In 1932 Paul Nash posed the question, is it possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British?’ — a conundrum that still perplexes the national consciousness more than 80 years later. It is true that the artist himself answered that query with an emphatic ‘yes’. But, as the fine exhibition at Tate Britain makes clear, his modernism was deeply traditional.
The truth is that Nash (1889–1946) was what the author Alexandra Harris has termed a ‘romantic modern’. In other words, his art was a characteristic Anglo-Saxon attempt to have things both ways. Equally typically, he managed to do so — but only some of the time.
Nash’s early drawings and watercolours, done in his early twenties, reveal his starting point. Most are landscapes of his native Buckinghamshire and, in one case, ‘Wittenham Clumps’ (1913), an Iron Age hill fort near Didcot that continued to haunt Nash’s imagination for the rest of his life. He was instinctively attuned to the uncanny sense of presence he found in such objects as eroded stones and bits of gnarled wood; on the other hand, Nash was hopeless with human beings, who more or less disappear from his art after the first few years.
In many ways, Nash might seem backward-looking, preoccupied as he was with the poetic and mystical overtones of places such as Avebury stone circle. But his antiquarianism did not prevent a romance with the artistic cutting edge. In the late 1930s he came across a corner of farmland littered with fallen trees resembling dragons or dinosaurs, which he dubbed ‘Monster Field’. This was the subject of some remarkable photographs and slightly anaemic watercolours (Nash was distinctly hit-and-miss as a painter). Monster Field was a set of surrealist found objects, in an English landscape mode.
For all his romanticism, Nash was a keen follower of the latest developments across the Channel.