Paul Nash: Haunted by the past

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Paul Nash depicted both the horror of war and the beauty of the English landscape. Tom Lubbock is left entranced

In the end, with Paul Nash's art, the question is: do you believe? I'm not saying that you can only enjoy it, if you do. Most of his fans don't. The artist himself possibly didn't. He was first and last an artist. Still, the work is so spellbinding, it raises a question of belief. It goes beyond symbolism, beyond a theatrical shiver. It asks you, quite seriously: do you believe in ghosts?

Ghosts. All right, it's not the right word. I don't mean something white and flitting, or an armoured man with his head held under his arm. The presences in Nash-world are something far less defined and less definable. It is haunted all through. Or that's partly it. But I'm not sure that even Nash found the right words for his spell.

In his essay "The Life of the Inanimate Object", he wrote about "the endowment of natural objects, organic but not human, with powers or personal influences..." The hills are alive – and the rocks and stones and trees are too! Yes, with any English outdoor art, especially one that is set in a handful of favourite locations, these Wordsworthian terms are going to be tempting.

But go to the show that opens in Dulwich Picture Gallery on Wednesday – Paul Nash: the Elements. The powers that dwell in these landscapes don't feel like quasi-persons. Nature doesn't wear a human face. When Nash's work is at strength, it's as if another and quite alien world had intersected with this one; as if the hills etc had been taken away and then returned, subtly changed.

Nash belonged to the very diverse generation of British modern artists who went to the Slade and included Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Dora Carrington. But you might wonder how far Nash needed to learn anything. Take almost the first work in this show, a drawing called The Pyramids in the Sea, done in 1912, when he was 23. Two pyramids, by moonlight, emerge from a turbulent sea. It's all there already. It's one of those mystifying early works that seem to hold a whole career in embryo, and to anticipate later influences.

Years before there was such a thing as Surrealism, this image finds a power in deep strangeness. Years before Nash had seen a Samuel Palmer (who only resurfaced in the 1920s) this image has a Samuel Palmer moon and a Samuel Palmer sea – that is, if Palmer had ever done a stormy sea. The waves rise in massive bell curves. And in those waves, Nash first finds the swelling-dipping forms that will provide him with hills for the rest of his work.

In a more agitated way, these same curves make the churned-up trench-scape in his First World War horror-masterpiece, We Are Making a New World. They are still there, the background hills, in the late mad vision of Solstice of the Sunflower, from 1945, the year before his death.

Nash has more than one mood, of course. He can do pastoral peace. Or in the cold views along Dymchurch shore there is an M R James spookiness. Here, there are figures (rare in Nash) and they might be drifting ghosts. But then you come up against The End of the Steps, with its cuboid block of solid concrete. It's a blank stop in the picture. It comes from somewhere else. It's inexplicable, immemorial, perhaps extraterrestrial. That is the essential Nash effect.

When Surrealism arrived, Nash consciously engaged with it. It's not surprising that he felt affinities. For a time, he was considered "English Surrealist-in-Chief". But his most orthodoxly surreal pictures are his weakest. Pictures like Northern Adventure and Landscape from a Dream are deliberate mix-ups. He is trying hard to be irrational.

It's a question of what value you put on strangeness. Party-line Surrealism played in negatively, a dissonance to stir up the mind, break down categories. But for Nash, when he's on form, the incongruous is only a step towards a mysterious synthesis, a way of conjuring other dimensions of experience.

Out of Surrealism, Nash created his few actual visions of the beyond. They're believable because you can't get your head round them. The extraordinary Mansions of the Dead shows giant shelving units and frameworks set in the clouds with flying discs gliding around them. What kind of space is this? Is its genre paradise, or sci-fi?

But his strongest scenes are set on Planet Earth. His trick is the confrontation with the incomprehensible. In Pillar and Moon, you notice the alignment between the stone ball finial on the top of the pillar, and the full moon in the sky: two globes, the same size, set almost at the same level in the picture. You can't say whether this echo is meaningful or meaningless.

Circle of the Monoliths has a field of Avebury stones, but each one apparently has its own patterned chair cover. This is bonkers beyond Surrealism, so much so that it seems to know something. But what? Or there's Event on the Downs, probably his finest work, all the more strange for being (so to speak) entirely in prose. Front of stage: a clump of tree-trunk and a tennis ball appear before us, side by side. Behind them the downs roll away. The "Event" is presumably their being together. What possible link between them? What brought them here?

Nash paints the presence that doesn't make sense. That why, rather than talking about animism or pantheism, which always have a humanising touch, it may be better to think of UFOs, just so long as it's understood that aliens really are alien. A good comparison is cinematic. Think of the moment early on in 2001: a Space Odyssey when the monkeys are startled by the arrival of the monolith, standing there, out of nowhere.

His Second World War masterpiece, Totes Meer, has the same effect. The graveyard of downed German aircraft, a vast sea of broken wings and fusillages is one of those sights that make you suddenly feel you have no idea where you are. The land been taken over, changed beyond recognition. Wartime landscapes must have offered such experiences quite often.

Even Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, wartime too but very different in content, a view of Wittenham Clumps, one of Nash's home subjects, has an unhomely feeling. With both a moon and a sun in the sky, it is a "kaleidoscopic" scene, which holds several spaces and lights, which the viewer can't resolve. You can only chop and change between them. It's a landscape with no certain ground.

People think Nash is a rather cuddly painter. He's a bit modern, yes, but safely English romantic visionary, who loves the land and fills it with character. Actually, most of his work goes the other way. As his photographs of lone stones, abandoned structures and smashed trees show – there's a good selection here – his inclination isn't to animate the inanimate. It's to make it even more inanimate, and resistant to our natural impulse to invest it with our life. Nature becomes as if landed from Saturn.

So what would you believe, if you believed what these pictures are saying? Something like: that the world around us is not ours. It belongs to realms that are beyond us. Nash gives us the kind of feeling that crop circles gave us, when they first appeared and their status was still obscure and unaccountable. It's the kind of feeling you still can get, momentarily, when you take a corner and the landscape lies ahead transfigured by miles of wind farm. We live in a changeling world.

Paul Nash: the Elements at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Rd, London SE21 (020 8693 5254) 10 February to 9 May, £9, includes permanent collection

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference