I am no longer an artist, interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.
Editorial design: Wire – Paul Nash
Paul Nash, Watercolour, chalk, ink on paper, 1918
The idea for this magazine spread originated some time ago when I decided to write about Paul Nash’s painting ‘Wire’. Inspired by the book ‘The Sight of Death’ by T.J. Clark and his detailed analysis of Poussin’s paintings ‘Man Killed by a Snake’ and ‘Landscape with a Calm’. I set out to try to understand why I love this painting and to investigate the circumstances that inspired Nash to paint it.
What is it about Paul Nash’s painting ‘Wire’ that I find so entrancing. It’s a picture of a landscape utterly destroyed by war, barbed wire is splayed everywhere and the main centrepiece of the composition is a scorched and splintered tree. Not exactly what you would naturally consider a good subject for a landscape painting.
The landscape or probably more appropriate ‘mudscape’ has been battered, pounded and gouged by bombs. It’s a quagmire of sludge and swampy hollows, hopelessly entangled in barbed wire. There are no people and not much sign of life save for a scattering of shorn trees jutting out of the land like exposed bones. At first sight these trees could be mistaken for tiny figures travelling across the plain but as each is inspected the hope of finding life gradually diminishes. The mangled tree in the foreground underpins the composition, uniting both land and sky. The line of the horizon cuts through the top third of the tree bringing the splinters and barbed wire of its mutilation into sharp relief. It’s network of branches and leaves have long since been blown into oblivion and it has become a synthesis of barbed wire and tree.
Yet somehow, it is beautiful. The bright white sky mirrored in the passing water of the river. The twisting, turning, looping wire that resembles nature’s own thorny briar. The bare leafless trees whose horror is reflected in the crater pools of silver. And of course, the main character, our mutilated tree, erupting like a monstrous volcano, splaying-out its barbed tentacles in all directions.
‘Wire’ is a painting of the Hindenburg line. Nash painted it whilst working as Official War artist during the First World War. It was his job to capture life in the trenches and to give people some idea of the horrific conditions soldiers had to endure. During this period Nash produced an amazing body of work, painting sublime masterpieces like The Menin Road, The Ypres Salient at Night and We Are Making a New World.
I am no longer an artist, interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.1
Prior to the war Nash was a painter of visionery English landscapes and belonged to a tradition of romantic painting that stretched back to William Blake via Samuel Palmer. Nash fell under their influence whilst studying, admiring their moonlit pastorals, whose own
‘monstrous moons’ and
‘exuberance of stars’2 became a feature of his work.
Even in the terror and darkness of war, Nash’s romantic spirit persists and he recognises that his imagination is the fed by the destruction and depravity of the cruel environment he inhabits. In a letter to his wife, he writes:
I have just returned, last night, from a visit to Brigade Headquarters up the line and I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable. In the fifteen drawings I have made I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature and of what our men in France have to face.3
The experience of trench warfare propels Nash’s work into a higher echelon of art and invigorates his artistic vision. His pre-war work as a painter of romantic landscapes is intensified by his hellish experience of life in the trenches; In a dreadful way Paul Nash is an artist in the right place at the right time.
So why does Nash paint this scene, what is it that has caught his attention? Well, we have to return to the work Nash made prior to the First World War and look at his relationship to nature and in particular trees. His paintings of the Wittenham clumps reveal a deep love of the English landscape and a special relationship with trees,
‘Grey hollowed hills crowned by old trees, Pan-nish places down by the river wonderful to think on, full of strange enchantment… beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten’.4 In an interview with Gordon Bottomley he reveals that he is trying to paint trees
‘as tho [sic] they were human beings… because I sincerely love and worship trees & know they are people & wonderfully beautiful people’.5
Nash rarely paints figures, he doesn’t really need to, as his landscapes are infused with
‘human presence and meaning’6. He poeticises the landscape and looks for latent meaning in its characteristics. Favoured motifs reappear throughout his work and change their meaning depending on their context. The garden, the wood, the hill, the hedge bound field and the gate act together as a shifting set of subjective symbols.
At the root of Nash’s way of looking at the world lies a neo-Romantic propensity to discern in natural settings the symbolic equivalent of their inner states. Again and again Nash finds himself drawn to certain places and certain configurations of natural phenomena which act as receptacles for subjective impulse.7
So could Nash’s mutilated tree symbolise a mortally wounded soldier, hopelessly abandoned in the quagmire of no man’s land. It could, but it would be stretching the imagination to say that it is human-like and it stands upright and has not fallen. Could it represent civilisation in turmoil? Again, it could but I think this is fanciful and reading too much into the picture. I think a sensible interpretation would be to say that this picture represents the effects of war on nature. Nash’s tree is a monstrous representation of war, it’s as if all of the wire, splinters and strife were emanating from it’s violently volcanic trunk.
Nash creates a landscape that is otherworldly, unfamiliar and quite unexpected. He paints a scene of desecrated earth, utterly transformed by bombs and barbed wire defences. We could be accompanying Dante on his journey into hell, or stepping out onto the surface of another planet. But most likely, we find ourselves in the land of the dead, inhabited by ghostly anthropomorphic trees which transform briefly into people and back again. Nash’s painting captures the eerie atmosphere of no man’s land and vividly portrays the destructive effect war has on nature. He finds a strange kind of beauty in its mutilation and transformation. Nash’s deep love of the countryside and his extraordinary artistic ability enable him to capture essence of his war time experience in the trenches.
1 Paul Nash to Materman, 16 November 1917, IMW, 267A/6, f34; PN to MN, 16 November 1917, Outline 210-11
2 Nash (1947), 3
3 PN to MD, 23 September 1911, Boulton (1991), 39-41
4 Paul Nash to Materman, 16 November 1917, IMW, 267A/6, f34; PN to MN, 16 November 1917, Outline 210-11
5 PN to GB, August 1912, Abbott & Bertram (1955), 42
6 Roger Cardinal, The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash, Reaktion Books (1989), 7