Monday, 15 March 2010

Paul Nash at Dulwich


The Dulwich Picture Gallery is an institution that Knows What it Likes. to wit good old-fashioned oil paintings. No anguished scribblings or pickled whatnots in jars, just fine pictures by Rembrandt, Poussin and other luminaries. Walking in to the place one is transported back to an age before Isms, and in context the work of Paul Nash - some of it now a century old - seems almost outrageously inventive.

This is the first decent Nash exhibition since the show at Tate Liverpool in 2003, and he has nothing like the profile he deserves. I suspect that I'm not alone in having grown up believing that Turner was the last British painter that ever lived. I learned about French Impressionists, German Expressionists and American Abstract Expressionists. We had Lowry and Henry Moore.

Yes, things have changed since then. Whiteread, Hirst and co demonstrated that you could both live in Britain and create great art. Yet the work of previous generations has continued to be ignored; Nash, who was both a gifted and committed painter and an innovator, has until now languished in obscurity.

The current show may a bit testing thematically, but at least the pictures are on the wall, and you can see what made Nash both fascinating and highly successful. In the 1930s, when everyone was busy taking sides - Right vs Left, Representation vs Abstraction - he resolutely followed his own path. Like Eric Ravilious, his pupil, Nash found a new way of painting the English landscape, but whereas Ravilious combined his technical mastery of watercolour with a seer's vision to create images of haunting beauty, Nash toyed with the landscape to suit his symbolic needs.

Sometimes the effect is puzzling. Eclipse of the Sunflower, for instance, leaves me wondering if I'm missing something. On other occasions it is astonishing; Pillar and Moon (at the top of the post) is the kind of painting that keeps you awake at night.

3 comments:

  1. Paul Nash was a visionary, I think. Very different from his also-very-talented brother John. John Nash's art is deft, witty, and realistic. Paul's is Blakeian.

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  2. Thank you for posting this splendid and very thoughtful piece on Paul Nash - I think that the exhibition at Dulwich is excellent and also quite timely. Have you read "A Crisis of Brilliance" by David Boyd Haycock? That is an excellent collecttive biography of a few members of the Slade "golden generation" of which Nash was a member and charts the impact of the war upon them all - it is good for putting his work in context. Also - if you are in or around London there is a retrospective exhibition just opened of the work of Rupert Lee - a lesser known artist who was extremely close to Nash and at the Slade at the same time - the exhibition contains Lee's war art which makes an interesting accompanyment to that of Nash.

    A pleasure to discover your blog, thanks for sharing

    Hannah

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  3. Thank you Hannah - I had a quick look at your blog this morning and it looks fascinating. will peruse further...

    James

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