Paul Nash and WWI

By Judith Phillips

In our last newsletter there was a piece about the Paul Nash exhibition on at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle.  So it was great to be emailed by someone who had gone to see it and thought it was ‘wonderful’.  I had seen the exhibition when it was in London but I went again last week.  Here are some of my thoughts.

I spent quite a lot of my visit looking very carefully at the First World War paintings.  At the Laing display you can get very close to the paintings and that meant I noticed things I’d not seen before.  ‘The Menin Road’ is one of Nash’s most iconic paintings – I’m sure we’ve all seen reproductions of it in books about the war or on TV documentaries.  But the original is spell-binding, I think.  It’s not the biggest painting of a war scene but it’s certainly one of the most compelling.  Nash’s landscape dwarfs the human figures who are almost only sketched outlines but, for the first time ever, I noticed what is probably a soldier’s corpse lying in a large pool of water at the front bottom edge of the painting.  You can only see the soldier’s coat and cap floating there – there’s no obvious face or hand on display – but somehow I was convinced this was a man who had been killed some time earlier and was now completely separate from the other human beings seen at a distance in the war-torn landscape.  I found it utterly compelling.

And yet, even the war paintings are not all gloomy.  ‘Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917’ depicts ravaged trees but some are showing signs of new growth – a theme we have also come across in some of the books recommended in the book group.  Personally I find some of his later work, particularly those in the surreal and abstract styles, more difficult to get to grips with but the exhibition labels do help to show the connections and developments in his paintings.

But don’t just take my word for it – try and see the exhibition while it’s still on at the Laing (until 14th January 2018).  And there’s a copy of the catalogue in the museum’s WWI reference library, so you can come in and use it when the Reading Room in the museum is open.