Putting Humans Back In Their Place


Roger Cardinal – The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash (Reaktion)

Paul Nash has long been presented as a 20th century modernist who updated the English landscape tradition. He gives us the coast at Dymchurch, but also the Flanders landscapes of the First World War and the aerial battles of the Second World War. Here then, is all the progress of machine modernity and its horrors in one.

But in Nash’s hands, the ‘great’ dogfights of The Battle of Britain look like moths around a lamp, as a summer evening wanes. Nature, in Nash’s work, is neither terrible nor benign, it is coldly ambivalent. Nash’s contribution to history – and to the history of representation – has been to reduce the great efforts of ‘mankind’ to their proper scale in the wider universe. His contribution to history, then, has been to level it, and therefore his own efforts, to blips in space-time.

Roger Cardinal is an international expert on Art Brut and is highly knowledgeable on surrealism and modernism. This book presents some of the work that made Nash’s name, but it takes you into another space, by presenting lesser known works and the later oils. Here, we can rediscover Nash anew, as his popular image fades a little through over-exposure.

We know a lot about the paintings, but the photographs have been less prolifically explored until recently. This book covers both. The photos are often thought of as source material, tools for studies, for instance the Kodak pocket camera images of wrecked aircraft at a dump in Oxford, that found their place in Nash’s rightly famous painting Totes Meer.

But many of the photographs are poetic and strange in their own right, enigmatic and mysterious. They emerge from the British surrealism of figures such as Humphrey Spender. But some of them, architectural figures glimpsed over hedges, strange anthropomorphic shapes in the landscape, odd spaces, have an eerie quality.

There’s a kind of Gang Lion and Tulse Luper feel to the images. As though some secretive psychogeographic project ran under the official war work and activities in the art scene of the time.

Cardinal’s narrative is intellectual but helpful, it seems to anticipate the reader’s questions. It wears its erudition lightly enough to introduce some of the more complicated aspects of Nash’s work and its place in history to everyone. At the same time, it opens Nash out and gives us a much richer picture, very much in the spirit of the painter himself.

Paul Nash is still searingly relevant. In an era where the ‘anthropocene’ is fashionable intellectual currency, Cardinal points us back to an artist who would have found absolutely nothing novel in that idea.

This is an excellent study, the images are beautifully reproduced, and the book serves several purposes at once. It is introductory, expansive and critical without ever being patronising or agonistic. This is often the mark of good scholarship: Those who really know their stuff don’t need to strut it.