|Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham, 1926|
Until, that is, we reached the finale of that piece, in which an inebriated Munnings launched a public tirade against modern art in general and Picasso in particular. Not for the only time in the programme, the excellent archive footage and recordings had more allure than the art. 'In Search of England' was the title of a book by bestselling interwar travel writer HV Morton (whose 'In Search of London' is still in print and one of the best books EVER on the city), and in the programme Dr Fox used the documentary-travelogue form to great effect.
Nash and Spencer aside, he mostly avoided the famous names of the period and instead chose artists whose work reflected the concerns and conflicts of the age: Munnings and the 'ordinary' William Coldstream stood on two sides of a divide represented in literature by Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. If this made interesting viewing it didn't necessarily show British art at its best, and Dr Fox will no doubt be lambasted as a reactionary himself - have we had a female artist yet? I don't think so... However, the day was saved by the in-depth study of Spencer and a fascinating final section on John Piper, whose exquisite painting of Coventry Cathedral, still smouldering after the previous night's bombing, has a genuine, understated greatness.
The film of Piper discussing Gainsborough and Picasso was a curiosity - what a strange old bird he was - and the sequence on the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition was fun too. I loved the old footage of people travelling by bus to Avebury, although I don't remember reading anywhere that Nash discovered the ancient stones by chance, after suffering an asthma attack on a bus. Is this really what happened?
|John Piper, Interior of Coventry Cathedral, 15 November 1940|
It would be good to know as I've been delving into Nash's life and work this year in preparation for a new book, 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', which will be published by the Mainstone Press in the autumn. As with the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series, the new book focuses on a selection of twenty-two paintings, each accompanied by a concise essay; we've decided to dedicate the first volume to Nash's oil paintings, which he used to express the ideas that pre-occupied him most. A second volume will focus on his gorgeous watercolours, which were admired greatly during his lifetime but which are now rarely seen in public.
|Paul Nash, The Wanderer, 1911|
The more I learn about Nash the more fascinating a figure he becomes. Born in 1889 he had the kind of Victorian childhood where Mother was seen for an hour in the evening. He read Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and from them gained a lifelong love of nonsense and wordplay, and though occasionally ill was robust enough to star in his school soccer team. Any sensible career path was cut off for him by his hopeless maths, yet critics later described his paintings as 'mathematical'. He seems to have been motivated by an intense inner vision, but took centre stage in the public debates of the time.
His struggle to reconcile modernity and Britishness was rather like Piper's. Nash tried abstraction, but quickly returned to the painting of natural forms - stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in some cases knew personally) Picasso, Max Ernst, de Chirico, Magritte and other modern artists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and constantly sought subjects in the British landscape that reflected his inner preoccupations; his discovery of Avebury in the summer of 1933 was part of this quest. His frequent journeys to France, including a hilarious jaunt around the Riviera with a young Edward Burra, were also part of the process.
|Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935|