The work of the English artist Paul Nash (1889–1946) — one of the most important landscape artists of the twentieth century — entered the public domain this year in many countries around the world. His depictions of the destroyed and broken landscapes of World War One provided inspiration for Dave McKean‘s stunning multimedia show Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash, which is still on tour and still available as a graphic novel published by Dark Horse.
Black Dog was co-commissioned by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, On a Marche sur la Bulle and 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the World War One centenary, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Dave has given numerous performances of the show (including a sell-out performance at Tate Britain) since its Kendal premiere, most recently at the Toronto Comic Art Festival last month.
The next performance will be at the Derby Book Festival on Saturday 17th June, at The Quad, as a closing event.
The Public Domain Review has recently posted a number of Nash’s works online, including work he crated during World War Two.
Nash spent the few years preceding the war studying art in London — including a curtailed stint at the Slade, with Ben Nicholson and Dora Carrington among others — followed by a few exhibitions, on occasion with his also very talented brother John. With the outbreak of World War One Nash enlisted, albeit reluctantly, as a private for home service in the Second Battalion, a position which allowed him time to continue making art without too much interruption.
In the summer of 1916, however, Nash began officer training and by February the following year was on the Western Front at the Ypres Salient as a second lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment. A relatively quiet few months in the region spared him the full intensity of the Front, before he had to be airlifted back to London an invalid after falling into a trench. A few days later, in an assault on their position known as Hill 60, most of his unit was killed.
While recuperating for his injuries, Nash produced a series of drawings, working from sketches made at the Front, and exhibited them in June to a positive reception. Encouraged by the response he successfully applied to become an official war artist, and in November 1917 returned to the Ypres Salient as a uniformed observer complete with batman and driver. After six weeks at the Front, working at a frantic pace and taking frequent risks to get as close as possible to the action, Nash emerged with what he described as “fifty drawings of muddy places”. Over the next years he would use these drawings to create many of the iconic paintings featured below.
The interwar period saw Nash continue to push boundaries with his work, taking it into ever more surreal and experimental realms — his “love of the monstrous and magical”, as he described it, leading him “beyond the confines of natural appearances into unreal worlds”.
With the outbreak of World War Two the War Artists’ Advisory Committee appointed Nash as a full-time salaried war artist post attached to the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry. The works he produced, not without controversy, would become ever-more abstract, culminating in his final piece for the WAAC entitled Battle of Germany in September 1944.
Eighteen months later, on 11 July 1946, he died in his sleep from heart failure brought on by the severity of his long-term asthma.
Dave McKean’s Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash is both a multimedia performance and graphic novel which explores the work of Paul Nash, combining visual storytelling, a captivating musical score and spoken word performance. Musical collaborators performing include Matthew Sharp, solo cellist, baritone and actor and violin player Clare Haythornthwaite.
The project explores Paul Nash’s role in the birth of modernism and surrealism, “and how those movements were actually witnessed by Nash in the dream-/nightmare-like battlefields of the war,” says Dave, an acclaimed illustrator, filmmaker and musician. “He used the landscape that he loved to try to deal with what he’d been through, and to try and find calm and solace beyond.
“The project is called Black Dog for a number of reasons,” he explains in a post about the project on his web site. “Nash painted psychological landscapes, dreamscapes that reflect our inner lives and emotions. His first childhood dream, recounted in his autobiography ‘Outline’, was of being trapped in a claustrophobic tunnel and encountering a black dog that leads him to safety.
“This strange shadowy companion, who stayed with Nash as he grew up, appeared to represent a number of things; the anxiety of a solitary and imaginative child, the darkness of war approaching, and most clearly, the depression of Nash’s mother that became more and more a part of their home life as her condition deteriorated.
• Dave McKean’s official site is at: www.davemckean.com
• The 14-18 NOW site has a dedicated page for Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash where performances are posted and there’s more about the project here on the Lakes International Comic Art Festival site