Paul Nash: The Elements, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Paul Nash, the celebrated war artist, could see conflict in everyday objects, even on the Sussex Downs

If you have an image of Paul Nash in your mind then it is probably as a war artist, a painter of shelled woods in the Ypres Salient or crashed German bombers on the Sussex Downs.

And that's fair enough, since Nash was the battle painter par excellence, covering both world wars – and, apart from William Rothenstein, the only Briton I can think of who did so. As a well-argued new show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery makes clear, though, Nash was already a war artist before he was shipped to the Western Front as a rifleman in 1917, and remained one until his death a year after VE Day.

The wars Nash painted and drew were not just of opposing armies but of the manichaean struggle between all kinds of things: between woods and the paths that run through them, forms and space; land and sea, men and women, between order and disorder. The DPG's show is called Paul Nash: The Elements, and that, too, is fair enough. For 35 years, Nash painted a small range of elemental things – trees and tree trunks, knapped flints, birds' nests, doorways – regrouping them like pieces on a chessboard, or like soldiers on a battle plan. For the most part, these scenes were imagined, their elements and the arrangement of those elements so charged with symbolism that even Nash's landscapes really count as still lifes. The idea that Nash recorded what he saw, on the Menin Road or by the sea in Dymchurch, needs knocking on the head; and, among other things, the DPG's exhibition does just that.

One of the earliest works in the show – a lovely watercolour called The Three, made in 1911 when Nash was 21 – offers few clear signs of what was to come. Of its trio of elms, recalled from a Buckinghamshire spinney, the critic of The Daily Telegraph huffed: "There seems to be no inspiration from reality ... [Mr Nash's] trees look as if they were embroidered." But that was rather the point. When, 17 years later, Nash painted a canvas from what he had seen at Inverness Copse in the hell of Passchendaele, its trees looked, intentionally, like dead men rising from their graves.

By then, Nash's personal pantheon of symbols – his elements – were firmly set. The tree-man recurs as the bole of February (1929), a memorial to the artist's dead father. That shape, abstracted, becomes the shards of flint in The Nest of the Wild Stones (1937), these in turn having their roots in the Neolithic earthworks in Landscape at Pen Pits. Paths and doorways are things of promise in Promenade (1922), of mystery in Savernake (1927), of horror in the hellish Marching at Night (1918). To every good in a Nash element there is an equal and opposite bad.

Above all, you feel, there is sex. Nash, unusually open to the European avant-garde, was an early subscriber to Surrealism. This suited him well in various ways, the improbable juxtaposing of unlikely objects being at the heart of Surrealism's method and his own. The surrealist taste for things erotic also shades the paths through Nash's woods, his fascination with dew ponds and standing stones, with fallen trees. One work in particular – The Archer, first painted in 1930 and reworked over the course of a dozen years – seems to unlock Nash. The po-faced depiction of an upended toy boat, its mast pointing at a target, The Archer is like the illustration from a Freudian casebook. Behind its child-like innocence, lie the irrationality of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the mythic quality of The Golden Bough.

If Nash didn't make old bones, he did live long enough to see his elements coalesce. Much of the work in the first rooms at Dulwich feels tentative and exploratory, even bitty. It is in the last room of what we might loosely call landscapes from the 1930s and '40s that we find Nash among the great British painters of the 20th century. For all their surrealist oddity, works such as Event on the Downs are symphonies rather than concertos, great comings-together of disparate sounds and tunes. Paul Nash: The Elements is a clever show, and one the artist needs and deserves.

To 9 May (020-8693 4786)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent makes a date with the Courtauld Institute to see Michelangelo's Dream, one of the most magnificent drawings of the Italian Renaissance

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor