Part of an artist’s job is to help the rest of us see our surroundings anew. Walking home from Paul Nash: The Elements with my head full of Nash’s visions, Dulwich seemed a rather unsettling place. The sky, previously just a tedious grey, loured menacingly down, the colour of gunmetal. Trees thrust their bare, twisted branches imploringly towards the bleak heavens. Churned mud on the Dulwich College playing fields juxtaposed ominously with the war memorial. A
blackbird flew low across College Road, while two wood pigeons sat fatly on the white fence posts. What did it all mean?
I’d heard a lot about Nash as a British surrealist. Not being a fan of Dali and the like, I was suspicious. But I don’t think he was actually a surrealist at heart. He looked, harder than most of us look, at the world around him. He recognised the inherent weirdness in much of the landscape, especially those places where water and land meet. And he played with perspective, with the way a tennis ball looks huge when you lie on the grass and look at it close up, or a strategically placed mirror can bring the outside into a room, or reflections make it hard to tell where land ends and water starts.
Being a parochial type, I really love seeing places that I know depicted in art. Fortunately for me, Nash spent a lot of time around the Kent coast. That’s an area I know well too, and its a coastline full of strangeness. The chalk downs at the top of Dover’s white cliffs, looking out to the channel, feel high and lonely, and are full of reminders of the time when it was truly Britain’s front line – war memorials, abandoned airstrips, gun emplacements abound. Nash’s deserted landscapes, with their high coastal skies, flat fields and clumps of trees show equally strange juxtapositions, most vividly the Bomber In The Corn (1940), where shards of jagged iron scatter across serene fields of corn. (I couldn’t help but remember Kentish brewer Shepherd Neame’s jingoistic slogan about its beer: ‘Downed all over Kent. Just like the Luftwaffe.)
But for strangeness, there’s little to match the area around the village of Dymchurch, where Romney Marsh keeps an uneasy pact with the sea. Nash’s series of paintings and drawings of the sea wall, the narrow strips of concrete keeping the two separate, capture the unease of the area, the way you feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the sky, the precarious nature of the land, the implacability of the sea. I stood for a long time before the haunting Winter Sea, a pared-back landscape/seascape of black, white, grey, where solid planes intersect, turn and fold beneath a hazy full moon. The moon’s pathway reflected in the water has never looked so solid – yet you wouldn’t want to try it. It looks like a pathway out of this world.
Nash’s two great war paintings, one from the first and one the second world war, dominate and command attention. We Are Making A New World unveils a blighted, dead landscape of churned mud, standing water and destroyed trees beneath a blood red sky. Todes Meer (dead sea) conjures a bleak north sea from the visual rhythms of torn metal aircraft, wings and noses cresting into waves.
But when you stand before these paintings of industrial-scale destruction and ask yourself, where did this destruction come from? Who’s responsible? Who are ‘we’? Nash doesn’t answer. These paintings, like most of his other work, are devoid of humanity. Nash seems to deliberately subtract the human, even in those rare cases when he depicts figures. In the terrifying lithograph Marching At Night, the tranche of men marching towards us between stark rows of poplars are faceless, hunched and wounded, mechanised and quickly shading into geometric blocks. Images like this, to me, speak of the industrial war machine of a Hitler or Stalin. It comes as a shock to see that the date is 1918.
If I’ve made this exhibition sound grim beyond belief, I apologise. There’s plenty to enjoy and admire, as well. As contrast, I enjoyed the unexpected softness of Interior, Pantile Cottage, Dymchurch, with its soft, creamy, almost frothy tones. I hope the fluffy rug, soft distemper of the walls, filmy curtains and feminine touch of a pair of high-heeled shoes demonstrate Nash’s feelings towards his wife, who I guess the shoes might belong to. It felt a little like a Van Gogh interior, domestic and safe, warding off the terrifyingly strange world outside.
Paul Nash: The Elements is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 9 May.