Exhibition review: Paul Nash

angel-and-devilI was very pleased to be able to catch the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain last week (it closes March 5th), and I took 11 pages of notes, so this post will be an attempt to condense my ideas into some form of review! Nash (1889-1946) is not, I think, as appreciated as he should be (in my circles, anyway!) but his deep and sustained involvement in a movements, events and exhibitions throughout the early twentieth century, particularly in his surrealist later work, is demonstrated beautifully in this large exhibition.

The opening room is entitled ‘Dreaming Trees’, and indeed trees feature throughout much of his early and mid-career work, in different forms. I hadn’t been aware of the strong influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and Blake on Nash’s work, but some early examples of his illustrations clearly three-treesindicate this, such as ‘The Combat’ and ‘Our Lady of Inspiration’. Nash also on occasion wrote his own poetry to accompany his work. His engagement with landscape, and trees in particular, is accompanied by his unusual approach; he ‘tried to paint trees as though they were human beings’, looking for the character and individuality of plant forms, as a part of his attempts to explore the locus genii which preoccupies his work throughout his life. Moving beyond conventional landscapes, he wrote that

my love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of natural appearances into surreal worlds…

I particularly liked the almost-human trees in ‘The Three Trees’, which appear in many of his paintings and were inspired by the trees near his family house. Their personality appears, and in the range of paintings of trees including these it is possible to see how he became more drawn to the drama and mysticism of the natural world: the exhibition label says that he

lived the drama of the nocturnal skies – falling stars, moonrise, storms and summer lightning.

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The works on display indicate the extent to which Nash links the natural world with creativity, but other worlds intrude; after his war experiences, his paintings often still include trees, but they are different, an attempt to drag order from chaos, forms from formlessness. His movement towards surrealism is marked, at the start, by a formal, structured beauty which tries to make sense of a changing world, but at the edges there is an untamed wildness, and an acknowledgement that the relationship between humanity and nature is an unequal one, where the balance varies. The section ‘We Are Making a New World’, named after one of his most famous war paintings, exemplifies this: he described himself as ‘no longer an artist’ but ‘a messenger’, using simplified forms, such as stunted trees and devastated landscapes, to demonstrate the destructiveness of war (here, again, the trees seem to stand in for people). Yet in several of the paintings, such as ‘Spring in the Trenches’, nature reassert itself after the damage that war has inflicted: nature is always stronger, in the end, though the soldiers in the trenches are blind to its beauty.

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The landscapes become more and more angular and geometric; they indicate a world which continues to change, where humanity seems increasingly reckless in its treatment of the environment. In a series of paintings with red clouds it is difficult to tell if nature is in sympathy, or angry with a world bent on destruction. In ‘The Menin Road’ the landscape has become entirely subject to form, with even the sky appearing unnatural, and the vicious vertical lines of the blasted trees standing in for the ruined lives of soldiers.

Later sections demonstrate Nash’s attachment to place, as well as his interest in ancient monolithshistorical sites such as Whiteleaf Cross. This might be read as an escape from the troubling present, but it is human interventions in and reshaping of landscape that seems to draw him here. Increasingly his paintings veer towards abstraction, with forms placed in the landscape – which he continued to do for the rest of his life – and with works such as ‘Winter Sea’ constructing a geometric abstraction from nature. His paintings which seem to show nature framed, shaped and controlled by humanity, such as ‘Month of March’, often show a branch out of place, or some small sign that nature is still in charge.

In the 1930s his work undergoes further shifts, especially in his interest in still lifes and indoor paintings which demonstrate his increasing use of form and shape to structure his works. These invite questions; ‘St Pancras’, for example, with its slightly disorientating perspective, pits verticals against horizontals, curves against straight lines, so that the viewer’s eye is confused once it moves beyond the vase in the foreground, and we watch as if looking through the window ourselves. His exploration of shape in the world is extrapolated further in ‘Dead Spring’ and ‘Lares’, in which the latter abstracts the shapes of the former. Other still-life/abstract works draw in found objects, such as glove stretchers repurposed as sculptural trees; there are several tree-related works which both echo his earlier paintings and indicate how far his work has moved on, particularly under the influence of surrealism.

Nash writes of landscapes:

They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.

Exploring his own vision of landscape allows him to see differently, and even manmade objects seem to form landscapes in his works. ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ is one of his most famous paintings, and indicates his ability to combine landscape and form in unexpected juxtapositions; the stylised landscape of the background is populated by forms which stand in for the megaliths so that what is man made becomes a very different part of the view. There are also photographs; ‘Monster Field’ is an image of elms struck by lightning which take in both the appearance and the personality of monsters.

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With the advent of WWII, Nash painted crashed German bombers, and in a number of paintings indicates the threat which comes from the sky during war, sometimes with the red clouds which appeared in his previous war paintings. Towards the end of his life, his work is lighter in colour, exploring cycles of change, life and death, which is apparent both in his works with sunflowers, and also in his essay ‘Aerial Flowers’. Again he turns to the natural world to understand the incomprehensible, exploring varied landscapes to create his unique vision. There is an appealing circularity in this return to the land.

Sculpture and Landscape

01ada5367e4539481d00fe5a8d3e1c3012e0aa5965On holiday recently, we visited Tremenheere sculpture gardens for the first time, and found the combination of plants and landscape with works of art a really interesting experience. Over the site there are 16 installations, all very different from each other, and which work with the landscape in different, appealing ways. The site is planted with the lush, tropical vegetation for which the climate of Cornwall is known, so that one almost expects the unexpected to appear anyway (or, in the case of my son, dinosaurs). Actually this is a great place for children, as the map you are given to follow for your walk creates a kind of treasure hunt as you search for the sculptures. There are also wonderful views of St Michael’s Mount from the gardens, and the food in the restaurant is excellent.

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One of my favourite works there – and, I imagine, one of the most popular – is ‘Tewlolow Kernow’, or ‘Twilight in Cornwall’ designed by James Turrell, a sky space which turns the sky into art, framing the sky with an oval hole in a dome. The entrance to the space feels as though one is entering a place of ritual, and though it echoes beautifully  – making it tempting to sing – I felt as though I ought to be silent whilst observing the clouds moving ahead (I am a little obsessed with clouds, and how they are portrayed in art, after reading Weatherland by Alexandra Harris). One of Turrell’s sky spaces was featured in ‘Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature’ on BBC4, and the presenter James Fox sat watching the sky for hours; I could happily have done so too. The clean, blank lines of the space you are in shifts your entire focus onto the world above.

Billy Wynter’s Camera Obscura was also hypnotic, projecting the world around onto a table in a small, dark room – which prompts questions about when nature becomes art, or vice versa. Like so many of the works, art and nature merge here, reflecting each other. Many works consequently prompt ideas about humanity’s place in the world, our relation to landscape and the land, and the cycles of nature and life. A remarkable, huge work, Penny Saunders’ ‘Restless Temple’ consists of counterbalanced pillars which sway in the wind, perhaps ‘challenging our preconceptions of what we hold secure and stable in everyday life’, the guide suggests. This link takes you to a video which shows my son enjoying this instability. We were all fascinated by the cloud form of Matt Chivers’ ‘Hybrid’ and Richard Marsh’s ‘Untitled X3’, both organic shapes which one can walk around endlessly.

We have got used to thinking of ‘art’ as an indoors thing: paintings of nature hung on a wall, perhaps, so it both refreshing and inspiring to walk around looking at art which grows, art which is placed in the landscape, art which is part of the natural world. My reflections were on the contrasts of transience and permanence, and questions about what art is and what it does, but it also works simply as a nice walk with some interesting things to look at.

The sublime Gothic landscape

IMG_1280While I tend to find a bit of Gothic in everything, sometimes it stares you in the face, and onIMG_1288 a recent visit to the landscape gardens at Stowe I felt as though I was walking back into the eighteenth century. The grounds are run by the National Trust, while Stowe School occupies the house and surrounding buildings. From the 1730s Stowe was renowned for its gardens, with visitors coming from all over the world to see them, but in the 1740s ‘Capability’ Brown, at the beginning of his career, was appointed to redesign the grounds, and though some of the original features (such as the temple) were kept, the more formal aspects of the garden vanished, with the idea of ‘landscape’ taking over.

Viscount Cobham, the man responsible for taking on the young Brown to reshape his gardens, was part of the beginning of a revolution in taste, of which Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House was a part. Instead of the formal gardens with neat flowerbeds and rows of strictly planted trees, the fashion was for something more exotic, thrilling and sublime. TheIMG_1285 sublime is key here: though Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1857) wasn’t published until a decade later, the thinking behind it was forming. Burke wrote that ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature … is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.’ In a socially acceptable way, this is what such gardens did. Stowe is designed so that with every corner turned, another surprise awaits the walker; temples, grottos, statues, lakes – all is laid before us so that entertainment and amazement accompany every step. Some of the surprises come with a frisson of Gothic terror, too: imagine the grotto, for example, with its waterfall and cavernous space, in the twilight, and it is the perfect setting for Mrs IMG_1287Radcliffe’s novels.

In 1748, William Gilpin wrote an imaginary dialogue between two (classically-named!) visitors to Stowe, which emphasises just these points:

‘Polypth. Yes, indeed, I think the Ruin a great Addition to the Beauty of the Lake. There is something so vastly picturesque, and pleasing to the Imagination in such Objects, that they are a great Addition to every Landskip. And yet perhaps it would be hard to assign a reason, why we are more taken with Prospects of this ruinous kind, than with Views of Plenty and Prosperity in their greatest Perfection: Benevolence and Good-nature, methinks, are more concerned in the latter kind.

Calloph. Yes: but cannot you make a distinction between natural and moral Beauties? Our social Affections undoubtedly find their Enjoyment the most compleat when they contemplate, a Country smiling in the midst of Plenty, where Houses are well-built, Plantations regular, and every thing the most commodious and useful. But such Regularity and Exactness excites no manner of Pleasure in the Imagination, unless they are made use of to contrast with something of an opposite kind. The Fancy is struck by Nature alone; and if Art does any thing more than improve her, we think she grows IMG_1284impertinent, and wish she had left off a little sooner. Thus a regular Building perhaps gives very little pleasure; and yet a fine Rock, beautifully set off in Ciaro-obscuro, and garnished with flourishing Bushes, Ivy, and dead Branches, may afford us a great deal; and a ragged Ruin, with venerable old Oaks, and Pines nodding over it, may perhaps please the Fancy yet more than either of the other two Objects. – Yon old Hermitage, situated in the midst of this delightful Wilderness, has an exceeding good Effect: it is of the romantick Kind; and Beauties of this sort, where a probable Nature is not exceeded, are generally pleasing.’

IMG_1310The sublime is an intrinsic part of the Gothic because it provokes both pain and pleasure, as Burke wrote, and because it encourages the mind to wander in the direction of the soul, and to expand our thinking. Kant wrote that  ‘Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’. The gardens are arranged so that it feels as though one could walk forever: every turn offers a new prospect, and the thoughts do indeed wander along different paths as you go. The Gothic revival features at Stowe in buildings including a Gothic temple, which I understand one can stay in, alongside classical temples, statues, columns and the marvellous Palladian Bridge.

So this garden, like a few others of the period, features the Gothic – a carefully cultivated wildness which appealed to the emotions – and the classical, a more ordered and symmetrical style, reminiscent of distant places and cultures. The potential clash of cultures adds to the appeal of the place, I thinIMG_1313k. Timothy Mowl points out in Gentlemen Gardeners that Brown’s work at Stowe in fact offers ‘a three-in-hand of the classical, the Gothic and the Chinese.’ There is another element, however, which really interested me: the seven statues of Anglo-Saxon deities, sculpted by Rysbrack. In a clearing, where one might usually expect to see statues of classical origin, such as Athena or Neptune, we see now-obscure English deities (from whom the days of the week are derived) who seem to assert Englishness over the classical and Gothic elements of the gardens. It’s been suggested that this was a strong Whig assertion of British nationalism at a time when this was on the rise – perhaps not only politically motivated but also part of a rise in romantic nationalism, as a nostalgia for England’s history grew – something which IMG_1281the Gothic novel often played upon. In fact the political aspects of the garden are fascinating; Viscount Cobham used the grounds as a vehicle for expressing his contempt for his political rivals.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty and the planning of the gardens: whether a visitor takes a short or a long walk, it is all laid out for convenience and enjoyment. The map alone gives an idea of the delights in store: The Temple of Ancient Virtue, The Sleeping Wood, Circle of the Dancing Faun, Congreve’s Monument, Season’s Fountain, and Captain Grenville’s Column, to mention just a few. It’s easy to see why Viscount Cobham’s gardens were so popular with his many visitors (apparently Catherine of Russia enjoyed them so much that she copied them in the grounds of Catherine’s Palace near St Petersburg).

There is a fascinating poem by Gilbert West, written in 1832, which celebrates Stowe and many of the aspects which were not disturbed by Brown. A great deal more information on Stowe can be found here, and the National Trust page for Stowe is here.

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A Dialogue with Nature (and more ruins)

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Closely related in subject to Ruin Lust is the Courtauld Institute’s exhibition ‘A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic landscapes from Britain and Germany’. Landscapes from the Romantic period are displayed, and include a range of works by artists including JMW Turner, Samuel Palmer and Caspar David Friedrich. Of course, the Romantics didn’t just immerse themselves in ‘pure’ nature: humans had been there before, and so there are ruins aplenty in this exhibition too. Perhaps these ruins are more incidental, though, and have in most cases been taken over by the forces of nature after their abandonment by man. Many of these images could illustrate a Gothic novel (yes, I realise I see Gothic everywhere – but it is everywhere!) – in particular, Theodor Rehbenitz’s ‘Fantastic Landscape with Monk crossing a Bridge’ appeals, as well as Samuel Palmer’s ‘The Haunted Stream’.

20140411-102935 pm.jpg So in the Romantic landscape, humans are revisiting ruins; an absence of figures isn’t necessary, but an absence of other people is: the figures always offer a sense of isolation, related presumably to their status as poetic, somewhat melancholy thinkers, poets and artists. The sublime is displayed in these paintings, then – we are encouraged to turn our eyes and our minds to the towering splendours of mountains and the terrifying depths of valleys to access the terror of the Burkean sublime and understand the limits of our world. And in placing humanity in a clear relation to the natural world as well as the ruins which inhabit it, I find this exhibition strangely more coherent than the Ruin Lust show, but perhaps less thought-provoking. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the differences between German and English Romantic painters (something I’d not thought about before) and to compare the wildness of Turner’s world compared with the (relative) precision of Friedrich’s. Seeing this exhibition on the same day as Ruin Lust was a great experience, and I recommend both!

Laura Knight in the Open Air

0467be557c0b8a002975a64818ab4055686bdd5fUntil 10th February 2013, Worcester City Art Gallery is hosting this exhibition of works of Laura Knight which are painted outdoors, from large landscapes to sketches of sheep. I don’t think of Knight as an outdoors kind of person, or painter, but this exhibition shows how much of her work is preoccupied with nature, although not perhaps in the same way as other painters. In an interview in 1964, she said that she and her husband, Harold Knight, were ‘great walkers’, and explained that ‘what entranced me most [in the Malverns] were the immense views so detailed with patchwork, with little shapes of field and red roofed farms, cattle in the fields, and hens pecking round the farmyards…’. This explains so much about the subject matter and construction of her paintings: with a few notable exceptions, the paintings in the exhibition depict figures in landscape, often working – hop pickers, fishermen, carthorses, etc.

Of course, Knight is most well known for her paintings of the theatre and for her work as a war artist, both of which in their own ways show people at work, entirely focussed on using their skills. But her paintings of landscape, from Cornwall to the Malvern Hills, do something similar: she seems preoccupied with showing humanity in relation to 4110503nature, though usually as quite large figures in the landscape, rather than dwarfed by the natural world. Paintings such as ‘The Cornish Coast’ (1917) are both completely of their time, given the figures’ costumes, and also timeless, of the coastal landscape: this contrast is striking and also pleasing. The selection of pictures in this exhibition also gives one the opportunity to admire Knight’s skill in painting water, fields, the effects of weather and the change of seasons: ‘Autumn Sunset’ and ‘Snow on the Hills’ are excellent examples of this, with the former providing an almost Turneresque effect of light in the sky (unusually: her paintings, even her landscapes, don’t often show very much sky), and the latter inviting the viewer into the snow-covered fields to admire the vista beyond. But though no figures appear in either of these, both show the effect of occupation: ploughed and furrowed fields, a distant train, carefully ordered hedges. Knight’s landscapes are not wild, they are subject to agriculture and to civilisation, though the Malvern Hills in the distance resist such man-made shaping.

Dame+Laura+Knight+-+A+Ballon+Site+Coventry+1943The exhibition also displays Knight’s remarkable versatility as an artist: she employs so many media (mostly oils, watercolour and etchings, with a few pencil sketches) and styles: if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t guess that ‘A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943’ and ‘In the Sun: Newlyn’ (1910) were painted by the same artist (albeit  30 years apart). The exhibition also includes one of her most famous war paintings: ‘The Dock, Nuremburg 1944’, which qualifies for this exhibition, I presume, because of the shattered, war-torn landscapes which appear in the top left of the painting, as if themselves accusing those in the dock for the harm done.

The exhibition closes with a series in a gypsy encampment. Again, Knight’s primary focus is on the figures, rather than their landscape, and here the characterful faces of the subjects almost obliterate the carefully-painted landscapes behind. Yet, the implication is, here are people who are a part of the open-air life, who are in many ways a part of the landscape. Here the similarities to her theatre paintings are most obvious, and here, perhaps, her work seems at its most coherent as a body.

Gothic Landscapes

Hockney On Turner, Tate Britain, 11 June 2007 – 3 February 2008
I’m happy to admit that I don’t know as much as I should about Turner (or Hockney, for that matter, though I love his trees – see Bigger Trees Near Water, right). Turner’s affinity for wild landscapes seems to be the focus of this exhibition, displayed through sketches and watercolours to the more finished-looking oils for which he is most famous. What had not really occurred to me before, though, is that Turner paints the landscapes of which the Gothic writers write. I am at the moment programmed to find the Gothic in everything, and the Gothic landscape is at the forefront of my mind – critics see it as the representation of the inner eye, a depiction of the mind, as well as indicative of the heights the hero/ine needs to scale to succeed. Yet it is these heights which help the protagonist to achieve the sublime, that state where they are stronger than their opponents and see the world’s frailty for what it is. When Turner paints St Gotthard, for example, and Snowdon Valley, the craggy splendour both terrifies and uplifts (if you are in a Gothic frame of mind like me) and his Gothic eye seems to me to be painting the indistinct period of overlap between the Romantics and the Victorians. Consider the towering, bleak landscape of St Gotthard (below), and compare it to this extract from The Mysteries of Udolpho:
At length, the travellers began to ascend among the Apennines. The immense pine-forests, which, at that period, overhung these mountains, and between which the road wound, excluded all view but of the cliffs aspiring above, except, that, now and then, an opening through the dark woods allowed the eye a momentary glimpse of the country below. The gloom of these shades, their solitary silence, except when the breeze swept over their summits, the tremendous precipices of the mountains, that came partially to the eye, each assisted to raise the solemnity of Emily’s feelings into awe; she saw only images of gloomy grandeur, or of dreadful sublimity, around her; other images, equally gloomy and equally terrible, gleamed on her imagination.”
Of course, for the Gothic writers the landscape can depict the awe we feel at the creation of the world, and combine it with the terror of the unknown which lies within it. The natural landscape, with no sign of human occupation, spoke to the readers of Gothic romances as the work of God; and yet Gothic horror is very much the work of mankind, with the bad things that happen being rarely actually supernatural but machinations of the scheming world. Those paintings here which cover manmade scenes (Interior of a Prison, left, for example) still display a towering strength in which a carefully-constructed edifice encloses the space and traps the viewer (particularly when the interior is empty of human figures – it is designed to enclose or confine something other than empty space, so if there’s no-one there then it is you that it encloses). This is of course particularly reinforced when the structure is a prison.
Even in the freshness of his mid-period, his watercolour washes with their pastel colours and intense immediacy, with the brush-strokes apparent, there is a lurking threat of gathering storm clouds: this seems to be the pastoral image of the start of a Gothic novel, where all seems tranquil but the reader knows that something must threaten the happiness of the as yet undeveloped characters. Gothic has strong overtones of temptation and fall, and as such Milton is considered to be a great influence on writers of Gothic, so perhaps the apotheosis of the Gothic that I saw here is in The Temptation on the Pinnacle, which illustrates Milton, though the illustrations for Scott’s Poetical Works come close, depicting the untamed Scottish scenery of which Scott was a masterful illustrator in words.