Charting a lifetime’s work, from the artist's earliest drawings through to his iconic Second World War paintings.

The First World War changed Paul Nash’s work irrevocably. In 1917, from the Allied army headquarters near Passchendaele, he wrote to his wife, ‘I have seen the most frightful nightmare… I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger’.

His landscape paintings, once lyrical illustrations in pale inks and wash, darkened into shell-blasted battlegrounds. Trees developed hard edges and dead-black shadows, moonlight and sunshine lost all warmth. Later that year the critic Roger Fry praised Nash’s ‘very special talent for recording a certain poetical aspect of such scene[s] in a way that no other artist could’.

Nash worried that following the armistice his days would be filled with the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’. But, as a new retrospective of his work at Tate Britain promises to reveal, he remained a keen messenger long after his official duties as a war artist were over. This time, however, it was avant-garde ideas concerning abstraction and Surrealism that he conveyed to Britain from the Continent.

Looking to artists such as Picasso and de Chirico, Nash began to experiment with fragmented picture planes and abstract forms, and in the late 1920s inanimate objects and geometric shapes made their first surreal appearances within his landscape scenes. In 1933 Nash founded the influential (though short-lived) Unit One, a gathering of like-minded artists, sculptors and architects that included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Announcing the group in a letter to The Times, Nash wrote that Unit One was ‘to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit’. English art, he believed, could be strengthened by maintaining two objectives: ‘the pursuit of form’ and ‘the pursuit of the soul’.

That same summer he became preoccupied with the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire and began exploring prehistory, archaeology, Druid myths and mysticism through writing, photography and collage as well as painting. England’s ancient, secretive landscapes provided a way of reconciling his admiration for its pastoral traditions – including the fantastical imaginings of William Blake – with his compulsion towards European Surrealist and metaphysical ideas.

Yet Nash’s reputation has been haunted by a magazine article in which he noted, ‘Whether it is possible to “Go Modern” and to still “Be British” is a question that is vexing quite a few people today. Emphasising his engagement with the interwar international art scene, the curators of this Tate retrospective – the largest exhibition of his work for a generation – reveal that this was not his dilemma; Nash believed that it was possible to respond to ideas from abroad and still make distinctively British works of art. Using observed forms and familiar landscapes to anchor his interest in experimental art, he navigated between painting’s past and its future, and invited others to join him on the journey.

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