Paul Nash, I concluded from the Tate Britain exhibition, was an artist made by and for war. Certainly the pictures of his that are best known come from both the First and Second World Wars. The exhibition, which felt much too big, covered his career from beginning to end and emphasised for me how he lost his way when separated from war.
The exhibition begins with pleasing bucolic watercolour paintings. I liked them, but if he’d never moved beyond these paintings he’d be forgotten. His paintings came alive when he went to fight in the First World War, as the two below show. We Are Making a New World is perhaps his most famous painting, and Menin Road is huge. Their abstraction works well.
He wrote to his wife at this time: “It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.” Suddenly his painting had a purpose, and far from being “feeble” his paintings are the predominant images of the First World War.
After the war his pictures–those of Dymchurch particularly–continued to have power as he recovered from the trauma of the war. But slowly the power drained away as he messed around with surrealism and found objects.
The power returned when the Second World War broke out. He wasn’t a combatant this time, but he had something to say about the horror of war. His paintings of mangled metal from destroyed planes are best known, but I liked a lot the abstract picture of a city (London?) being bombed. The inspiration of the war then carried him through to his death in 1946.