In 1917, Paul Nash wrote a letter to his wife from Ypres: ‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever.’ Nash had returned to the Western Front after convalescing in England and was appalled by what he found: a ruined, flooded landscape of endless death, where all nature – men, horses, trees – was reduced to charred lumps half-sunk in mud. While future stars of European art were hanging around a titty bar in Zurich inventing Dada, Nash was forced to create his own nightmare language to deliver his message.
Nash’s WWI paintings are his most famous works, and justifiably. The huge ‘Menin Road’ and especially ‘We Are Making a New World’ – with its alien hummocked earthworks and sky like a sinkful of blood draining down a plughole – look at the horrors of war, but obliquely. It’s like Nash literally cannot comprehend what he has seen; all he can try to do is suggest its horrible inhuman strangeness. This show puts that in context. Throughout his career, Nash constantly refashioned landscape. His early, pre-1914 works have a watered-down symbolism. Later, he turns to abstraction then to a more overt surrealism. His best paintings from the 1920s and ’30s reconfigure his Great War works into a kind of rural English dreamscape: in ‘Landscape at Iden’ (1929), chopped logs are piled like artillery shells, as clouds blockade the Sussex sky. These are disconcerting works – silent, empty of people.
At times, this is a gruelling show: Nash is a tightly wound artist and his variations on his themes can be hard to engage with. But it’s a rewarding one. At his best, Nash combines surrealism and Englishness while avoiding both the superficial trickery of the former and the parochial lyricism of the latter. He is sometimes criticised for failing to show the human cost of war explicity, but this show suggests something perhaps darker: a post-human world in which nature and abstract forms have closed ranks against man. And when you see what man leaves behind in his path, who can blame them?