'Jam For The Psycho Boys': Paul Nash & The Uncanny Landscape
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Paul Nash's faux-naif description, delivered in conjunction with his 1938 work, 'Nocturnal Landscape', betrays an unusually canny insight into the cultural context of the inter-war years. Fully conscious of the susceptibility of the art of surrealism and abstraction to psychoanalytical interpretation - Freud's sphere of influence was very much in the ascendant - Nash was wrapping the art of scepticism in an otherwise throw-away phrase.
But regardless of the merits and demerits of Freud's thinking, Nash was sufficiently self-assured, as an artist, to set his own interpretive agenda. 'The different angle of vision' for which he strove is another way of looking at landscapes.
And the skewed glance yielded something indeterminately strange, familiar yet out of kilter, as though the same 'way of seeing', to (mis)appropriate John Berger's thesis, directed the creative impulse AND encouraged an unsettling, but precisely intended, response.
The shaping of such a new angle is well documented as the comprehensive guide to this excellent exhibition at York Art Gallery indicates. John Stezaker, curator and artist in his own right, whose cropped and conflated photographs hang in an adjacent room, owes a clear conceptual debt to Nash: the juxtaposition of unrelated images, which defy conventional perception, casts a nod in the direction of Nash's surrealist excursions.
And if surrealism is not generally thought of as being Nash's strongest hand - he was greatly influenced by but less able than Magritte - a sense of 'dislocation' may usefully be applied to the general feeling derived from the kaleidoscopic range of signifiers in his oeuvre. In a synoptic storyboard description accompanying the exhibition, the word appears as part of an apothegm by philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy: 'Instead of depicting land as location, it depicts it as dislocation'.
And that sense of dislocation leads to more complex ruminations. In the presence of these landscapes we are both in the places attributed by Nash's titles, whilst viewing them in an odd, sometimes spectral, sometimes spatially disordered light.
Nash's skill as a draughtsman is both confirmed and re-arranged here: the sharp, counter-intuitive edges and corners of some of his finest paintings exhibit a close-range brutalism which diminishes, at distance, into something organic yet lifeless.
The slashes of sheet steel, armouring towards a grey horizon in 'Winter Sea' (1925-37), figure for waves as they might have been described by the Vorticists, the early twentieth century school of quasi-industrial angles and violent artistic jolts. Nash was heavily influenced by the Vorticism of Wyndham Lewis but was never in thrall to the same level of abstraction: there is a terrifying, but plausible, emptiness to a 'Winter Sea' whose sterility is as prescient as Matthew Arnold's 'darkling plain' in his poem 'Dover Beach'.
The dog-leg of promenade in 'Promenade - Dymchurch' (1922) with steps in the foreground drained of colour save for that of concrete, is bounded to the right by an unlikely and strange vision of field whose proximity fails to give life to the adjacent grey inertia. The thin figure of a woman on the prom is little more than a wraith in the empty landscape.
Dymchurch, to which Nash moved after the first world war, became his subsequent muse, along with Avebury, Romney Marshes and Swanage. And throughout the twenties and thirties, his quest for a new perspective on the conventional landscape yielded unsettling and at times disturbing images of bucolic idylls.
For certainly the canvasses in York are 'charged' with a meaning beyond the regular. 'The Corner' (1919) is a wall's right-angle in brick red, abandoned to an explosion or cataract of surrounding trees, whilst 'The Elms' (1916) is an improbable and polychromatically-green mushroom cloud set against an apocalyptically infernal sky; throwing perception into confusion, Nash adds the normality of a flock of birds in the distance.
It is to Stezaker's credit that he should interstice Nash's pictures with those of some of his near contemporaries. Nash's spatially disturbed 'The Canal' (1920) hangs adjacent to his brother, John's 'Millworkers Landscape', and 'The Corner' is near Stanley Spencer's 'Walnut Tree'.
The latter artist, who effected a strange transfiguration of landscape and people in his Cookham paintings, overlaid the otherwise humdrum with direct metaphysical suggestion, and made, like Nash himself, the ordinary look extraordinary.
The cataclysm of world war one on Nash's artistic perception, and on those of many of his contemporaries, is well documented.
The tearing up of the fabric of social and cultural locators created new ways of envisioning the world for both artists and writers. Modernist authors subverted conventional narrative approaches by writing in 'streams of consciousness'; the Vorticists rendered landscapes in images of the military/industrial complex - trees and skies conceived in blades of steel, metallic, inert, like so many spent shell casings.
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His surrealist ventures, which are well represented here alongside several line-drawing prototypes for pictures, formulate absurdity - another reasonable response to war - out of utterly unrelated subjects. 'Harbour and Room' (1932-6) is an exercise in incompatibility which depicts an elegant drawing room containing a harbour and prosaically-described ship, yet the juxtaposition is no more ridiculous than a game of football unfolding in No-Man's-Land.
Nash's engagement with the politics of war finds a direct, even satirical, outlet in his 'Don't Forget the Diver' of 1942, a Hogarthian cartoon of a picture, showing a sea mine containing an image of a skull. A perfect conflation of military ineptitude, war's futility and black comedy, this wonderfully detailed vignette almost disguises its own gravitas.
The skull, like the inscription on the tomb in Poussin's prophetic 'Et in Arcadia ego', tells us all we need to know about the proximity of Death. Who, in the profoundest of senses, is the unseen figure directing Paul Nash's hand here, and elsewhere.
Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape - at York Art Gallery until 15th April, 2018.
'Jam For The Psycho Boys': Paul Nash & The Uncanny Landscape, 12th November 2017, 9:15 AM