Your Collection Around the World: Dymchurch Steps and Solstice of the Sunflower by Paul Nash

Paul Nash, Battle of Germany, 1944, oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London. © Tate

Now on view at Tate Britain in London, Paul Nash is the most comprehensive exhibition of Nash’s work in a generation. In addition to featuring two paintings from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) collection, the show includes more than 270 paintings, drawings, photographs, illustrations, assemblages and more, exploring the legacy of one of the 20th century’s most distinctive war artists and Surrealists. 

A founding member of Britain’s Modernist art movement, Unit One, Nash was a complex figure. Although lionized by artists and art critics, particularly in later years, his appeal to general audiences was more fraught, and he often struggled for mainstream acceptance. 

Born in London, Nash spent his childhood and youth in rural Buckinghamshire, where he developed an abiding love of nature. Enrolling in the Slade School of Art in London in 1910, he was a somewhat indifferent student, once commenting of his drawing professor: “It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, were likely to derive much benefit.”

Nash only lasted a year at the school, but by 1912 he was already exhibiting moody Symbolist drawings and watercolours. By the summer of 1914, he was enjoying a certain amount of success as an artist. Unfortunately, the world was about to change.

On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and Europe soon found itself at war. In September of that year, Nash enlisted in a London-based rifle regiment, and was posted to the Tower of London, which gave him plenty of free time to draw and paint. He also married Margaret Odeh, an Oxford scholar and a suffragist, that December.

Paul Nash, Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, 1918, oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London. © Tate

In 1916 he reluctantly began officer training, and in February 1917, he was sent to the Western Front. Nash initially commented that he was pleased to see the spring landscape recovering from the devastation of war. Sent home in June, after injuring himself by falling into a trench, he narrowly missed the decimation of his former unit in battle — an experience that would continue to haunt him.

In November 1917, Nash returned to the Front as a uniformed observer. Under constant shellfire, and disheartened this time by the destruction of nature all around him, Nash grew angry and disillusioned. It was an anger that drove him creatively, however, and within six weeks he had produced fifty drawings.

Returning to England, he began turning his drawings into paintings and prints. The works were highly stylized, expressing the horror of war through landscapes that looked like a tangle of broken bones, overseen by a cold and brittle sun. War censors thought Nash was making a joke at the public’s expense; critics and fellow artists, however, applauded him for depicting nature as an innocent victim of war.

Although other artists of the time also interpreted the war in allegorical terms, Nash stood out. “What was unusual in Nash,” Emma Chambers — exhibition curator and Tate Britain Curator of Modern Art — told NGC Magazine, “was the way he was able to distill the landscape of war into powerful simple forms that moved it away from the documentary towards the universal and symbolic. This is particularly evident in his two most important war works: We Are Making a New World (1918) and Totes Meer (1940–1941).”

Following the war, Nash continued to work as an artist in various media, including woodcut and illustration, but struggled to make ends meet. Never particularly resilient, he was also afflicted with a form of post-traumatic stress, and collapsed both mentally and physically in 1921. He and Margaret moved to Dymchurch, which is the subject of one of the NGC works on display in the exhibition.

Paul Nash, Dymchurch Steps, 1924, reworked 1944, oil on canvas. NGC. Gift of the Massey Collection of English Painting, 1946
Although reworked in 1944, Nash had more or less completed Dymchurch Steps (1944) twenty years earlier. “Dymchurch Steps,” says Chambers, “is one of the most important works for understanding the beginnings of Nash’s interest in the metaphysical possibilities of architecture, and is among the earliest of a group of works which place a substantial architectural object having an uncompromising and mysterious presence in the centre of a landscape composition.” 

Broken into stark and almost eccentric planes that collide and overlap, Dymchurch Steps looks more like the effects of a receding tide than a series of steps. The bleak landscape of dykes, breakwaters and a seven-kilometre Roman wall appealed immensely to Nash, and he drew and painted the vista dozens of times — although rarely to such evocative effect as in this particular work.

By the 1930s, Nash was displaying a more abstract and surreal style. “I probably find his Surrealist works of the 1930s the most interesting,” says Chambers, “particularly those that use found objects. Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935), for example, was painted when Nash was thinking about the relationship of his work to abstraction. Wishing to avoid complete abstraction, he created ‘equivalents’ for the standing stones, using small geometric objects from his studio. By replacing the stones with geometric equivalents, Nash also created a disparity between landscape setting and abstract object, creating a fresh encounter with these familiar but mysterious objects, while allowing the viewer to experience their incongruity as if for the first time.”

Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935, oil on canvas. © Tate

Moving from Wiltshire back to the seaside in the mid-1930s to improve his health, Nash expanded his repertoire yet again, making assemblages and producing objet trouvé works such as Marsh Personage (1936) — now lost — which was a simple piece of driftwood that Nash had likened to a Henry Moore sculpture. “This was his first sculptural work,” says Chambers, “and is really important, as it represents the start of his ideas about the life of the inanimate object.”

At the outset of the Second World War in 1939, Nash was made a full-time war artist by Britain’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee. His work, however, presented a challenge to at least one representative of the Royal Air Force, who had expected Nash to produce straightforward portraits of aircrew and pilots. Instead, Nash painted surreal canvases with looping vapour trails, aircraft that looked to be melting into the tarmac, and paintings of battle scenes so stylized that they almost anticipated the Colour Field paintings of a few years later.

In September 1944, Nash’s wartime commitments were at an end, and he retreated from public view, spending the final eighteen months of his life in what he described as “reclusive melancholy.” During this period, he returned to the mysticism that had characterized his early work and, inspired by the 1794 poem Ah! Sun-flower by William Blake, produced a number of theme paintings, including the NGC work, Solstice of the Sunflower (1945).

Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945, oil on canvas, NGC. Gift of the Massey Collection of English Painting, 1952. © The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein

In this dazzling, light-filled canvas, a spoked sunflower careens down a windswept grassy hill, tethered almost invisibly to the sun itself. The painting features in the final section of the exhibition, “alongside works,” says Chambers, “which focus on seasonal cycles and are grouped around themes such as the equinox, solstice and the phases of the moon. Solstice of the Sunflower, which shows the sunflower as firewheel becoming the medium through which the sun fertilizes the earth, will be paired with Eclipse of the Sunflower from the British Council collection where the eclipse represents the seasonal death of vegetation, closing the exhibition with the two most powerful and resonant works from Nash’s final Sunflower and Sun series, in which he explored ancient myths of fertility, death and regeneration.”

By the mid-1940s, Nash’s health was declining. Worn out by a lifelong struggle with asthma, and suffering from periodic bouts of severe depression, he died in his sleep of heart failure in July 1946. Following his death, Nash was honoured with a major memorial exhibition and concert at the then-Tate Gallery, attended by Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother.

Representing two of the most interesting periods in Nash’s artistic practice, Dymchurch Steps and Solstice of the Sunflower are key paintings within an exhibition of breathtaking scope and sensitivity. The result is an experience reflecting a life and an artist who understood, perhaps better than many, that there is a profound interconnectivity between nature, human intervention, and the unseen world.

Paul Nash is on view at Tate Britain until March 5, 2017. For more information, please click here. The exhibition will tour to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, England, in April 2017 and to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, England, in September 2017.  

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