Paul Nash: Wittenham Clumps, 1943-4

Paul Nash. Wittenham Clumps, 1943-4. oil and pencil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 29 3/4 inches. Tate T04157

The Tate catalogue entry says this sketch is one of Nash's rare unfinished paintings that he saved, then goes on to point out what it wrong with it: the curved shape in the centre is too large for the sun or moon, too precise for a cloud, probably the beginning of a parachute; abandoned as unsatisfactory.  But he didn't paint over it, so it must have said something to him worth retaining.  

The trees on the top of the hill he had painted in 1914, revisiting it in the mid-thirties and again in the mid-forties.  The trees sit like a fort on the rise, or pillboxes, or gun emplacements: this was the middle of the war. Was it possible to view a landscape after two wars as anything but strategic terrain? Was this painting left unfinished as the curved shape had entered the painting as an unwelcome visitor?  Nash was a surrealist: the curved shape doesn't have to be anything other than some harbinger of dread.  Perhaps he couldn't go on with it.

It reminds me of Man Ray's Observatory Time, a painting done in the 1930s where Lee MIller's lips float in a mackerel sky, and used here in 1936 in a photocollage of nude and chessboard.  There were no rules, however lots of people still try to tell us what things 'represent'.  They represent nothing accessible, but they do tell us things.

Man Ray. Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936Very curiously, Paul Nash has come my way twice recently.  One contributor to On Site review 31: cartography + photography, Robin Wilson, found us through a post I'd done on Nash (the surrealism of ordinary things) in 2010, and Will Craig is writing a piece on the contradictions of modernism and nationalism as found in Paul Nash's work.  The time must be right to look at Nash again.