What happens when a contemporary surrealist curates a giant of British art from the first half of the twentieth century? We talk to John Stezaker about rediscovering Paul Nash for his exhibition at York Art Gallery
Tate’s recent Paul Nash retrospective reminded us, if any of us needed reminding, of the diverse and creative energy that flowed through his landscape painting, photography, writing and printmaking during the troubled but fertile first half of the twentieth century.
The paintings Nash produced as an Official War Artist during the Great War helped form our view of the horrors of the Western Front, his ground-breaking landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s are now credited with transforming the genre of British landscape painting by introducing elements of modernism and surrealism and his paintings of the Second World War saw many of these themes coalesce into a new crop of era-defining war paintings.
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So what new elements are there to explore about one of our most popular artists, whose work, as pioneering as it was, is distinctly familiar through the many monographs and art prints that fuel our interest in art from pre-war Britain?
Step forward John Stezaker, whose surreal photographic montages share – albeit obliquely at first glance – some of the spatial qualities of Nash’s more experimental interwar landscapes. Although the Deutsche Börse Prize winning artist admits to be being slightly taken aback when York Art Gallery approached him to curate a Paul Nash exhibition.
“I was surprised that they came up with me,” he says, “oddly enough Nash was very important to me when I was a teenager but that was long ago, [he was born in 1949] and so for somebody to still see a discernible connection was kind of interesting to me.”
But in many of Nash’s paintings, like Harbour and Room (1930-31), where the end of a room just opens out into a harbour scene and also in some of the Dymchurch paintings of the 1920s, the similarities seem instantly tangible.
“Obviously in a way you can relate that to my use of postcard landscapes inside rooms,” he says of the 1930-31 painting, “but when I first did those in the mid-70s I wasn’t really thinking about Nash, he hadn’t been on my mind for a long time. I was more consciously thinking of more mainstream surrealists like de Chirico and Magritte.”
Stezaker’s engaging curation of Nash and his own accompanying artworks tease out some of the latent common elements and help us consider how Nash and his contemporaries portrayed an estranged sense of unreality that was rooted in the representation of the everyday world – a process which, says Stezaker, really began after the First World War.
“The period after World War One, when in his own words he was a sort of war artist without a war, he retreated to Dymchurch,” he explains. “It was this kind of very empty space, which is when he was really starting to think about what space was and that’s what interests me, what’s near and what’s far, and what is a painting doing?”
Nash moved to Dymchurch with his wife Margaret in 1920 to recuperate from the nervous breakdown he suffered in the wake of the war. Inspired by the man-made coastal defences of the town, he found a ready-made abstract landscape, which he studied for a series of transformative paintings that he reworked until the couple moved to Iden in 1925.
For Stezaker this landscape was a kind of “dystopia created by the technological clearing of war” with that sense of the uncanny that first began to intrigue him when he was teenager.
“I remember looking at [Nash’s] Pillar and Moon which was in the Tate Gallery,” he says, “I used to go down to the Tate every Saturday and I remember thinking ‘what a strange painting’, because it’s divided in two by this kind of recessional line of trees between which is a pillar with a sphere on top and then the moon, and they’re the same size. There’s this thing about proximity and distance, and I found that really intriguing.”
Stezaker says the painting led him to look at the surrealists, “de Chirico and so on”, and helped him understand “what they were about”.
“I suppose I was drawn to that feeling of the uncanny, but like most young artists who go through art college [like Nash, Stezaker went to the Slade] we were almost immediately drawn into the American kind of way of thinking and of looking.
“The European avant-gardes at the time thought he was a sort of soft-edged surrealist”
“But what I liked and what I’ve returned to in Nash is this idea of how he didn’t want to go along with any of those aesthetic avant-gardes. He was interested in representation and what a painting can do in the most abstract way. He always wanted to link it to what was represented rather than free it from what it represented. “
This, he says, is the key to how Nash related to surrealism. “He wasn’t just sold on the idea of pursuing it in the world; he was always trying to locate his sense of disquiet in relationship to what he was surrounded by, the world he lived in.
“That is what made him difficult to take I think, for a lot of the European avant-gardes at the time, they didn’t take him seriously because they thought he was a bit of a sort of soft-edged surrealist trying to bring surrealism in contact with the tradition of British landscape painting, which of course is what he was doing.”
Stezaker’s deceptively simple but clever collages seem to share a kinship with Nash and the course he took in the 1920s and 1930s. This is especially apparent in his conjoined landscape photographs, and the artworks featuring portraits of forgotten movie stars of the forties and fifties, which he deftly overlays with beautiful colourised landscape postcards of the inter war years.
“I think that they belong to a world that I didn’t ever have an experience of, they pre-exist me,” says Stezaker of his fascination for postcards from this period.
“These paradisal images have a kind of a shiver of death about them, an apocalyptic feeling.”
“I often quote the Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, who talks about the sublime and the way that our attachment to the sublime is an attachment of the world in our absence – either as a kind of world before we existed or after we existed.”
He adds that in some ways these “paradisal images” which predate his own life are “ways of projecting beyond our life. They have a kind of a shiver of death about them, an apocalyptic feeling.”
And like Nash’s landscapes there is also something essentially romantic about these works, which even in their most surreal moments have a nostalgic quality. “I think this is why I identify so strongly with Nash,” he adds, “because he, like a lot of artists, felt it imperative to be modern, but he also wanted a continuity and I feel the same; I want something in me and in my work at least that seeks some sort of continuity with the past.”
A lot of the words Stezaker uses when describing his artworks, like “marriage” and “bridges”, reflect this sense of continuity and also a bringing together. “I think that is what Nash was always doing,” he says, “he was always trying to bring together an inner and outer world experience.
“The surrealists in a sense abandoned the outer world for the inner world, but he didn’t, that wouldn’t have interested him. They would have abandoned the past for the present or future as they saw it, but Nash wanted to make a bridge with the past. I don’t know where that comes from, but it’s very interesting.”
As well as works from York Art Gallery’s own collection a series of loans from galleries and private collections pairs Nash’s works with those by some of his contemporaries including Stanley Spencer, John Nash, Edward Burra, William Townsend, Sydney Carline, Tristram Hillier and Cecil Collins.
A second gallery shows Stezaker’s works, including the recent landscape works which demonstrate Nash’s influence. A third features loans of pictures, photographs and memorabilia relating to Nash from a personal, private collection. It includes around 50 works and artefacts which give a unique insight into the life of Paul Nash and his brother John.
The profound influence Nash exerted over artists throughout the twentieth century makes for an interesting journey but what is most interesting is his influence on a very engaging artist today.
“It has been wonderful to reconnect,” says Stezaker, “I’ve had about a year or so to think about this and to produce new work relating specifically to Nash.
“I’ve actually felt whilst I was working on this show and looking at a lot of works – and I think I’ve read virtually everything in print on Nash now – that I feel very, very close to him.”
Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape: An exhibition curated by John Stezaker is at York Art Gallery October 20 2017 – April 15 2018.
York Art Gallery
York, North Yorkshire
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