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

Surrealist Women: Eileen Agar

Photograph of Eileen Agar nude by Photographer Unknown
Eileen Forrester Agar

As a young girl the British surrealist Eileen Agar travelled from her birthplace of Buenos Aires to England on a luxury liner accompanied by a cow and an orchestra. Her wealthy American mother believed that milk and music were essential in a child’s development and therefore had made the necessary arrangements so that she wasn’t deprived of them on the long ocean voyage.

After such a childhood it is no surprise that Eileen Agar belonged to the Surrealist movement. She had first met Andre Breton with her future husband, the Hungarian Jewish writer Joseph Bard in Paris in 1928 and was a member of the London Group from 1934.She was the only British woman artist to be featured in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 ( see John Deth) where she had a total of three paintings and five objects displayed. She had a passionate affair with the Surrealist artist Paul Nash and holidayed with Picasso, Dora Maar, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller (who photographed her several times, see Surrealist Women: Lee Miller), Nusch Eluard  and the poet Paul Eluard, with whom she had a brief and intense fling with.

As well as being a painter, Agar experimented successfully with collages, ready-made and found objects; and was also a  photographer, hat-maker and a writer. She exhibited with the Surrealists in New York, Amsterdam and Tokyo as well as having numerous one-women shows in the U.K. She published her autobiography A Look At My Life at the age of 89 in 1988. She died in 1991 at the age of 91.

Below is her masterpiece The Autobiography Of An Embryo from 1933-1934, which was acquired by the Tate Gallery for its permanent collection in 1989.

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Surrealist Women: Lee Miller

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Lee Miller-1931
Fashion model, muse, Surrealist photographer, war correspondent, writer and later Lady Penrose, chatelaine of Farley Farm House in East Sussex where the darkroom had turned into a kitchen where she perfected dishes for visiting artists including Picasso, her former lover Man Ray, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning; Lee Miller was one of the most exceptional people to have engaged with the Surrealist movement.

After reporting and photographing the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, Miller photographed dying children in a Viennese hospital and covered the execution of the Hungarian Prime Minister. The war took its toll on Miller, however, after returning to England she would frequently experience severe bouts of depression, haunted by the atrocities she had witnessed in the concentration camps.

Below is a photograph taken just hours after leaving Dachau; in Hitler’s apartment Miller is naked in his bathtub. Her boots are covered with the muck and grime of Dachau and have soiled the bathmat. A few hours later Hitler and Eva Braun would commit suicide in the bunker.

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Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub-David Scherman 1945