Two key paintings from the 1930s by Paul Nash are currently part of a major survey of the artist at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich until 20th August 2017, before the exhibition, first shown to huge acclaim at Tate Britain, moves to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.
downthetubes readers will recall the work of this acclaimed war artist forms the basis of Dave McKean‘s multimedia project Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash, published as a limited edition graphic novel by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival and by Dark Horse for the mass market.
Paul Nash witnessed radical development and change in British and international art during the early to mid-20th century decades. The paintings, works on paper, photographs and objects featured in this major exhibition of his work show Nash’s engagement in some of the prevailing art movements of the period – modernism, abstraction and Surrealism.
The Government Art Collection has loaned Nest of the Siren (1930) and Event on the Downs (1934) to the exhibition. Both paintings are rich in symbolism and aspects of the natural world – enduring themes of Nash’s work.
“Room and Book”, a section of the show dedicated to his still life and dream-like interiors, illustrates the extent that Nash regarded architectural, set and book design on equal par to painting and sculpture.
An enigmatic still life, Nest of the Siren suggests themes of temptation and unrequited desire. Its title echoes the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, those famous sea goddesses who lured sailors onto rocks with their captivating song. Nash’s interest in this subject was primarily inspired by a visit to Caen in 1928 and by contemporary Metaphysical and Surrealist paintings that he saw while living in France in the 1920s.
The focus of Nest of the Siren is a mysterious window space concealing in darkness what lies beyond. A plant, possibly a laurel bush, fills the space. Inside it is an empty nest. Foliage entwines around a number of plant-training strings that resemble bars in the window. In front of the plant stands “the siren” – a figure composed of a female head and a bird’s body that was apparently based on a decorative wooden figure on a huxter’s cart that Nash saw in Caen. Next to the figure is an egg-like form, a universal symbol of fertility, on which two crosses are overlaid. The mystery of this painting is heightened by the tension created between an association with fertility and the presence of the empty nest.
Throughout his life, Nash was increasingly drawn to the idea that inanimate objects, whether man-made or naturally found, had an innate life of their own. When brought together with other unrelated objects, they created a new, mesmerising image or sense of place.
Event on the Downs, painted four years late in 1934, is one of several paintings that features Nash’s invented “objects-personages”. In the early 1930s, he started collecting natural objects such as stones and pieces of wood, examples of which often featured in his works, for instance, his drawing Group for a Sculptor (1931, Henry Moore Family Collection), that depicts leaves, bark, seeds next to a tennis ball.
In 1934, he formulated a more overt reference to the natural world after his discovery of a large piece of driftwood on the bank of the river Rother near Rye in Sussex. He joined another piece of wood lying nearby on to this, to create Marsh Personage, an object he later acknowledged as a key inspiration for many of his paintings.
In Event on the Downs a tree stump (closely resembling Marsh Personage), a tennis ball and a cloud ‘meet’ in a coastal landscape, an area based on Ballard Down, near Swanage in Dorset, where Nash and his wife, Margaret (née Theodosia) lived from late 1934 to early 1935.
Research of this painting undertaken and published in 1989 in Burlington Magazine by Mary Beal, formerly a curator at the GAC, examined the Nashs’ close interest in Chinese art and philosophy. Beal suggests that the tennis ball is an equivalent for the yin-yang symbol. Its black (active, masculine) part, subtly indicated in the painting by a shadow, was believed to activate the body in life along with the white (passive, feminine) part.
At the moment of death, the two were thought to separate. Nash’s painting illustrates this moment – the cloud, the “masculine” element rises into the sky, while the tree stump, the ‘feminine’ element remains on the earth. Like yin and yang, the stump and the cloud echo each other in shape.
Event on the Downs encapsulates Nash’s acuity to death and mortality, enhanced particularly by two significant personal experiences. During World War One, he served with the Artists’ Rifles at Ypres in Belgium, his experiences recounted in Black Dog.
Having witnessed at close hand the violence of war on people and the landscape, both the psychological experience and the physical effects of gassing that he suffered during the conflict, remained with him for the rest of his life. Coupled with this was the deeply moving impact of the death of his father, William Harry Nash, in 1929.
• Paul Nash Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ runs until 20th August. Web:
• After the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts the exhibition continues to the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (9 September 2017—end of January 2018). Web: laingartgallery.org.uk