Review: ‘British Art at War: Paul Nash’ on BBC Four

16 September 2014

‘British Art at War: Bomberg, Sickert and Nash — Paul Nash: The Ghosts of War’

In the first episode of a three-part series on ‘British Art At War’, Andrew Graham-Dixon waxes lyrical – by way of plentiful pictorial analysis – over war artist Paul Nash, whose relationship with nature, his primary and once pastoral subject, was devastated by two wars.

Nash went to serve for Britain in the First World War in 1914. However, while at the front in 1917, he fell into a trench. Stretchered home to England with broken ribs, the incident meant the artist narrowly avoided the start of the Battle of Passchendaele only a few days later, in which his entire regiment was killed.

His experience in combat had already provided inspiration enough for his work; Nash’s post-war painting underwent a dramatic change of style. Graham-Dixon credits Nash with inventing a new kind of war art through nature, painting to ‘honour the ghosts of the dead’ and tell the horrors that befell soldiers.

The hour-long programme returns repeatedly to why he did not paint human figures. Recognising Nash throughout as chiefly a landscape artist, the assertion that Nash was in some way ‘unable’ to directly represent soldiers in human form, depicting them only abstractly as ‘ghosts’, doesn’t quite hold.

Influenced by surrealism in the early 1920s, Nash became the ‘pre-eminent painter of the enigma’, suggests Graham-Dixon. This is explored far more convincingly, with examples of his work with found objects and photography, and close-up images of his striking paintings. Nash was appointed an official war artist once again during the Second World War, this time with a fascination for the airborne. Nash suffered from severe asthma, and his health deteriorated in the 1940s. He carried on painting landscapes, more idyllic than before, until he died in 1946.

Although links between the personal and the artistic are often overwrought, the first instalment of this series serves an effective biographical retrospective, and a prime example of the effects of war on the creative mind.

First broadcast 14 September 2014 at 9pm, BBC Four. Now available on BBC iPlayer.

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  1. Simon Broadley Sep 18 2014 at 5:38 pm

    Love Paul Nash and was both grateful for and thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtfully produced programme.

    I agree that some of Graham-Dixon’s extrapolations seemed a bit of a stretch, but I like him and appreciate someone who is thinking on their feet and feeling it, rather than simply regurgitating scripted links. He did bring his subject to life, made you care, helped you see.

    The one omission that struck me was any meaningful mention of brother John. They both attended the Slade, were fascinated by nature, both war artists etc. John wasn’t transformed in quite the way Paul was, but he’s still a wonderful British artist and there are similarities in their work. I was surprised this wasn’t touched on, if only to provide a contrast.

    Anyway, it was a great programme and a fitting tribute to one of Britain’s best.

  2. Judith Nash Oct 6 2014 at 4:57 am

    An interesting programme, although on the biographical side, more on Paul’s wife Margaret Odeh, an Oxford graduate and Women’s Rights activist, would have added to it rather than too much romantic conjecture on his relationship with Eileen Agar. Also, as Simon Broadley suggests above, mention of John who (unlike his artist wife) didn’t in fact study at the Slade, but was a war artist and wonderful landscape painter, would, I think, also have added to the programme’s interest.

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