationship with the WAAC was a stormy one, both because of his expressionistic style and the fact he was not a portrait painter, which at the time was a major part of a wartime artists job--glorifying officers in uniform. In fact, only the intercession of WAAC chairman, Kenneth Clark, kept him from being fired. Throughout the remainder of the war, Nash worked for the WAAC only intermittently, painting works in watercolor such as The Battle of Britain (below), from 1941, and Totes Meer (German for Dead Sea, top), which featured a sea of destroyed German aircraft. Paul Nash died in his sleep about a year after the war in Europe ended, from a heart attack brought on by a life-long affliction with asthma.

The Battle of Britain, 1941, Paul Nash

The work of war time artists today:


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