Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre

I took the opportunity of the proximity of the Sainsbury Centre to visit the Paul Nash exhibition there. I was aware of his work although mainly the wartime landscape scenes, so I was keen to see the fall variety of his work. As this is landscape photography course, however,  I will concentrate here on the landscape paintings of Nash.

One of the first paintings to be seen within the exhibition is the Menin Road

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

Mark Hudson in the Telegraph (1) describes this painting as "undeniably evocative, with its tiny figures picking their way across a battle-ravaged wilderness, but it feels like a calculatedly monumental work, constructed from small details". 

The gallery notes explain how Nash "Uses geometric form to unify the composition” and “he discovered a new artistic language of powerfully simplified forms which both conveyed the appearance of ravaged landscapes and suggested violent emotional experiences".

I did find it a very moving work speaking of the futility and barbarism of war. But I found the ironically titled We are Making a New World even more evocative. 

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

Hudson describes this painting as one "in which the sun rises through red mist onto a starkly-patterned morass of shell-holes. Even in the midst of battle, Nash’s feel for the rhythms of landscape didn’t desert him”.

The gallery notes refer to the "disorienting effect of geometric shapes” and describe the painting as a  "powerfully symbolic statement about the impact of war. Rather than showing the catastrophic loss of human life, this is signified by the dead trees and shattered landscape illuminated by the sun rising over blood red clouds".

These were two paintings where the title landscape does not do full credit to what the artist is trying to achieve, in both of them whilst portraying a particular view at a particular time, in this case during the First World War, the paintings speak more about the futility and barbarism of armed conflict.

Nash’s most famous war painting is Totes Meer (Dead Sea)

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea),1940–1, Photo © Tate,
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
Original image can be seen at

where the smashed remains of German aeroplanes morph into waves beating against the beach. As Laura Cumming says in the Guardian (2) "They pack the painting like the icebergs of Scott’s doomed expedition to Antarctica, and yet they seem even older, appearing beneath the flight of an owl and a crescent moon. The picture was painted in 1940-1, but it could be set in a nuclear winter". 

What was particularly interesting here is that the curators had placed the painting next to a photograph, taken by Nash, of the aeroplanes at Cowley dump, so you could see the influence of this on the composition of his painting.

Paul Nash, Black and white negative, wrecked aircraft, Cowley Dump: 1940, Photo © Tate,
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
See image on the Tate website at:

But it was some of the other landscapes which caught my attention, in particular his seascapes As Michael Prodger says in the New Statesman (3) "His seaside was a haunting, stark place: the waves held back by the angular sea wall … suggested the trenches and no-man’s land, and in Winter Sea he painted the water as a mass of metallic shards in a green the colour of putrefaction. It is an image of utter desolation”.

One area which gave me cause to think about how I might represent such things in my photography was in The Dreaming Trees section of the exhibition where the gallery notes describe Nash’s earliest works where he "combined mysterious figures with landscape settings to evoke a supernatural world, and explored the dreamlike atmosphere of the moonlit night landscape ". Apparently Nash associated the landscape at night with visionary experiences. Elsewhere in the exhibition the gallery notes  describe "Many of the factors that characterise Nash’s symbolic approach to landscape … paths representing choices, trees that stand in for the human figure, and water for oblivion”.

In one of the later rooms “Unseen Landscapes” Nash is quoted as talking of "the landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived ". This was taken from Paul Nash "Unseen Landscapes" in country life magazine of May 1938 and there is more detail on The Tate Website.

I was particularly taken by Nash’s night-time landscapes with their menacing presences, such as The Cliff to the North, this is something that I would like to explore further as I make my way through this course.