The War Art of Paul Nash (1917–1944)

The work of the English artist Paul Nash (1889–1946) — one of the most important landscape artists of the twentieth century — entered the public domain this year in many countries around the world. It is in his depictions of the destroyed and broken landscapes of the First and Second World War, which we are celebrating in this post, that perhaps we see Nash's talent and his engagement with modernity most acutely visible. As the art historian T. J. Clark comments, "it seems that the 20th century only came to Nash, as something paintable, in the form of total war".

Nash spent the few years preceding the war studying art in London — including a curtailed stint at the Slade, with Ben Nicholson and Dora Carrington among others — followed by a few exhibitions, on occasion with his also very talented brother John. With the outbreak of the First World War Nash enlisted, albeit reluctantly, as a private for home service in the Second Battalion, a position which allowed him time to continue making art without too much interruption. In the summer of 1916, however, Nash began officer training and by February the following year was on the Western Front at the Ypres Salient as a second lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment. A relatively quiet few months in the region spared him the full intensity of the Front, before he had to be airlifted back to London an invalid after falling into a trench. A few days later, in an assault on their position known as Hill 60, most of his unit was killed. While recuperating for his injuries, Nash produced a series of drawings, working from sketches made at the Front, and exhibited them in June to a positive reception. Encouraged by the response he succesfully applied to become an official war artist, and in November 1917 returned to the Ypres Salient as a uniformed observer complete with batman and driver. After six weeks at the Front, working at a frantic pace and taking frequent risks to get as close as possible to the action, Nash emerged with what he described as "fifty drawings of muddy places". Over the next years he would use these drawings to create many of the iconic paintings featured below.

The interwar period saw Nash continue to push boundaries with his work, taking it into ever more surreal and experimental realms — his "love of the monstrous and magical", as he described it, leading him "beyond the confines of natural appearances into unreal worlds”. With the outbreak of World War Two the War Artists' Advisory Committee appointed Nash as a full-time salaried war artist post attached to the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry. The works he produced, not without controversy, would become ever-more abstract, culminating in his final piece for the WAAC entitled Battle of Germany in September 1944. Eighteen months later, on 11 July 1946, he died in his sleep from heart failure brought on by the severity of his long-term asthma.

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