Pallanet House, Chichester

Charles Darwent on art: Paul Nash, The Clare Neilson Gift - A modernist moment in the sun, and retreat to the shade

3.00

Like many British artists, Paul Nash was drawn to Paris but felt impelled to play safe at home

A small image in a small show: a woodblock print, an inch and a half by three, by Paul Nash. The engraving is in a slim volume of verse, A Song about Tsar Ivan Vasilyevitch, by the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov. It is in Gothic type on Japan paper – the kind of literary objet de luxe turned out in its day by small publishing houses with names such as The Golden Cockerel Press. This one is by The Fleuron. Everything about the book says "Arts and Crafts" and "1869". The label, though, says "1929".

Everything about the book looks 60 years out of date, that is, except Nash's wood engraving. That is definitely of its time. It is not a pictorial illustration of Cossacks and boyars, but an abstract composition of triangles and rhomboids. It is deeply un-English.

Little bat-squeaks of abstraction in the work of the Vorticists apart, artists on this side of the Channel had shunned abstract painting as something foreign and thus probably immoral. By 1929, the date of the print we're looking at, Mondrian had been painting his red-blue-yellow grids for a decade and Russian abstractionists were well enough established to be on the point of being banned by Stalin. Nothing of this had shown up in the studios of London, though. The hottest thing around was Christopher Wood, who had been to art school in Paris. You might not have guessed it from works such as Porthmeor Beach and Dancing Sailors.

Nor would you have learnt much about abstraction from the paintings of Paul Nash. In the same year as Nash made this small wood engraving, he painted Tate Britain's Landscape at Iden. The trees in that image are thought to echo those of the battlefields he had seen as a war artist in France. If Nash's work is bothered by the past, though, it is also haunted by the future. To the right of the composition is what looks like a Modernist grid. Closer inspection shows this to be a willow windbreak, a Mondrian turned into a little piece of Old England.

But then there is this wood engraving. It is in a show of Nash's work at Pallant House in Chichester, of a bequest made through the Art Fund. The collection was put together over 30 years by Nash's close friend, Clare Neilson. It is an intimate gathering of small-scale objects, including letters, photographs, books and other works on paper. It shows a different Nash from the one we're used to, the painter of flints and copses, of British trenches and, later, of German bombers. But what Nash does it show? English artists of the inter-war years may have been insular, but they were not ignorant. Like Ben Nicholson and the rest, Nash had seen the Continental art magazines passed from hand to hand in London.

In 1930, he made the compulsory pilgrimage to Paris, as would Nicholson and Hepworth, John Piper and Henry Moore. Tate Britain's Kinetic Feature of 1931 shows Nash's response to what he saw there. He was thought of, in England, as the most abstract of his contemporaries, although seeing Kinetic Feature next to a Tate Mondrian may suggest why comparisons are odious.

But here, for a moment, Paul Nash is genuinely abstract. How come? Two years earlier, in 1927, he had made another small print, Still Life #2. This, of a vase of flowers, is deeply un-avant garde, very English, very Nash. Perhaps he felt that the audience for Tsar Ivan would be sophisticated, the kind that read foreign poems. And Lermontov's being Russian may have given him the space to work like one himself; like Malevich, say. Nash was not immune to the charms of abstraction – his 1936 leather binding for Signature magazine shows that – but he knew his market. Abstraction was fine for poetry books and typography magazines, but it wasn't going to wash on canvas. John Piper found that out the hard way in the mid-1930s, before going back to painting moody castles and stately homes.

As often with a small exhibition, and particularly at Pallant House, the glimpses afforded are oddly revealing. This one evokes not just Nash but his moment in English art history; a depressing moment, to my mind, but an excellent evocation of it.

To 30 June (01243 774557)

Critic's Choice

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace at the National Gallery in London shows the Renaissance artist's altarpiece and paintings outside Italy for the first time (till 19 May). Italian masters get a good airing outside London too, with Bellini, Botticelli, Titian … 500 years of Italian Art at Warwickshire's Compton Verney gallery (till 2 Jun). 40 very fine, newly cleaned paintings from 1400 to 1900, taken from the civic collections in Glasgow, complement the gallery's own Neapolitian Collection.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project