Thursday, 3 May 2007

Week Five: The Neo Romantics

Exploring the ‘mind landscapes’ of Paul Nash

Paul Nash is an unusual case within the categorization of artists. He was an Englishman and expressed this emphatically through his choice of landscapes, but he was also influenced by artists from around Europe and incorporated their styles into his work to create new ways of looking at and depicting his subjects. Nash is now considered to be a Neo-Romantic, but his later work in particular also shows aspects of the Symbolist de Chirico and the contemporary developments within Abstract art. It is therefore necessary in any discussion of his landscapes to first explore his relationship with the Romantics and other significant movements, and how these influences led to the creation of works both deeply English and daringly international in scope. From there we can examine specific works, their origins and how they related to both the artist himself and the landscapes he responded to.

The Romantics represent to many the pinnacle of English artistic achievement, where artists such as Turner, Constable and Blake created works both technically brilliant and representative of the English landscape aesthetic. Perhaps more importantly, they also bathed their subjects in a Romantic golden light, almost Italianate in their glow, which portrayed England as God’s country and the landscape as created to a design unmatched by human endeavours. These were landscapes and seascapes which, and with which, the public could identify, and this in itself served to remind the people of the loveliness of their country and the presence of a higher being within it. This determination to re-establish a national identity through images of the landscape at its best was sparked by developments in science and technology that threatened the religious and national beliefs of the country. Galileo and others were proving that the creation of Nature could be explained through science and mathematics[1], rather than through faith, and this meant that the mystery and glory of Nature was being taken away from those whose artistic sensibility meant that they could not accept science as the answer to all. They felt the development of a ‘God-shaped void’[2] and their reaction was to create works which re-established the mystique of Nature, with a focus on the English countryside. This movement became a ‘cultural phenomenon’[3] in 1790 and had died out by the 1840s. A hundred years later, in the 1940s, the Neo-Romantics had also chosen the study of Nature as a way of reviving the national spirit, this time because two World Wars had created a loneliness and despair in Britain that made the ‘search for a national artistic identity seem all the more urgent and necessary’[4].

The term Neo-Romantic is used to describe those artists who took their influence from the work of the Romantics, but who went further in their investigation of Nature, not just as a means to convey the beauty of a landscape but as a way of exploring the relationships between Nature and Man, and, more specifically, Nature and the artist. This personal response allowed artists to project their own emotions onto a landscape, and so to react to their instincts about each place they depicted. There were nine major Neo-Romantic painters[5] but they each came to their art independently, without a manifesto or group exhibitions[6]. In fact, ‘the Neo-Romantics did not know who they were until the reviewers told them’[7], which allowed them to separately create a vision of their country which, collectively, displayed a national need for both the glorification of Britain and the establishment of a national identity through landscape art.

The work of Paul Nash fits into Neo-Romanticism in the sense that throughout his life he remained a ‘lover of the English countryside’[8], although, despite ‘some acquaintance with Wales and parts of Northern England, he never got as far as Cornwall or Scotland[9]. From looking at the quantity of works he created over his three decades of artistic production, we can ascertain that some locations became almost obsessions for Nash, perhaps because of his emotional need to escape town life, but more precisely because of the importance of ‘feeling properly situated[10] and connected with the landscape, as if he found solace in these familiar places. Frequent returns to the same location signals another important Neo-Romantic characteristic – the importance of engaging with the spirit of the place, responding to it not merely on an aesthetic level but also on a spiritual one.

Nash’s projection of his own emotions and influences on to landscapes increased during the last six years of his life, between 1940 and 1946. The respiratory problems from which he had suffered for many years had become chronic, and this limited both his physical movement and his ability to travel around the country in search of new scenes and inspiration. Like many encountering old age or sickness, Nash felt a pull back to places important during his childhood, and for this reason he spent much of his time, personal and artistic, on Wittenham Clumps, near Wallingford in Oxfordshire. His work became abstract and introverted, turning away from traditional landscape painting and representing instead the dreams, emotions and imaginings of the artist in response to his chosen landscapes. These can be described as Nash’s mind landscapes, and signal an important shift in his art, believed to be a reaction to a premonition of death.

Unusual within the work of the Neo-Romantics, but consistent with the work of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, is the almost complete absence of people in Nash’s work, which is particularly relevant because the Neo-Romantics sought to explore the relationship between Nature and Man. Nash, in contrast, chose instead to concentrate on the relationship between Nature and his inner self, which provides a greater insight into the artist than perhaps could be obtained from a more traditional peopled landscape. Let us therefore explore significant works produced during the years that even Nash himself referred to as his ‘last phase’[11], during which time he appeared to settle his conflicts with both Nature and himself. Nash produced both oil works on canvas and watercolours but the images we will consider were all depicted in oil, suggesting that they required time and contemplation which did not suit the relative speed of watercolour painting.

Demonstrating the influence of de Chirico, Nash’s November Moon (1942, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) identifies a mushroom and a cut flower as the focal points of the painting; small objects brought into sharp relief by the low viewpoint. In addition to his Symbolist leanings, this can also be attributed to Nash’s now limited movement and his use of binoculars to observe the landscape. Through the glass small objects could be enlarged and the landscape distanced, and many of Nash’s later works were painted as such, also incorporating the flatness derived from viewing a landscape through a lens[12]. Throughout his life but particularly during his last years, Nash was interested in the cycles of nature; the growth and then the withering of plants; the turn of the seasons and the “dying” of the sun as it declined both at night and at the beginning of winter. The choice of a mushroom and flower that have been picked and that therefore will shrivel and die could point to a concern with the end of life[13], and with the amount of time allocated to each being. The painting appears to be divided into two sections, with cold colours being employed on the left and warm colours on the right. This could represent day and night, the move from the brightness of the sun to the cool of the evening, or, for a more universal interpretation, the swift move between life and death. However, there is a progressive warming of colour rather than a harsh shift, perhaps showing that, to Nash, the move between life and death was not a harsh action but a matter of gradual acceptance which he was beginning to come to terms with. Nash also included two rows of cypress trees – traditionally a symbol of mourning[14] – on the cold side of the canvas, which fits with the idea of the painting representing both death and life. Just as the colours brighten and gain warmth so do the trees become more abstract as they move across the canvas; they are still identifiable as trees but appear almost fused together into a mass of blue, brown and white tones. The painting is not naturalistic, taking its influence from Abstract and Expressionist art, but the earthy colours, which reflect the tones of the sky on to the earth and vice versa, create a very English image, focusing on the brown and blue tones rather than the more vibrant yellows and reds found in continental landscapes. The irregular shape of the sun is also a recurrent image within Nash’s work, where often an egg-shape is incorporated to symbolise new life and expectation. Here, however, the sun is so pale that it seems to represent both the sun, because it appears on the warm side of the canvas, and the moon, due to its colour, so incorporating both day and night.

In contrast to November Moon, the earlier Eclipse of the Sunflower (1940-1, Tate Britain) is a dramatic exploration of the power of the sun over life on earth. The sun itself takes form of a sunflower, a popular motif during Nash’s last years, but here it is mostly blacked-out by a large, black, circular object, almost as if the moon is commandeering the most prominent place in the sky. The light coloured sky is overtaken by black clouds and the central sunflower, again a smaller object given critical importance, withers and dies without the sun’s rays. This is an interpretation of winter, ‘representing the seasonal death of living matter’[15], but portrayed as if the move from autumn to winter was a rapid, brutal event. The colours here are heightened to create an atmosphere of tension and threat, possibly drawing from de Chirico’s Solitude (1912, Estorick Collection) or Melancholy and Mystery of a Street (1913, Private Collection) – disturbing street scenes in which light and dark, and isolated figures or objects, are juxtaposed to spark unease in the spectator. The landscape itself is not identifiable, leading to the conclusion that this was one of Nash’s first mind landscapes; a reaction to a sunflower in terms of his own mortality and therefore that of all other beings.

An important theme in the work of Paul Nash has yet to be considered, one which could be said to have fuelled the most significant work of his last years; the idea and image of aerial flowers. In 1944 Nash wrote the article Aerial Flowers, which described how his imaginings about flight, which he never accomplished due to consistent ill health, sparked the image of flowers blossoming in the sky. There were two distinct catalysts for the development of this theme; investigation into the rituals of Midsummer and the trauma of the First and Second World Wars. During World War I Nash served as a military artist and developed a fascination with aeroplanes and the experience of flight. A prime example of his interpretations of wartime experience is Flight of the Magnolia (1944, Tate Britain) in which an enormous flower metamorphoses out of the clouds[16] and appears to travel across a seascape. This is an unusual image but a mind landscape nonetheless, as Nash linked these floating flowers to the threat of aerial attacks during the war. In his article Nash described his previous delight in incorporating the sky into his works but how once the war began and aerial bombing became a constant threat he observed the population beginning to watch the sky, ‘expecting some terror to fall’[17]. When Nash, on the other hand, turned his vision skywards, he looked not for bombs but ‘for what I most dreaded in my own imagining. It was a white flower’[18]. This fear originated during the Spanish Civil War, where Spaniards described soldiers with parachutes falling out of the sky as ‘the rose of death’[19], an image that remained with Nash and led to many paintings of ‘that dreadful miracle of the sky blossoming with these floating flowers’[20]. The result is a series of images which at first glance appear merely surreal but with this information become imbued with all the threat and fear of war. Here too there is an egg-shaped object but, unlike in previous works, this is more reminiscent of a bomb about to fall than of a symbol of new life. Nash employed a lighter palette in this work, and both warm and cool tones within the sky, as if to superimpose this icon of threat over a calm scene. However, with Nash’s inspiration for this work in mind, the pink sky becomes the remnant of a burning town left behind by the enemy who is now moving slowly and gracefully towards the spectator. During the last few years of his life Nash produced both celebratory paintings and works imbued with sadness, but all can be linked – and were linked by the artist – to death in some form. Flight of the Magnolia demonstrates the artistic connection between a beautiful image and the sadness of human demise, a theme recurrent throughout Nash’s mind landscapes. Nash himself wrote:

It is death I have been writing about all this time…Death, about which we are all thinking, death, I believe, is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly. Personally I feel that if death can give us that death will be good.[21]

It could be that this infatuation fuelled Nash’s mind landscapes, turning images depicting the transition between light and darkness into celebrations of death.[22] In the following two mind landscapes this celebration has evolved into the Druid rituals Nash discovered in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and in particular the last two volumes on Balder the Beautiful. Nash related the Balder myth – Balder died each winter and was then reborn – to his own concern with Nature’s seasonal changes and thus showed in his work that the sun must decline each year in order to rise again the next. Many of his scenes employ cold colours and an absence of sun and Frazer’s influence is relevant in explaining Nash’s emphasis on the necessity of winter.

Both Landscape of the Summer Solstice (1943, The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) and Solstice of the Sunflower (1945, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) illustrate Druid rituals described by Frazer. The earlier image is perhaps less surreal in appearance but demonstrates both Nash’s interest in Symbolism and his use of binoculars. Not only has Nash made a row of flowers the focal point of the work but he has also lowered the viewpoint so that the flowers are at eye level, further increasing their importance. This landscape gains additional meaning when Frazer’s influence is taken into account; his writings introduced Nash to the ritual of the Midsummer fires, which the Druids believed indicated how high the following year’s crops would grow. Thus the row of flowers, their height emphasised by their position in the foreground, represents the results of the previous year’s fires whilst the vivid colours, vegetation and bright blue sky highlight the fertility of the area.

Solstice of the Sunflower, in comparison, is much more representative of a superstitious ritual and, as Nash’s last completed image, is more obviously influenced by Frazer as well as by Nash’s personal feelings towards the landscape depicted. This painting illustrates the Druid ritual of Midsummer, where a fire wheel was rolled down a hill in order to predict, based on whether the fire remained alight until it reached the base of the hill, whether the following year would be a good one. Taking this ritual as inspiration, Nash created a dynamic and celebratory image, in which a sunflower becomes a fire wheel, bounding down a hill and through a valley towards the viewer, leaving in its wake a red line symbolising ‘the blood of the sun which perpetuates fertility’[23]. On inspection it is clear than the hills depicted are Wittenham Clumps, previously described in his work as two domed hills crowned with autumnal trees. Here, however, the landscape has been cleared of almost all vegetation, due to both the cleansing effect of the fires of Midsummer, and Nash finally removing all obstacles from his path to Wittenham Clumps. The hills feature in both of these last works; in Landscape of the Summer Solstice they are depicted as a distant feature highlighted by the sun’s rays as if drawing attention to the artist’s goal, whereas two years later, in Solstice of a Sunflower, they have become a prominent natural feature. Thus in his last work, Nash had, either through the settling of personal conflict or through the Midsummer wheel’s ‘expelling of evil’[24], finally reached the peaks he had inched closer to throughout his working life. This achievement is emphasised by a sun that appears to vibrate with energy and the brightest and most joyful palette of Nash’s mind landscapes, imbuing the canvas with a genuine sense of the celebration of life. This celebration is both dampened and heightened by the viewer’s knowledge that, having completed his artistic journey, Nash died months later. The viewer can sense in this painting that Nash felt his premonition of death all the more towards the end but had come to accept and celebrate it through his final works.

The concept of a mind landscape was not unusual within the work of the Neo-Romantics but Paul Nash stood out in the sense that his work was quintessentially English whilst at the same time taking the influence of artists with a distinctly European view. His works are consistently personal, reacting to his impressions of places rather than merely transferring what he saw on to canvas, and it is this love of landscape and obsession with specific places and images that created such vivid and varied mind landscapes.


Beal, Mary, Paul Nash’s ‘Event on the Downs’ Reconsidered,

The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 131, No. 1040. November 1989, pp.748-754.

17 February 2007.

Bridgeman Education. 17 February 2007.

R. Cardinal, The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash, London, 1989.

A. Causey, Paul Nash, Oxford, 1980.

Giorgio de Chirico. Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art. 23 February 2007.

Simon Grant, A Landscape of Mortality. Tate Magazine, Issue 6. 16 February 2007.

Paul Nash. Tate Collection. March 2003. 24 February 2007.

Paul Nash. The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. 24 February 2007.

P. Nash, Outline: An Autobiography and other writings (preface by H. Read), London, 1949.

Tate Gallery, Paul Nash: Paintings and Watercolours, London, 1975.

M. Yorke, The Spirit of The Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and Their Times, London, 1988.

[1] M. Yorke, The Spirit of the Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and Their Times, London, 1988, p.15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p.18.

[4] Ibid., p.14.

[5] Malcolme Yorke cites Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Paul Nash, John Minton, Michael Ayrton, Robert Colquhoun, Keith Vaughan, Prunella Clough and John Craxton as the artists most central to the Neo-Romantic movement during the 1930s and 1940s.

[6] M. Yorke, p.22.

[7] Ibid.

[8] R. Cardinal, The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash, London, 1989, p.17.

[9] Ibid., p.10.

[10] Ibid., p.13.

[11] A. Causey, Paul Nash, Oxford, 1980, p.321.

[12] Paul Nash, The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. 24 February 2007.

[13] R. Cardinal, p.114.

[14] R. Cardinal, p.116.

[15] A. Causey, p.333.

[16] Paul Nash. Tate Collection. 24 February 2007.

[17] A. Causey, p.262.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p.335.

[22] A. Causey, p.332.

[23] A. Causey, p.334.

[24] Ibid.

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