Paul Nash: War Artist, Seaside Surrealist

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Paul Nash-After the Battle 1918

Paul Nash is one of the foremost of British artists of the 20th Century as well as a major landscape painter. He was an official war artist in both World Wars, a leading exponent of Modernism in England , a founding member of the avant-garde group Unit One, whose members included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and the art critic, poet and writer Herbert Read, with whom he organised the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London in 1936.

Nash’s paintings and lithographs that he produced as official war artist during WWI are some of the most potent and visceral images of the devastated landscapes wrought by the infernal mechanised weapons of war. Justly famous are The Ypres Salient At Night and We Are Making A New World both of which are part of the Imperial War Museums permanent collection.

The war had left Paul Nash emotionally and artistically drained. In 1933 he formed the short-lived but important avant-garde group Unit One. He formed links across the

Swanage circa 1936 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash-Swanage 1936

Channel with the Surrealists, later commenting that he hadn’t found Surrealism, Surrealism had found him. Around this time he was based in the seaside town of Swanage on the Dorset coast, which led him to formulate his theory of ‘Seaside Surrealism’. He also began an affair with another exceptional Surrealist, Eileen Agar ( see Surrealist Women: Eileen Agar). Notable works of this period as the found objects collage Swanage and the painting Landscape In A Dream from 1936-1938.

At the start of WWII, Nash was again commissioned as a official war artist, this time with the Royal Air Force and the Air Ministry, which led to one of his most haunting paintings, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), (see below) based on Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice, which was inspired by a field of crashed German aircraft in Cowley, Oxfordshire.

Paul Nash died in 1946 from heart failure resulting from his long-term asthma. He is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate until March 2017. Recently there has been a critical re-evaluation of his work, especially the important paintings from WWI and WWII, and he is generally considered the most important British painter between J.M.W Turner and Francis Bacon.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash-Totes Meer 1940-1941

63 thoughts on “Paul Nash: War Artist, Seaside Surrealist

  1. Sorry for the unexpected delay. I overslept and didn’t have the post completely ready – had to add the links and so forth… anyway, thank you again for generously sharing with me. I appreciate it immensely. After the Battle is a bleak masterpiece. And you already know my feelings about Ypres Salient at Night. Thank you again for the post and for the share.

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    1. It was my pleasure, an English modernist and surrealist. I choose his more Modernist work to highlight his engagement with the times, too often he is sidelined as a romantic (which he was but his commitment to the avant-garde was sincere). Thank you for the invite and don’t worry about being late I didn’t even notice as I am attempting to place some cohesion to Tempting Fate.

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      1. I’m an absolute waste this morning – stayed up to watch game 7 of the world series… partied like its 1908! Fortunately a day off from regular work but I fear little writing will get done. Brain mush.

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  2. Another great post. I was fortunate to see in Halifax, Canada, of all places, some of the WWI war drawings of Frank Brangwyn, the Welsh artist. Another fine war artist from WWI. I also remember two sets of work from him, the Patti Pavilion and the Civic Centre in Swansea.

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  3. Thank you for your understanding … it’s been a tough week here, lots of silly little niggles … at least you’re still remembered. I am working on my Prado poems currently. A different style of art plus poetry.


  4. Lovely post Mr. Cake. I think Nash’s work captures something that’s most unsettling, however it’s very subtle. It could be as simple as his often used monochromatic color palettes, or something like putting a human face on a dog. His work is striking and not easily forgotten. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Thank you Miss Cranes…it is truly amazing how many artists around that time, and it was a period that a glut of talented artists were involved in or influenced by or at least flirted with Surrealism. It was truly a golden age for the arts. That’s good for me, means I wouldn’t run out of material to write about soon. I hope you will enjoy Tempting Fate tomorrow, have been working hard on the following parts, so I am cutting down on the number of new posts. I still have a number of English artists that were influenced by surrealism to write yet. Either Bacon or Sutherland next.

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      1. You’re most welcome Mr. Cake. It was a time steeped in the arts, and the influences are still felt today. As a matter of fact, and this is a side note, I don’t know if you’ve been following the world news, but Aleister Crowley is making a big splash for himself here in the US.

        I’m sure I will enjoy your post, happy to read that you’re working on the other parts that will follow. Looking forward to your next artist post as well.

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      2. We’re having a political storm right now in our country. It has come to light that the campaign chairman of one of the parties participated and or participates in spirit cooking dinners, (Thelema).

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      3. He certainly did have a thing for menstrual blood did old Crowley…I just read the drudge report quoting ‘As above, so below’. But surely Hilary isn’t Lady Babalon. I said earlier that the election seemed to be an audience for the Antichrist, maybe I shouldn’t have been joking.

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      4. Well you know my mystic cake side loves that quote from how much mileage I get from it, right at home I suppose. Strange times indeed, I don’t think I am that off with the Anti-Christ factor either,
        It is probably being directed by the shades of Jack Parsons, Marjorie Cameron and good ole L. Ron.

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      5. Maybe he is possessing trump and Cameron is possessing Clinton…and Chelsea is their secret moonchild who will become the Anti-Christ… maybe this will be picked up somewhere or maybe it will be suppressed and the men in black will pay me a visit because I am close to the truth… more later the doorbell just rang

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