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.


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.


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.


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.


Testament of Youth

images (4)One of my favourite books is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I’ve read at least five times. I’ve read all of Brittain’s novels, diaries and letters available, as well as those of her friend Winifred Holtby, and other contemporaries who appeal to me. In fact, because I find it so interesting, I make a point of not including this as something I work on; this isn’t a ‘research interest’; it’s just an interest. There is something in the way Brittain writes which speaks to me; I think it probably has a lot to do with her descriptions in the book about her education, as a bookish girl who was desperate to go to university, which struck a chord with me when I was sixteen and first read it. Her response to the events she experiences during the First World War – the death of young men close to her, the blighting of her own opportunities (in the short term, at least), the physical struggles of nursing wounded soldiers – are described clear-sightedly, and her growing political convictions (pacifism, feminism) have evident experiential roots. The myth of the ‘golden age’ of Edwardian life before the war is one which has been repeatedly proved untrue; for downloadmany in Britain, 1913 wasn’t much easier than 1914. But for some, particularly idealistic, middle-class women such as Brittain, it’s easy to see that the shattering of ideals by war did make the period before seem like a never-to-be-recovered time of innocence. Brittain is clear that this golden glow was imparted as much by ignorance as innocence, though, and the book is careful not to romanticise anything, though it has become (mistakenly, in my view) seen as a kind of romantic classic of war due to Brittain’s engagement to Roland Leighton.

That’s the book, then – and if you haven’t read it, then do, while we are in the centenary period of the Great War; Brittain wrote to show the devastating effect of war on young people and the way in which it blighted the lives of a generation, and her work has much wider implications for politics and is worth images (2)considering even if you’re not interested in the period.

As you can imagine, then, I approached the film with some trepidation. I’m probably too much of a purist and am almost always disappointed with films of books, perhaps because I don’t know enough about cinema, adaptation etc to understand why they have to change my favourite bits, etc… And some of this is changed for dramatic effect too, including some seminal scenes (I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t say more!) The review by the Guardian criticises the film for drifting into ‘heritage inertia’, avoiding the ‘necessary’ pain and anger, but I don’t think this is fair; the film unavoimagesidably has a ‘period drama’ look about it (to change that would undermine the essential historicity of the narrative) and, of course, it will have an appeal to lovers of period drama and heritage cinema. But the restraint for which the review criticises the film is also present in the book; Brittain is determined to change things, to make the world a better place, by writing a book which explains how she feels, and being excessively emotional is not how that works. In the film, we see her cry, anguished, several times, we see her frustration and anger, and while it isn’t excessive, the restraint rings true, and all the more because earlier in the film we see her restrained happiness, too. Excessive display of emotion is what women were criticised for, and Brittain, well aware of that, reined hers in, images (1)publicly at least, and Alice Vikander’s (and others) beautifully restrained performance reflects that mood.

The film is one of those where everyone watching it will know that the eventual fate of the happy teenagers we see at the beginning will not be so cheerful, and therefore there is a hubristic feeling hanging over the characters from the beginning, again a trope shared with the book. I suppose my conclusion is that the film, while not strictly true to every detail of the (long) book, is true to its mood and its convictions, and of that I approve. Though I must admit I did spend quite a bit of the film wondering about knitting a new beret (see picture above).


The Changing Face of War

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One of the many commemorations of the start of the Great War is the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition ‘The Great War in Portraits’. I am reluctant to comment too much as I found that to wander around the rooms and look at the paintings on display was a slightly surreal experience (and consequently I didn’t take as many notes as usual!) but the exhibition shows us what is literally the changing face of war. From individuals involved in the start of the war – military and political figures, as well as a press portrait of the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – to images intended as propaganda, displaying military might and dignity, the stages of the war are reflected in the work of the artists. Most moving, perhaps, are the faces of the soldiers affected by the conflict20140411-111858 pm.jpg, especially those damaged by shells, which were drawn for hospital records. There is also a wall of portraits which has surprising diversity, and not all of those featured there are known, but the growing anonymity of the soldier as part of a war machine is reflected in this.
The exhibition takes us, then, from political to military history, and from pomp to heroism to suffering. The complex ways in which artists on both sides of the conflict react to war is also explored, and if you haven’t yet experienced any of the commemorations going on, this would be a good place to start.


Once upon a Wartime

Last week we had a couple of days in London, during which we paid a visit to the Imperial War Museum, as I wanted to see the 1940s House before it finally closes at the end of January, as well as the Once Upon a Wartime exhibition of children’s books, which is due to close at the end of October and will then transfer to IWM North. Once Upon a Wartime is really aimed at children, but the exhibition included several books I remember borrowing from the school library when I was about 10, and I wanted to see how the exhibition ‘framed’ the problems of war for children. As it turned out, it wasn’t what I expected, but it was well done and I enjoyed it.

The premise of the exhibition was to take five well-known books written since World War Two, and to fit each of them into certain categories: the information at the beginning of the exhibition suggested that children’s books about war tended to contain certain themes: loyalty, separation, excitement, survival and identity. In fact, though, the exhibition did much more than that, using particular aspects of the books to teach the visitor about aspects of different conflicts.

The first book was Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, which, it was suggested, embodies the theme of loyalty in war. Most of the exhibition featuring this book looked at the role of horses in the First World War, from a model of a horse in full kit, to footage of horses on the battlefield. The second book, one of the ones I enjoyed as a child, was Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, whose theme is separation. There was plenty of information about evacuees relating to the book, and the lives of children who were evacuated, as well as information about the experiences of the author which led to the writing of the book.

Next was The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall, a book I remember finding thrilling, and indeed the chosen theme here was the excitement that children may find (however inappropriately) in war. The perception of war by children who have been sheltered from its worst aspects was well-depicted here, looking at children’s search for trophies from crashed planes, for example, and their desire to capture an enemy soldier. The book ends sadly, though, and the need to balance excitement with the true nature of war was brought out carefully here.

Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword was the next book; the theme was survival, and the exhibition told the story of displaced children in Europe, with direct experiences of the terror and destructiveness of Nazism in countries such as Poland. A huge map showed the experiences of children all over Europe. The final book was Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier, the only one featured which I haven’t read. The theme was identity, linked to ethnicity and the issue of child soldiers. The most contemporary of the books featured, it seemed a worthwhile note to end on, looking at issues which face children in war zones and even in this country today.


Journey’s End

poppy3The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham have put on R C Sheriff’s play Journey’s End  to mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. Although it’s now a GCSE set text, I had never read it, and was looking forward to seeing a play I’d heard much about; it didn’t disappoint. The play, first performed in 1928, is set in an officers’ dug-out near to the front-line in France during the First World War; the small stage of the Crescent studio was ideally suited to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the setting, and the set itself was elaborately perfect in its details of trench life.  The play concentrates on the effect of life in the trenches on men, many of them very young, under enormous strain. Often history seems to concentrate on the ghastly conditions of trench life for the privates – the water, mud, poor food and constant danger; here, the conditions are better (the characters being officers) but the psychological strain of leading men into hell is expressed subtly but unmistakeably.

Journey’s End concentrates on a few men, including Stanhope, a “hero” of 20 or 21 who is known as an excellent leader, but who can only face the daily struggle with large amounts of whiskey, and who demonstrates a violent temper; Raleigh, a young recruit straight from school, who revered Stanhope and arrives ecstatic to be serving under him; and Osborne, an older man who attempts, in his own courageous way, to help Stanhope to bear his burdens. The frustration and boredom of the trenches as well as the dangers are evident here, but most of all it is the mental strain and the human conflict within the trenches which is primarily of interest. In 1928 it must have been eye-opening for those whose men had returned shell-shocked and mentally, if not physically, shattered from the war. However, although this is often described as an anti-war play, it seems to me more resignedly accepting of the battlegrounds in life: the “bigger issues”, the political aspects of war, even its futility, are secondary to the day-to-day living of life, stoical “getting on with it”.

I was really impressed with this production: the characters were convincing and sympathetic; the emotions seemed genuine, and by the explosive and somewhat shocking ending I found myself almost moved to tears. This is probably one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.