Abstract Landscapes Gone Surreal
PAUL NASH'S life (1889-1946) was hardly unique in spanning two world wars and extending, in art terms, from late Victorian symbolism to the impassioned avant-garde polarities of the 1930s, abstraction and surrealism. What is specially intriguing is that the development of his painting responded directly to these events in both the outside world and the art world.
At root, his art is a poetic vision of English landscape. It belongs to a tradition going back at least as far as the topographical watercolor painters of the 18th century. Like some of England's most outstanding landscape painters, Constable and Turner for example, Nash discovered that he could express his ideas through images of land, ocean, sky, tree, and hill, while the human figure eluded both his drawing skills and his deeper feelings.
His landscapes are invested with meaning and potency which includes human beings by implication: The human being moving, dreaming, speculating within its spaces and shadows, is, in fact, the artist. Figures occasionally creep rather surreptitiously (and not very convincingly) into Nash paintings. But largely they are an invisible presence.
However, if people are not depicted as part of his universe, their effect is felt in Nash's fascination for the inescapable evidence of human intervention in it. Biographer Anthony Bertram quotes Nash's phrase "inhabited landscape" and explains: "He generally meant that man had left an Object in the landscape or that an Object had invaded it or somehow taken charge of it...."
The possibility of making an imaginative dream world out of his direct observations of landscape was something persistent in Nash's art. At first, he followed artists like William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in adopting the stance of a "visionary." A romantic, moonlit kind of poetry pervaded his pictures. In the first world war, this poetic dreaminess shockingly gave way to a nightmare that seemed only too real, and he made powerful landscapes out of war's devastations.
In the 1920s and '30s, many English artists were torn between a classical, pure abstraction and the irrational juxtapositions, disquietingly subversive imagery that could be dredged up from "the subconscious." At this time, Nash, who had been feeling in a dead-end period, began to break free. He sensed (partly as the result of being an active art critic as well as a painter) that English artists had been too timid and hesitant compared with modern French artists. For a while Nash thrashed around interest ingly between the abstract and the surreal. His own strange vision, however, was not completely submerged, and in the end he used both abstraction and surrealism to his own ends.
"Equivalents for the Megaliths" (1935) brings together many of Nash's pre-occupations. It is on one level a literal depiction of a landscape. Somewhat dry. It is a deliberately drawn image; Nash was not a painter who was stimulated by the movements and freedoms of paint itself. A close friend, the playwright and poet Gordon Bottomley, had once said that "the greatest mystery comes from the greatest definiteness," a credo, almost, for works by such surrealist painters as Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chi rico, as well as for Nash himself. These two artists clearly exerted considerable influence over Nash in the '20s and '30s, but he can never be accused of blatant imitation.
In his book on Nash, Andrew Causey, an authority on the artist, reproduces a 1931 painting by Magritte - an imaginary townscape called "Mental Calculus" - just below Nash's "Equivalents for the Megaliths." He also shows an illustration from an 18th-century book on perspective in which an assemblage of three-dimensional geometrical solids are placed in a "realistic" landscape setting. These may well have been direct sources for Nash's painting, but (as Causey does not fail to point out) Nash's own playing
around with objects to make "surrealist" still lifes also sparked his imagination. And so did two other equally significant things.
THE first was a project in 1931 to make illustrations for writings by the 17th-century author Sir Thomas Browne. Causey observes how Browne "liked to move from the particular to the general," which Nash also did, and in two quotations from Browne, Causey also touches on a mainspring of Nash's art.
Browne wrote that natural forms "do neatly declare how nature Geometrizeth, and observeth order in all things." And that "All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven." Nash, by his own admission, was useless at mathematics. His fascination for "geometry" was an aesthetic, imaginative one, and had little to do with measurement. But underlying his work there is an insistent sense of "another order." Browne helped him discover new ways in his paintings to suggest this.
His encounter in the summer of 1933 with the megaliths - the great stones set in circles and avenues - and the earth-mound at Avebury on the Wiltshire downs also had a profound effect on Nash. These ancient stones, older than Stonehenge, fed his imagination for some years afterward. The stones of Avebury surfaced indirectly - in "Equivalents" for instance, and some other paintings during this period, exploited a similar relationship of "geometrized" abstract forms, sculpturally solid, placed in landscape s setting with an almost theatrical calculation.
Nash himself (in 1937) described the motivation of these paintings - specifically of "Equivalents." After linking them to his experience of Avebury, he goes on in his characteristically discursive way: "These groups are impressive as forms opposed to their surroundings, both by virtue of their actual composition of lines and masses and planes, directions and volume; and in the irrational sense, their suggestion of a super-reality. They are dramatic, also, however, as symbols of their antiquity, as hall owed remnants of an almost unknown civilization. In designing the picture I wished to avoid the very powerful influence of this antiquarian suggestion, and to insist only upon the dramatic qualities of a composition of shapes equivalent to the prone or upright stones simply as upright or prone, or leaning masses, grouped together in a scene of open fields and hills. Beyond that resolve the picture cannot be traced, logically. It developed inevitably in its own way."