The brutality of World War I appalled most who were caught up in it. One British volunteer was Paul Nash, a young painter who before the conflict produced gentle, wispy landscapes that recalled English visionaries like Samuel Palmer. After his appointment as an official war artist, though, Nash abandoned pastoral scenes for shocking indictments of trench warfare. Viewers can marvel at these apocalyptic paintings, along with Nash's more serene vistas from the interwar years and his work from World War II, at the U.K.'s Tate Liverpool until Oct. 19. He has been "too long overlooked," says curator Jemima Montagu, as an innovator and also as a key figure in interwar efforts to preserve the English landscape.
Born in London in 1889, Nash joined up in 1914 but didn't see action until 1917. Injured after three months in France, he was sent back to Britain, where the War Artists Advisory Committee saw his drawings and signed him up. It was the first outing for British war artists, starting a tradition that has continued up to today's Gulf conflicts. In his new capacity, Nash returned to the front just after the battle of Passchendaele, where the long bombardment had left a wilderness of slime and corpses. "The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green white water ... O it is unspeakable, Godless, hopeless," he wrote, traumatized but still making color notes.
His sketches formed the basis of paintings like We Are Making a New World (1918). The sun sends searchlight beams through clouds the color of dried blood, illuminating blasted trees and pitted khaki sludge. In The Menin Road (1919) Nash depicts the ravaged battleground almost as a Renaissance altarpiece, complete with symbolism and grand scale. In the foreground, the sickly light reflects off a flooded shellhole in which a uniform and helmet float, surrounded by rusty fronds of barbed wire, concrete blocks and curls of corrugated iron. The many limbless trees have more presence than the two small humans who scuttle across the canvas. Its wide angle and transformation of horror into almost-beauty conveys emotional impact in a way no photograph can.
In 1921 Nash was diagnosed with "war strain" and retreated to the Kent coast, near bleak Romney Marsh. He took refuge in geometry, applying a ruler to nature, and seeking out the regularity of fences, planks, horizons. The Shore (1923) shows the seawall at Dymchurch, which holds the water in his imagination "cold and cruel" back from the marsh. A stark composition of gray, blue, gold and terracotta, it shows no trace of life human, animal or vegetable.
Nash flirted with abstraction and Surrealism, asking in 1932 "whether it is possible to 'go modern' and still 'be British.'" In 1933 he helped found Unit One, a movement that aimed to revitalize British art by embracing Continental modernism. One of his most successful Surrealist works is Landscape From a Dream (1936-38), where an angry bird, framed by the skeleton of a folding screen, peers at its reflection against a Dorset coastline. But the English landscape eventually triumphed over secondhand motifs. Nash had always been something of an animist, recording in his autobiography a lifelong sense of the spirit of place.
After the outbreak of World War II, he set up an Arts Bureau for War Service, and in 1940 again became an official war artist, initially attached to the Air Ministry. His sketches of wrecked German planes became the painting Totes Meer (Dead Sea, 1940-41). As in the earlier The Shore, the land is on the right, holding back "waves" made up of wings and fuselage. The metal sea, in his characteristic icy green, stretches to low, dark-red hills. In a verdant sky hangs the waning moon. The Battle of Germany (1944) is almost totally abstract. The coastline, as seen from a bomber, is evaporating in multicolored smoke.
While bearing witness to events, he remained possessed by the English countryside, recording over and over again the wooded hilltops outside Oxford known as the Wittenham Clumps the Nashes had moved here to avoid bombs. He uses pulsatingly vivid colors, reflecting the heat and white nights of summer, in paintings like Landscape of the Summer Solstice (1943). Under the crouching trees, the focal point is a menacing dandelion. The implicit dread is more than merely romantic imagine a soundtrack of German bombers.
Dogged for years by severe asthma, Nash died in 1946 of pneumonia, aged 57. The last painting in the show is Farewell (1944), a moment of calm after the bombing raids and the high summer heat. A dry branch writhes like a dead snake against shades of cool lettuce, but a thick wood still lurks darkly on the left. In Nash's world, Paradise is never entirely safe.