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.

new-world

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.

spring-in-the-trenches

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.

monster-field

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.

Man Ray Portraits

Solarizedportrait2Man Ray is perhaps one of the most accessible Surrealists, because his work is so broad and so versatile that there is something to which everyone can relate. The ‘Man Ray Portraits’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery certainly emphasises this; Ray’s work is shown chronologically over a period of several decades, and it is possible to traceĀ developments in his work and to see changes of style and subject, but for the most part, he is flexible, versatile and changeable from the start. Probably his most famous portrait today is the marvellous solarised Portrait of Lee Miller (left), but this exhibition shows just how many collaborations he had, and how they influenced his work.

The exhibition opens by examining his early work, from 1916 onwards. It’s remarkable to note that Ray was a self-taught photographer, whose interest in the art was initially for the purpose of recording his own paintings for posterity. We see one such painting (or rather, a photograph of _thumb_wMan-Ray-James-Joyce_jpg_1280x1024_detail_q98it), and it is indeed deeply Surrealist. But then, as his portraits show, he was close to Surrealists including Marcel Duchamp, Mina Loy and Dali, among others, whose work clearly influenced his ideas. His photography is more than experimental Surrealism, however; most of the exhibits here have amazing, grainy depths with striking contrasts between light and shadow, which are ‘vintage’ in many ways but manifest a modern, honest clarity. Yet alongside his artistic photographic experiments were fashion shots for Vanity Fair and Vogue, and portraits of a huge range of celebrities.

In the early twentieth century there seem to have been people who knew everyone (the Mitfords, for instance, or the Kennedys). Ray was nearly one of those, I think: his portraits include Ernest Hemingway, whose stare is inescapable; James Joyce, who seems to be posing pretentiously but turns out to be shielding his eyes following an operation on them; Arthur Schoenburg, Mary Butts, man-rayPicasso, Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim (looking rather like Tracy Emin), and Stravinsky (who appears to be scratching his ankle whilst gazing on a vision), Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, to name but a few. These aren’t just successive portraits of familiar names, though: there is something in his portraiture which makes you look closely, as though we can really see the person in the picture. From the soft-focus Lady Diana Cooper to the sharp, crisp outlines of his image of Lee Miller, Ray treats all his subjects differently, and this is what is so fascinating about this exhibition. From his surreal Le Violon D’Ingres to his almost erotic portraits of Suzy Solidar, to his serious portraits of Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, there is a huge range here, and while Surrealism is rarely central to his work, it lingers on the sidelines in almost every piece.

Hysteria in Birmingham!

Hysteria by Terry Johnson, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 24 April to 12 May 2007

About ten years ago, I queued for a long time in the West End to get to see this play, but never managed to get a ticket. So when I heard it was coming to my favourite place in Birmingham, I booked tickets immediately. Sad to say, when we saw it, four days after it opened, it wasn’t a sell-out, but it should have been. I won’t do the usual reviewing stuff about the actors, since I don’t watch enough TV to even know who they are, but let’s just say they were very good, and all the multiple meanings of the play were nuanced but definitely present. It is, of course, a bit of a farce – that’s the point, you know, Freud and humour and all that, and there are a few uncomfortable laughs as well as some audience-freezing dramatic/sad moments. But if humour is about what makes us uncomfortable, what we feel strongly about, and our repressed desires (with sex being top of all lists) then a farce is the obvious background.
The premise is that Freud, living in Hampstead in 1938 having escaped Nazi-infested Vienna, is visited by Dali. This much we know is true, and Dali said he had to meet Freud because he was the father of Surrealism, while Freud said afterwards that the meeting changed his views on modern art. But Johnson makes sure we see the relevance of other contemporary events, referring to Kristallnacht and, at one point, having a troop of mostly elderly Jews (denoted by the Star of David on their coats) creeping across the back of the stage. Yahuda, his friend and doctor, is also trying to get Freud to destroy a manuscript of a book which denies religion, particularly the Jewish religion, by saying that “Now is not the time to destroy what people are dying for”.
Freud is of course most famous for his work on hysterics, nearly always women, initially attributing it to a childhood sexual trauma. Though he was usually gentle towards his patients, they were, of course, just patients to him – case-notes. So when a young woman turns up and declares her mother was just such a set of case-notes – and that she subsequently killed herself, Freud has to look very carefully at his work, because he later denied his theories of hysteria. Johnson suggests this is because he felt this could cast a shadow over his own family, and indeed one of his last actions in the play is to ask Yahuda to delete a few words that suggest he might incriminate his own father. Integrity, then, in the work of someone who has had such an enormous impact on Western civilisation, is a vital pivot in the play. In a way, this is about the collision of worlds that the eve of World War Two precipitated: the Victorians and the Moderns, thinking and feeling. Dali and Freud represent two extremes, yet extremes that go well together and can discover much common ground.
One point that the play highlighted to me is that paintings that paint from life, that are not trying to represent the subconscious, such as the PreRaphaelites, reveal a great deal about the subconscious – a tiny flick of the brush, a choice of setting and colour and props can speak a thousand words. But in Surrealism, when the intention is to draw out the subconscious, perhaps the attempt to explicate the id in fact makes it simply more opaque, though what Dali’s paintings depict is certainly difficult to describe in words. For the first time, though, I saw a huge appeal in Surrealism as something which doesn’t obey the rules, which the logic of the psychoanalyst cannot deconstruct. There is a Surrealist denouement to the play, when suddenly the walls fly away, the young woman turns into Freud’s daughter, the clocks melt, the telephone becomes a lobster and the doorhandles turn to rubber when one tries to open them. It’s like a dream, or nightmare, because the rules even of physics have gone wrong and nothing is what it seems, and yet we have to believe it’s real life. Anything is possible, and that’s the world of the creative imagination – to go beyond the rules.
At the end, I was left unsure if perhaps none of this happened. When Yahuda gives Freud his medication at the end of the play, he warns him that he may hallucinate. And then, it starts all over again… So did all that really happen, or was it the product of Freud’s fevered imagination, worrying that he may have done the wrong thing by some of his patients, concerned about the collision of thinking and feeling that imminent death had brought him to? A play that requires you to make up your own mind is usually a good thing, though – there’s no point in having it handed to you on a plate. So, I think it was a product of Freud’s id. Which, of course, makes it even more significant, and certainly no less real, than if it had really happened.
One more thing. I’m working a lot on Gothic literature at the moment, and, despite being a farce, this represents to me a good example of modern Gothic. All the action takes place within an enclosed space, in which a hysterical woman is confined, trying to find a way to be (mentally) free. There is the family drama (the possibility of childhood abuse, the unknown and somewhat feared mother, the alienation of the small child grown into a young woman); there is the horror (of childhood abuse again, of the secrets of the id, of the nightmarish Surrealism, and of course of the imminent death of Freud); and there is the fact that 21st century Gothic does rely on the surreal, as much as 18th and 19th century Gothic relies on the apparently supernatural or unexplainable. When the walls fly away and the outside world is exposed, it is of course even more Gothic – with the Jewish women, the horrors of impending war; and suddenly the domestic space seems like the best place to be.