Thursday, 10 November 2016


I went to Tate Britain today, to see the Paul Nash exhibition.  I like Paul Nash.  The first Nash painting I was aware of was his Landscape from a Dream which was used (cropped) for the cover art of my 1972 Penguin edition of GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, and from that beginning I gradually discovered that he was at various times a landscape painter and a war artist as well as a surrealist.  The Imperial War Museum owns some of his major war paintings, the Tate permanent collection holds some of his work, and The Dulwich Picture Gallery ran a very good exhibition in 2010, so there has been no shortage of opportunities to view over the past few years, but I'm always happy to go again.  The BBC is rerunning a documentary on his life first shown in 2014, which you have (at the time of writing) twelve days to view so you can even get the background to the current exhibition before you go.

As my companion for today's visit observed, it is pretty bad luck to end up serving as a war artist in two world wars.  Paul Nash's working life was bookended by world conflicts.  He had barely started his career when the Great War broke out, and he scarcely outlived the second war, dying from the asthma that had been steadily worsening for years at just fifty-seven.  As I now know from Wikipedia, the Egyptian stone hawk statue that he painted in Landscape from a Dream was placed on his grave.

An air of melancholy pervades the exhibition.  Obviously if you go to a show of work by a major war artist you can't expect non-stop laughs, and perhaps knowing more about his life than I did when I went to Dulwich coloured my view.  Plus, London on a drizzly afternoon the day after Donald Trump was announced as President elect of the United States is more of a downer than an upper.  Paul Nash did not have a happy life, one feels, with the enduring trauma of his experiences in the first war, his deteriorating health and deteriorating marriage, topped by another war.  His muted palette throughout and the empty, eerie strangeness of his surrealist period feel as though they were painted by a nervy, introspective character and are quite sombre or edgy works for the most part.  I still like them, though.  Whoever said that art always had to be cheerful?  Paul Nash was very good at trees and the sea, getting under their skin in a way that not every artist does.  I don't suppose his actual trees or the beach at Dymchurch looked like that, but he understood what they were about.  The war paintings are superb.

As we were there we went to see the Turner prize entries.  I still don't seem to be on the same wavelength as conceptual art, even after watching Dr James Fox's BBC programme about it and reading Grayson Perry's book based on his Reith lectures.  I tried hard to see the exhibits as art, or to put aside all notions of what art is and see them as something interesting, but to me they still looked like piles of junk and as if somebody was taking the piss.  One of the artworks was a vast pile of pennies, representing the amount of money the authorities deem the minimum necessary to support a family of four for a year, less one penny so it showed the annual income of a family below the poverty line, and my friend hissed that she had a terrible urge to surreptitiously add an extra penny then only tell the Tate at the end of the exhibition that she had ruined their artwork. Actually, the pennies were about the most fun thing in it.  My reaction to the first room full of junk was that I should submit the mess on my desk as an entry, or better still photograph my desk every day for a year to document the shifting mess and then submit the photographs.  But it would still not count as Art because I am not an Artist.

When I got home the only cat in evidence was Our Ginger, the kittens having got fed up with our both being out all day and disappeared off somewhere.  The first to reappear was Mr Fidget, carrying a very large mouse which he insisted on eating, before being copiously sick in the hall.

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