Review: Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape

Written by Anna Shave

Photos by Jagoda Hroboni

Paul Nash is the subject of a new exhibition at York Art Gallery, ‘Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape’, curated by fellow artist John Stezaker. Whilst the acclaimed British artist’s inter-war landscape paintings are its central focus, visitors are also treated to a wonderfully detailed private collection of artworks and personal items belonging to Paul Nash, as well as an intriguing selection of John Stezaker’s own photographic collages.

The gallery’s central room hosts a selection of paintings by Nash and his contemporaries exploring a disillusionment with unreality through depictions of the natural world and everyday objects. Whilst Nash’s most famous works are those he painted during the First World War, this exhibition focuses instead on its aftermath: the war-ravaged English countryside is clearly a central point of inspiration.

In 1925, whilst Nash was living on the coast near the Romney Marshes recuperating from shell-shock and depression, he produced a series of deeply influential pieces known as the Dymchurch paintings. As John Stezaker points out in the exhibition’s introductory label, these ‘planted the seeds for a new spatial order for British landscape painting in the inter-war years and beyond’. The culmination of these works is ‘Winter Sea’, a fitting centrepiece of the exhibition. Residing on the back wall of the central gallery, the painting is one of total desolation, with its harsh, angular lines and an unforgiving contrast between muddy browns and metallic whites.

To complement the ‘Uncanny Landscape’ paintings displayed in the central gallery, a rare insight into Anstice Shaw’s Private Collection allows the visitor to delve deeply into the personal lives of Paul Nash, his wife Margaret, and brother John. This collection, perhaps the most accessible part of the exhibition, offers a detailed presentation of both artworks and personal items. On show, for example, are his letters and greetings cards, one of his sketchbooks, as well as a watercolour palette used by John Nash.

By including a selection of Paul Nash’s various artistic endeavours, such as his sketches, lithographs, and engravings, the diversity of his craft is clearly demonstrated. A particularly interesting piece is a collaborative photomontage with Edward Burra, ‘Rough on Rats’, an intense juxtaposition of drawn and cut-out images that speaks of their growing interest in Surrealism. Some examples of Nash’s photography are also on show; whilst these were often only preparatory material, they are fascinating pieces in their own right that demonstrate a complex interplay between hard edges and hollowed shadows found in the natural world.

The Private Collection also highlights Nash’s devotion to his suffragist wife, Margaret. She is the subject of two very contrasting portraits which detail a change in the artist’s outlook following his involvement in the war; the latter a much darker, stylistic piece. Poignantly, a watercolour painting of Margaret looking out to sea painted the day before his death, and thought to be his very last work, is also on display.

The final part of the exhibition houses a selection of Stezaker’s own collages. Clearly fascinated with the uncanny landscapes of the central gallery, Stezaker’s disjointed landscape collages are a direct response to Paul Nash. These works combine and mirror photographs to destabilise the original imagery, creating a similarly disturbing tone evoked by Nash’s paintings. Alongside these are works from Stezaker’s ‘Mask’ collection, a heavily figure-based series of collages in which 1950s actors and actresses are partly concealed by postcards of natural landscapes and urban objects; the point at which images become obsolete, illegible and mysterious appears to be the central thread that ties Stezaker’s collages together.

All in all, ‘Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape’ is a unique, diverse and well-curated exhibition that is definitely worth a visit. Its tripartite structure, beginning with the selection of landscape paintings in the central gallery before opening out to Anstice Shaw’s Private Collection and John Stezaker’s ‘Aftermath’, allows it to encapsulate the multiple facets of Nash’s life, both artistic and personal, as well as highlight his immense influence as one of the most important landscape painters of the twentieth century.

“Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape” will be on display at York Art Gallery until April 15th 2018

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