Landscape and the Life of Objects
Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2013
Hardback. 168 p. + 41 monochrome and 100 colour ill. ISBN 978-1848220966. Ł35
Reviewed by Sam Smiles
University of Exeter
Andrew Causey’s reputation as the foremost scholar of Paul Nash’s life and achievement was inaugurated some forty years ago with exhibitions in the 1970s (Paul Nash, 1889-1946, Northern Arts Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1971; Paul Nash's Photographs, Document and Image, Tate Gallery, 1973; Paul Nash : Paintings and Watercolours Tate Gallery, 1975), followed by the publication of his monumental catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works (Paul Nash, Oxford University Press, 1980). His subsequent contributions to research on Nash include numerous articles and catalogue essays and a well-received selection of the artist’s essays and criticism (Paul Nash : Writings on Art, Oxford University Press, 2000). A new book by Causey is therefore of more than ordinary interest.
What more can be said about Nash, whose place in the history of British twentieth-century art now seems solidly established? Causey’s analysis of Nash’s work is organised chronologically and thematically and concentrates on the topics identified in the book’s subtitle: landscape and the life of objects. In doing so, Causey is responding to Nash’s own statements about the importance of both elements in his aesthetic, tracking his investment in landscape and objects from his earliest works of the 1910s, still inspired by late nineteenth-century examples ( Rossetti, Burne-Jones and the Arts and Craft movement) and indebted to the idea of the painter-poet, until his last paintings of the 1940s, self-consciously identified as his final productions, in which a mystical idea of cyclical time and regeneration in nature is paramount.
At first glance this may not seem especially noteworthy, for other surveys of Nash’s career have also used his pronouncements on his art to emphasise particular characteristics of his oeuvre, but Causey’s book is distinctive in the way it frames its account. He makes explicit reference not only to those art historians who have offered new historical and theoretical insights into Nash’s contribution to twentieth-century landscape painting in England (David Peters-Corbett and Charles Harrison especially) but also to those who have thought about the cultural importance of landscape and the nature of landscape painting as a category in aesthetics (Denis Cosgrove and W.J.T. Mitchell) and to those who have considered its artistic significance a hundred years earlier, in the Romantic era (Ronald Paulson, Elizabeth Helsinger, Ann Bermingham and others).
This wide perspective has the merit of keeping Nash’s art in dialogue with the English landscape legacy, not in the superficial sense of Nash’s paintings being viewed as simply confirming a long-established tradition but, more critically, seeing Nash as wrestling in the early twentieth century with similar problems to those that had beset his forebears, namely the extent to which landscape painting is a transcription of nature or a record of the painter-observer’s reactions to it. As Causey points out  if Nash can be seen in this light as perpetuating a Romantic sensibility this is not antithetical to modernism, for his reactions to landscape embraced a notion of metamorphosis, seen especially in the objects he placed in it but also in his understanding of the forms of landscape, that has strong affinities with Surrealism.
Nash was a member of the Surrealist group in England in the 1930s and was on the committee of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. Magritte, Breton and Ernst all paid tributes to his art. Yet for all Nash’s sympathy with Surrealism he did not produce works that are central to its achievement. Instead, he joined those in England who argued for a view of Surrealism that saw it as prefigured by Blake, Wordsworth and others and so had virtually nothing to do with the revolutionary implications of Breton’s manifesto. Not too many years ago Nash’s temperate approach to Surrealism could be compared unfavourably with the conviction of the movement’s central figures, as though Nash’s paintings were yet another indication of the hesitant adoption of modernist tendencies in English art between the wars. But such judgements – themselves the product of a reductive view of modernism and modernity, it should be noted – are no longer tenable, not least because of the new insights that have been developed about the nature of Romanticism and that movement’s investment in the psychology of the observer. Nash seems to have intuited in the English Romantic tradition the seriousness, reflexivity and vigour we now acknowledge about it; there is nothing ‘hesitant’ about his wish to work with specific places and to think deeply about the meanings and values he associated with them.
This is a book about continuities. Rather than breaking up Nash’s production into discrete categories, separating, say, the work he produced in both world wars from what he produced in peace-time or viewing his Surrealist-leaning works as different in kind from other paintings, Causey demonstrates the conviction of Nash’s approach to landscape and objects throughout his career. Geological, archaeological and historical time, personal associations, cultural understandings and an interest in the uncanny are variously mobilised in Nash’s response to place to produce a personal symbology and metaphysics that help to reveal landscape’s significance to the attentive observer. Although this is especially true of the works he produced as a mature artist, there is a consistency to Nash’s approach that runs through all his art: symbolism is a feature of his earliest productions and the idea of the animate in nature is there, too. What comes across above all is the integrity of the artist’s vision and his understanding that a poetic response to place, rather than a literal one, provided the imaginative freedom to reconcile his respect for the genius loci with his commitment to artistic modernity.
The merit of Causey’s approach is that by thinking in terms of themes and developments across Nash’s career it moves away from those sorts of account that would judge his achievement by other criteria (whether he is sufficiently ‘modernist’ in a stylistic sense when compared to his contemporaries, for example). If it has a weakness it is that the emphasis on landscape means that some aspects of Nash’s production are downplayed, most notably his very brief flirtation with abstraction in the early 1930s when the object seems to have been reduced to merely a compositional element (see Kinetic Feature, 1931, Tate). This is defensible, insofar as Nash himself abandoned this pathway as a distraction from his central commitments, but it would nevertheless have been interesting to have Causey’s reflections on this episode and what it says about Nash’s self-awareness of his artistic project.
Causey’s new study reinforces Nash’s importance and makes rewarding new connections with the landscape tradition in England. It makes use of the best recent scholarship on all aspects of Nash’s output as a painter (usefully brought together in a bibliography of new publications) and for that reason alone is a valuable addition to the literature. It should encourage those who know his art already to reconsider his preoccupation with landscape and objects, and for those to whom Nash is as yet unknown it provides a compelling and authoritative introduction to his work.
Cercles © 2013
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