The Passion of Paul Nash

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1940–1. Oil on canvas. Source

British artist Paul Nash (1889–1946) might be best known today as the painter of Totes Meer (Dead Sea), a haunting depiction of a landscape shattered by WWII, now hanging in Tate Britain.

Nash was undoubtedly one of Britain's great war artists, and one of the few who painted in response to both Great Wars. But he was much else besides, illustrating books, designing textiles, theatre sets, posters and even turning his hand to interior design. Nash was also an important figure in the English Surrealist camp, and a co-founder of Unit One, a group dedicated to advancing the cause of modernism in Britain.

Paul Nash, The Pyramids in the Sea, 1912. Ink and watercolour on paper. Source

Nash's great passion was for landscape, which he saw through a modernist lens. In an early work such as The Pyramids in the Sea, a predilection for geometric form is fused with a visionary sensibility, a combination that was to characterize Nash's highly individual take on the natural world.

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918. Oil on canvas. Source

Stationed in France in 1917 as an Official War Artist, Nash saw that world turned upside down, and his horror at ghastly spectacle is captured in the ironically titled We Are Making a New World, a grim vista of a violence-ravaged land.

Paul Nash, Pillar and Moon, 1932–42. Oil on canvas. Source

In Nash's paintings of the 1920s and 30s, the artist drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including Romantic painter of mystic landscapes, Samuel Palmer, whose love of moon symbolism finds an echo in Nash’s Pillar and Moon.

Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935. Oil on canvas. Source

In Equivalents for the Megaliths, Nash’s response to the stone circle at Averbury, the artist appears to synthesize the metaphysical space of proto-Surrealist Giorgio di Chirico and the geometric abstraction of his Unit One colleagues Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Paul Nash, Bathroom, ca. 1932. Source. Bookbinding, 1929. Source

Nash's attraction to modernist geometry also surfaces in his design projects, such as a bookbinding for a work by Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, or the gleaming bathroom he designed for actress Tilly Losch, wife of wealthy eccentric, William James.

Paul Nash, Swanage, ca.1936. Graphite, watercolour and photographs on paper. Source

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream, 1936–8. Oil on canvas. Source

Nash’s Surrealist leanings were most evident in the mid-1930s, when he experimented with collage and dream-inspired imagery. In Swanage, Nash combined drawing and photography to capture the spirit of the strange rock formations of the Dorset coast, a favourite subject among the British Surrealists. In his most often reproduced Surrealist work, Landscape from a Dream, also set in Dorset, Nash intended the hawk gazing at himself in the mirror to represent the material world, and the spheres, the soul.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, 1943
That largest of spheres, the sun, here a glowing red, links this work with Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1943). This tribute to the day when sun and moon share equal billing was painted only a few years before Nash’s death. Although he’d painted the devastation of two world wars, his final paintings suggest that despite the trauma he suffered, this visionary artist still managed to see the light at the end of the tunnel.