Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New World Disorder

When you serve as an officer in not one but two world wars, the whole world starts to take on a surreal tint. Paul Nash fought in both World War I and II for England, recording the war in his own personal way, which was shaped largely by the modernist art movements he studied before the conflicts. Born May 11, 1889, Nash acerbically titled his dystopian landscape of the bloody sun rising over the trenches in We Are Making a New World (above, from 1918). There are still places in Europe upon which the violence of World War I and the years of trench warfare are clearly written upon the landscape. The Great War (an oxymoron, if there ever was one) aimed at creating a new world, and succeeded, but not in the way it imagined. Nash loved the writings and paintings of William Blake, whose vision of hell on earth and sense of caustic irony emerge in We Are Making a New World. Nash’s surreal landscape captures the unreal reality of warfare without straying too far from the photographically documented truth.

Between the wars, Nash returned to civilian life in England and interacted with British abstract artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. In Pillar and Moon (above, from 1932-1942), Nash paints a sculpture similar to those by Moore and Hepworth. The moon in the sky echoes the moonlike sphere sitting atop the pillar, as if the stars had fallen to earth. The trees in the background seem borrowed from the paintings of the German Expressionists, twisted and gnarled with the angst of having lived through war with a soul not completely intact. That German touch may be a gesture towards understanding that all sides suffered greatly during the war, erasing the dehumanizing rhetoric employed to get the murderous job done. Even when not facing a hail of bullets, Nash couldn’t remove himself from the theater of the military absurd.

During World War II, Nash photographed a field full of damaged aircraft. Looking upon the wrecks, he imagined the shapes of the fuselage to be the waves and breakers of a vast sea frozen in place. Totes Meer (German for “Dead Sea”; above, from 1940-1941) beautifully transforms the machines of death into a roiling sea of grey metal. Only a few scattered German crosses on broken wings identify the “waves” for what they truly are. Whereas We Are Making a New World documented how war transformed peaceful reality into a nightmare, Totes Meer documents how imagination transforms harsh reality into something beautiful. From these ashes, Nash rises with a sense of hopefulness, remarkable given that 1940 and 1941 marked the nadir of British life during the war, when the Blitz rained down death upon London and FDR battled isolationists in the United States just to initiate the Lend-Lease Act to help England survive. Surrealism, which often took the everyday and made it nightmarish, here in Nash’s work takes the tragically horrific and finds a slender ray of beauty and, perhaps, hope.

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