Paul Nash (1889 - 1946) is regarded as one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century. Although best known for his horrific paintings of World War I, he went on to produce striking landscapes, before returning to war painting in World War II.
Born in London on May 11, 1889, the son of a successful lawyer, he was educated at St Paul's School and the Slade School of Art, where he met Stanley Spencer. He had one-man shows in 1912 and 1913, his early work influenced by Paul Cézanne and William Blake. He enlisted at the start of World War I, joining the Artists' Rifles, a volunteer regiment, alongside Charles Jagger, Bert Thomas, Edward Thomas, and his brother, fellow artist John Nash. The regiment had been founded in 1860, and earlier members included John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Nash made regular sketches while he fought, on the Western Front near Ypres, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. In 1917 he was invalided out, and worked his sketches into a number of war paintings, exhibited later that year and well-received. Nash was recruited by the War Propaganda Bureau as a war artist, returning to the western front, where his work included The Menin Road, The Ypres Salient at Night, The Mule Track, Void, A Howitzer Firing, Ruined Country, and Spring in the Trenches.
His paintings of the battlefields are shocking not so much in the horrors they depict (he shies away from blood and guts), as in their eerie nightmarish quality. They portray a world of twisted trees and mud, and their powerful use of vertical and diagonal lines to depict motion and violence recalls Vorticism and Futurist art. In fact, rather than battles, most of his paintings show wastelands, with little or no sign of life, maybe a few figures in shadows, or dark shapes hidden in the explosion of dirt, rain, jagged trees and slashes of light. His influence can be seen years later in John Keane's paintings of the aftermath of the war in Kuwait.
His classic paintings of the war include:
The Ypres Salient at Night (1917-18): dark trenches with shadowy figures facing away from the viewer, and a forest of dead trees in the background. Above, a bright flash like something from a painting of the nativity lights up the sky - a flare.
Void (Néant) (1918): utter wasteland littered with garbage. A vision of hell.
The Mule Track (1918): Another nightmarish vision, with strange twisted trees, clouds of smoke and explosions. A tiny wooden path leads through the middle, while an explosion of mud rises up like a tidal wave on one side.
The Menin Road (1919): The Menin Road was the route out of Ypres to the Front. Nash's science fiction landscape shows blasted tree trunks and mounds of mud reflected in still pools of water. Harsh straight lines, the vertical trees and slanting lines of mud and sunlight, give it a geometric perfection. Two tiny black figures, almost unrecognisable, run through the middle.
In the 1920s, he became more interested in abstract art, and his English landscapes combine a feel for rural England with modernist geometric forms, sometimes stark and wild, sometimes more gentle and pastoral. He painted mainly the landscape of Southern England, favouring such areas as the rolling downs near Swanage, Dorset, the coastline at Dymchurch in Kent, the stone circles at Avebury in Wiltshire, and the Wittenham Clumps, twin hills in Oxfordshire. His English landscapes include: Landscape of the Summer Solstice (1943), in Oxfordshire; and The Tide, Dymchurch (1920), a lithograph of the sea at the Kent seaside resort.
He also taught at the Royal College of Art, and produced woodcuts, and worked as an illustrator and designer. During World War II, he was again employed as a war artist, depicting the air war for the Ministry of Information and the Air Ministry, producing works including Battle of Britain and Totes Meer. He died in Boscolme, Hampshire on July 11, 1946.
Art of the First World War. "52 - Paul Nash". [http://www.art-ww1.com/gb/texte/052text.html]. Accessed February 18, 2002.
Schoolnet. "Paul Nash". [http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ARTnash.htm]. Accessed February 18, 2002.
First World War.org. "Who's Who: Paul Nash". [http://www.greatwar.org/Who's%20Who/nash.htm]. Accessed February 18, 2002.