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Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape

Paul Nash, Winter Sea

York Art Gallery are currently hosting an exhibition of Paul Nash, whose landscapes clearly show the disturbance of the artistic tradition which reflected the world which had suffered unprecedented carnage in the world wars. The exhibition shows some of Nash’s later surrealist work such as his engravings and illustrations. Curated by John Stezaker, the exhibition situates Nash among contemporary British surrealists as well as his landscape paintersThere is also a gallery showing Stezaker’s work, whose collages reflect Nash’s tendency to make the familiar strange.

The first part of the exhibit focuses on Paul Nash’s early work, including a poster design from 1913 of Nash’s favourite locale, Wittenham Clumps, whose recognizable features return repeatedly in his pieces. This first room also contains postcards, letters and engravings which are contained in works such as Places where Nash writes and illustrates the places he loves. These places are distilled into wild images in which people and landscapes spill through and into each other, but retain their own individuality. Another engravings collection, Genesis, shows a greater influence from cubism and is much darker and mystical than his nostalgic early volume. There are also works from John Nash, whose landscapes contain a similar unease to his brother’s. Shared humour between John and Paul’s works is also seen, undoubtedly influenced by the family’s close friendship with Edward Lear. Another source of humour is Edward Burra who Paul toured France with, resulting in some barmy but endearing photo-montages. After this tour, Paul Nash seems to have also become more eccentric, discovering his Marsh Personage and sensing some presence in the object.

John Stezaker, Mask (2015)
John Stezaker, Mask (2015)

The main room of the gallery contains some of the best known works of Paul Nash including Winter Sea – with its origami waves and cubist influences – and more surrealist work such as Don’t Forget The Diver. Harbour And Room is also exhibited, which shows the intermingling of a sitting room and a ship in the docks; as the ceiling tinges into sky and the ship sits like a coffee table they strangely suit each other. Here too, are Paul Nash’s war pieces, in which the death of sunny pastoral traditions seems complete with the green undulation of England replaced with dark and broken lands. Carline’s Trail Of War is provided in contrast. Although it shows shadow over the wrecked planes, there is sunlight on the distant mountains – this future optimism is completely absent in the war art of Nash. This main room contains numerous works by other British surrealists and contemporary landscapists of varying interests including Gore, Spear, Coldstream, Hillier and Burra,, some have been influenced by Nash others by their disagreements with him.

The final room of the exhibit is filled with work by John Stezaker, who shows Nash’s influence. His photographic work involves cropping together pictures of things like landscapes, birds and black and white movie stars; some aim for a jarring contrast while others are subtly linked. His Nest series involves the overlaying of coloured images of birds over old movie shots which seem interesting for their original juxtapositions if little else. Stezaker’s Mask series is particularly interesting: old movie star close-ups are covered with small landscapes in a postcard-fashion which replace the images’ original purpose.

Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape runs until the 15th April 2018 at the York Art Gallery

Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape: An Exhibition Curated by John Stezaker