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Intimations of infinity

Andrew Lambirth finds a striking metaphor for the physical limitations of earthbound existence versus the infinite freedom of the spirit in Paul Nash’s painting ‘Winter Sea’

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

Andrew Lambirth finds a striking metaphor for the physical limitations of earthbound existence versus the infinite freedom of the spirit in Paul Nash’s painting ‘Winter Sea’

Paul Nash is one of the best-loved English painters of the last century, a great imaginative artist, always trying to discover the appropriate form for what he wanted to say. Nash was a philosopher-poet who expressed himself best (though he was a good writer) in visual terms and chose landscape painting as his primary vehicle. Although he died prematurely, in 1946 at the age of 57, his work stands easily above that of most of his contemporaries, and its originality and inventiveness have continued to inspire painters and beguile the public. He saw nature as a creative mystery and painting as a way of offering insight into it. The act of making a painting was for him essentially twofold: an emotional response to a subject and a process of solving visual equations between shapes. He tended to paint elemental forms distilled from nature rather than any kind of more rigorous abstraction. Nature was much more than textbook geometry.

Nash preferred painting trees to people and his landscapes are usually empty though pregnant with mysterious possibilities. His places are temporarily deserted, as if the inhabitants had just that moment exited our field of vision. He did not depict the natural world topographically, from the outside, as the plein-air realist might draw it, sitting on an old stump and attempting to describe the surroundings. Nash painted from within, the artist making a kind of mystical identification with the landscape, offering an insider’s interpretation and thus proposing a different order of relationship with the viewer. Nash had a vision to communicate rather than visual facts. He wanted his audience to feel for themselves the importance and relevance of what he was painting.

In the first world war, Nash served in the British army in France and then worked as a war artist. His experiences at the Front affected him deeply and after the hostilities he went to live at Dymchurch on the Kent coast (1921–25) in order to recuperate from a breakdown ascribed to war strain. There is a notable emptiness to his work at this time. The flatness of the coast and nearby Romney Marsh may have recalled the plains of Flanders, and Nash apparently derived solace from gazing at the sea. He painted and drew the sea wall at Dymchurch and made of this rather stark subject many memorable images. One of the most moving and complex is ‘Winter Sea’ (1925–37), begun in Kent but completed many years later in London.

This extraordinary painting, with its long recessive planes and distinctive triangular shapes, its reduction of foaming waves and spray to stylised folds and geometric facets, presents an archetypal sea rather than a particular one. It may be based on Dymchurch — there are indeed suggestions of sea wall — but the artist’s intention was evidently to make a larger and more general statement, of what an early Nash chronicler Margot Eates called ‘the very pattern of all seas from everlasting to everlasting’.

The phrase strikes the right note of spiritual insight for Nash’s slightly melancholy Romantic Cubism. Dusk has fallen on the wintry waves. The moon is only suggested, shadowed forth through a bank of snow-laden clouds, but what we are shown is a moon-path of reflections on a night sea. Upon that path a spectator might take the first tentative steps of the mind or heart’s voyage into the infinity of faith. The first steps before being brought up sharp against a wall of dark cloud above the horizon. Here is a striking metaphor for the physical limitations of earthbound existence versus the infinite freedom of the spirit. Nash paints the limits, not the soaring of the spirit; this will come later as his work gains more assurance, when in his final years the sunflower was transfigured by flight and became a symbol of hope and resurgence. In the meantime, the sea, with its soft luminosity and yet apparent iron hardness (which has something of the armoured style of Wyndham Lewis), supplies a measured release for the soul.

Nash’s relationship with the sea was an involved one. Intended by his father for the Navy, he failed to pass the entrance exam, although commentators in later life persisted in finding traces of a seafaring past in his mien. John Rothenstein described Nash’s exceptional blue eyes thus: ‘The steadiness of their gaze, and the habitual closeness of the pupils to the upper lid gave them the far-ranging look of the eyes of sailors.’ And the art critic Herbert Read observed: ‘He carried over, with his actual career, some of the swagger of the rejected career — art, for him, was to be the Senior Service.’

‘Winter Sea’ epitomises for Nash a lifelong fascination for all things maritime and refers back in particular to a very early drawing, now in the Tate Gallery, called ‘The Pyramids in the Sea’ (1912). In this, the triangular forms seem almost to be part of the water, rather than landward pyramids in the process of being engulfed by the tide. And to take an example from his later career, ‘Winter Sea’ relates closely to ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’ of 1940–1, now also in the Tate. This is an immensely potent image of the massed hulks of crashed German planes gathered on a dump at Cowley, just outside Oxford. It is an iron sea of wreckage, an ocean of twisted metal, wings and fuselages. Here all movement is arrested, apart from a white owl gliding over the ghostly scene. The flood of planes is frozen, defeated, the threat of the sea confounded.

In the 1920s, and perhaps as a direct result of his war experiences, Nash was attempting to find an image for God. He did this consciously in an extraordinary series of 12 woodcuts he made as illustrations to the Book of Genesis, published in 1924 by The Nonesuch Press. Intense contemplation is bodied forth in powerful dark images: the woodcut relating to the division of the waters and dry land looks like a combination of ‘Winter Sea’ and ‘The Pyramids in the Sea’, though possessed of a different kind of flexed serenity.

According to one interpretation, ‘Winter Sea’ goes beyond the human and subjective into a cold realm of objectivity and perfect forms. I don’t find the image that extreme: the rectilinearity of the structure is gentled with scarcely suppressed curves, the severity of its palette is redeemed by warmer tones — pink in the brown, green in the white. The interpenetration of shapes is important, and the sense of metamorphosis: the liquid becoming solid, the sea interchangeable with the land. Nash, in this tough but surprisingly tender image, was seeking to make an equivalent for nature, not a copy, and in doing so was trying to understand the forces that shape us all.

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