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Landscape from a dream.

Paul Nash ~ Landscape from a Dream 1936-8

Paul Nash 1889-1946 one of the most important figures in of British art in the early c20 is celebrated in a new major retrospective at Tate Britain until 5 March 2017. This is the first retrospective of the artist this century and comes 100 years after his experience in the trenches of the First World War.

Nash was a pivotal figure in bringing modern international thoughts into British art. Through his work, writings and his associations with influential artistic groupings he was key in the emergence of both Modernism and Surrealism in Britain, as well as using his skill to both document and comment on the world around him through both world wars, one of the most turbulent periods of history.

The exhibition itself follows a roughly chronological layout and starts with a collection of Nash’s early works and writings. These are influenced by the works of the Pre-Raphaelite and Romantics. Dreams and metaphor are the key subjects of work that look back to the past. However Nash would concentrate on landscape and especially trees.

Trees are the subject of perhaps Nash’s most well known works. Those that he produced after his time on the front during the first world war. It was during that period that he first started to work in oils and he captured the devastation of the landscape when the guns fell silent. An alien land filled with mud and creators where tress, still standing, are burnt away like used matches. The industrial scale of the carnage never left Nash. At Ypres more than three quarters of his regiment were wiped out in the course of an afternoon, and Nash made the controversial choice to show the bodies of fallen warriors in his artwork.

Like many of his contemporaries the experience of war never left Nash, however rather than looking inward and back,into romanticism, Nash looked both forward and outward. In the post war period his work was symbolic and influenced by the international style. The form of a thing was represented by simple lines and shape.

It was during this period that Nash was influential in the formation of Unit One. For Nash this was a public statement of his belief in International Modernism, and positioned Nash alongside other British artists of the avant-guard movement. The exhibition features works by many of those associated with Unit One such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Unit One was not the only group to which Nash became associated. During the later years of his life he was a key figure in most of the avant-guard groups that formed in Britain.

1936 saw Nash was heavily involved in the International Surrealist Exhibition that took place in London. This was really the first time that Surreal art had been shown in the UK and the first time that the British would encounter Dalí, Breton and even Picasso along with many of the other key figures of international surrealism. Nash along with planning the hanging and contributing works also wrote guides to understanding surrealism, included in the exhibition are some of his correspondence with Breton. It is a fascinating insight into how a movement of art that is now accepted, if not universally loved, was first introduced into the country.

Nash once again was thrown into the role of war artist in 1940. This time he was not at the front but documented the home front and the arial battle above Britain. Paintings of the wreckage of downed planes that had been gathered together, or the stark image of a crashed plane in the centre of a peaceful landscape, both recall his First War work as well as highlight that even more this was mechanical warfare with man as the ultimate victim.

The exhibition closes with the first gathering of some of Nash’s key late work. Works that show the experience of a life led pushing boundaries while also reflecting those from his early days.

A wonderfully well thought out and presented exhibition, this retrospective is perhaps long overdue. It does showcase the full breadth of Nash’s influence, from his works down to his writing and his talent for bringing people together. Nash has at times been unfairly overlooked but here he is celebrated as the pivotal figure of early c20 avant-guard art in Britain.

~ Paul Nash is at Tate Britain till 7 March 2017 The exhibition will then take place at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich 7 April—20 Aug 2017 followed by Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle 9 September 2017—end of January 2018. For more details see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/paul-nash