ART & LIT REVIEW: Paul Nash @ Laing Art Gallery | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It’s the 13th of September, 2017. Missiles have been fired from Pyongyang over Japan and into the Pacific ocean, testing the range of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. In a few days, a North Korean Hwasong-12 missile will be marked as having flown 2300 miles, far enough to reach the US-territorial island of Guam (which news is “great for tourism”, the US President assures Eddie Baza Calvo, Guam’s governor). New York City is already in range of a Hwasong-14 weapon, tested by Kim Jong-Un back in July. In other news, Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida, Samsung announces advances in both ‘smartphones with foldable screens’ and ‘entirely robotic soldiers’ which can ‘kill without risk…’, and tributes begin to flow in after the death of RSC-founder Sir Peter Hall. The only thing that’s in my head, though, is the joke I’ve just thought of, and how to find the right moment to tell it to my friend, G.

We’re at the large retrospective of Paul Nash’s paintings, touring from the Tate and currently at the Laing in Newcastle. It’s an important exhibition, large in its scope. When I say ‘joke’, I mean it’s more a vague kind of riff around the phonetic similarities between Nash’s surname and the name of Dennis the Menace’s pet dog, Gnasher. I can’t remember what type of dog Gnasher is, and I want to see if G. knows. There’s also some thought in there about the Beano as pulp-propaganda for children on the home front during the second world-war, and the role of pop-print-media in times of conflict (G. founded and edits an independent arts magazine which sometimes publishes my poems, so I think he’ll find this interesting/funny). But his rhythms around the gallery and mine seem not to match. I’m essentially chasing him from one painting to the next, totally preoccupied with the prospect of appearing witty and insightful to a friend whose opinion I respect highly, and whom I haven’t seen in some time before today. This ridiculous two-step progress around the place means I’m not at all appreciating the exhibition, which is a shame because I’m supposed to be reviewing it for local culture magazine, NARC. At one point, G. literally moves away from me the very moment I approach him, and I’m left alone, slowly beginning to take the hint, in front of a greywash drawing by Nash called ‘Cliff to the North’

The poet Edward Thomas was killed by a shell blast at the Battle of Arras in 1917, exactly 100 years ago this April. That night, 25-year-old Paul Nash was stationed 50 miles away at Ypres Salient. Sir Peter Hall, who died this September, was 25 when he introduced the plays of Samuel Beckett to England. Exactly 200km south of Arras, in Paris, a copy of Edward Thomas’ Selected Poems And Prose was found in Beckett’s library after his death. Someone, presumably Beckett, has highlighted sections of the book with crosses and ticks in pencil. One highlighted passage contains the following description of an aged umbrella-salesman: “He was of middle height and build, the crookedest of men, yet upright, like a branch of oak which comes straight with all its twistings”.

In case you were wondering, it turns out that Gnasher is a ‘wire-haired tripe hound’.

In Nash’s Cliff To The North, a scythed-moon and a shooting star flash white above a zig-zag line of grey crags on a hillside at night. Looming into the frame is a large shadow of a woman. It’s a haunting image, but I’m still not entirely absorbed. But now, with G. intent on independence, I’ve no choice but to try to get involved. What finally moves me about this ink-drawing is that the shadow closely resembles another shadow I’ve seen before, in a promotional image for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). In it, the young Anakin Skywalker shoulders his backpack and walks away from his desert home on Tatooine towards his future as a Jedi Knight. The sun casts his shadow on the sandy wall behind him. But instead of his own boy-shaped shadow, towering above him is the unmistakeable shape of Darth Vader, the evil Sith-lord Anakin becomes after a life of frustration and tragedy. This poster is so moving because it collapses the confusing timelines of pasts and futures involved in the prequel trilogy into one brutally communicative ‘Now’. It’s a triumph of geometric symbolism and condensed storytelling. And all of a sudden, because of this visual echo, so is Nash’s Cliff to the North. The shadow’s potential to communicate with us is more moving than if she were speaking directly to our faces. Her suspension outside of the picture means she tells an entire narrative all at once, in a way that she wouldn’t if she was depicted in a portrait. The absent woman tells the story of the world beyond the landscape we can see. She brings a language from a different time and place into ours.

The Laing exhibition maybe overstates Nash’s importance as a big-deal surrealist. His straight-up-surreal paintings of the 1930s are, flatly, derivative; essentially studies-after-de Chirico. What’s more interesting in this exhibition is when the surreal stuff starts to inform Nash’s landscapes. In his application of oil-paint within the geometries of landscape, there’s a blockish, matte feeling that obscures human involvement, notable in the perspective-warping painting ‘Landscape at Iden’. It’s straight image-reproduction, detached from process, and reminds you of Magritte, shell-blasts and sun-shines barring and arching over war landscapes like umbrellas in the sky. The Menin Road, a mural-sized war landscape, is an almost-masterpiece of geometry and perspective. What Nash’s war-paintings do very well, far better than his surrealist stuff, is make you aware of the tragicomic double-movement of any painting’s flat surface. It thrusts its image out towards you, wanting to be seen, but at exactly the same time it tries to collapse back into itself to create a sense of 3D perspective. Nash shows you this doubled motion, then traps his block-figure humans inside the 2D surface. They are just a bunch of rectangles and shapes, used as brutally in the composition as they are in the machinations of war. Have a look at Uccello’s ‘Hunt in the Forest’, at the bold early attempt to use vanishing-point techniques to make it seem that the hunt recedes into the trees, but see how it ends up just distorting the horses and dogs and men, sometimes grotesquely. Then look back to Nash’s desolate war-forests, complete with empty helmets, rib-cracked trees, mono-chromatic mudscapes, dehumanised people. You’ll see what I mean.

The effect collapses space and time into the present moment. What Nash wanted his exhibitions to do was allow viewers to experience “that thing which is recognized as peculiarly of today”. Surely by this he didn’t just mean the tastes and styles of contemporary art, but rather how strange it is to be anything at all “right now”, trapped between the spaces of a future and a past which in no pertinent sense exist at all.

I have finally caught up with G. in front of another greywash ink drawing called ‘The Three’. He speaks first, and tells me that the poet Edward Thomas knew Paul Nash, that they shared a sense of the monstrous and the magical within landscape. Both loved the hills and the symbols of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the spiritual mystery of the prehistoric white-chalk drawings, The Whiteleaf Cross and The Uffington Horse (Nash’s painting of the cross hangs in this exhibition nearby). “There are places, just as there are people and objects and works of art, whose relationship of parts creates a mystery, an enchantment which cannot be analysed” (Paul Nash, 1949). We stand there, not analysing the drawing, which shows three trees twisting together, climbing surreally high, circled by tiny ink-flick birds, slow, silent, distant. It occurs to me for the first time that ‘Iden’, where Nash had his studio, might be pronounced ‘Eden’. Nash/Gnasher. Iden/Eden. Arras/Paris. Does this mean much? In front of me, Nash’s ‘The Three’ looks monstrous, magic, enchanting. I’ve read this morning of North Korea’s nuclear tests. News keeps coming about the US president’s goading threats. The drawing also looks like a mushroom cloud.

It would seem slow, and it would seem silent, and it would seem distant. It would be all one colour, or a narrow spectrum, a greywash. We all know by now what it would look like. Why aren’t we more scared? The shape of the cloud would be familiar, its mushroom core and its tentacular fringes, the whole thing looking like a slow-motion closeup of some form of aqua-life. It would seem tall. It would seem to approach and to recede at the same time, fast. The crookedest yet most upright thing you’ve ever seen, like an enormous oak coming straight through all its twistings. Like an umbrella where there should be no umbrella. It would rush, and rush. Why aren’t you more scared? You’d have time to worry about nothing. Even time to be mildly surprised that you’re worried about nothing. “Why am I not more scared?” Then there’d be time to worry about absolutely everything, with a fear you’d never known could be so cold. Then nothing again, as a brightness beyond brightness takes your eyes and your throat and everyone you ever knew into a light so bright it hurts. And you aren’t watching anymore. It would be (and all of history, the past and the future, would be, finally and totally and) peculiarly of today. It’s the 6th of October, 2017. The Nobel Peace Prize has just been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a treaty which isn’t signed by a single country that is considered a “nuclear power”. Donald Trump has dubbed his meeting with various military-leaders “the calm before the storm”. Today, I’m very, very scared.

‘Paul Nash’ runs at The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 14th Jan 2018, or the end of the world, whichever comes soonest.

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