Memories, Shadows and Reflections
Exhibition essay for Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash at RWA, 2014, published in Brothers in Arms, by Paul Gough (Bristol: Sansom and Co., 2014)
Staged at the Royal West of England Academy in the summer of 2014 the exhibition‘Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash’ asks ‘how is landscape remembered?’ Bound temporally and experientially by the trauma of not one, but two world wars, the exhibition weaves its narrative between the divergent paths of two brothers, John (1893-1977) and Paul Nash (1889-1946). Nestled between Paul’s monumental hilltops and John’s swaying corn sheaves, the landscape of southern England becomes the focus; a place for remembering and forgetting, where memories converge framed by the cultural and social reverberations of conflict. Within these landscapes lie spaces for reflection and resolution, where fragments can become whole. Here, amongst painted shadows and reflections, individual and collective memory resides, immortalised and memorialized in drawings and paintings whilst ‘people remember as they are remembered by things.’[i]
The Brothers Nash are always interesting, Paul with his head, where a poet’s should be, in the clouds, and John, like the child that the painter should be, putting his hand in his mouth to tell us what he has seen in the field and on the farm that afternoon.[ii]
John and Paul Nash were landscape painters in the purest sense. They shared a unique way of looking at the land, shaped by childhood pastimes, constant and close study, and the travesty of war. Their primary concern was always for nature and the countryside around them, depicting the fields and shorelines of their native land. They belong to a group of artists who attempted to balance the radicalism of their European contemporaries with a particularly English sense of Modernism. Stylistically they trod two very different paths, veering between the literary and the lyrical, surrealism and traditionalism. In bringing their work together in ‘Brothers in Art’ ...we are confronted with a panoramic vision of the British countryside, both imagined and real.
Landscape forms the underlying thread of this exhibition. However, it is not only presented as the soil and stone that constitutes our geographical understanding of the term. It is also a psychological concept, as James King suggests in his insightful biography of Paul Nash, in which it is applied to our interior vision or landscape: our memory-scape. This internalized account contributes to the suggestion that both brothers’ work can be understood as acts of commemoration. Programmed in 2014 to coincide with ‘Back from the Front’[iii]at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, it highlights the integral role played by landscape in ‘defining post-war realities, materialities, and the human experiences of them’[iv] utilising the notion that commemorative spaces and sites provide a framework for remembering...
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[i]Jones, Andrew, Memory and Material Culture(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.223.
[ii]Sickert, Walter, Review of The London Group, Burlington Magazine, January 2016 reproduced in Walter Sickert The Complete Writings on Art, Ed. Anna Gruetzner Robins (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000), p.401.
[iii]‘Back From the Front’ encompasses a series of exhibitions and events at the RWA in summer 2014 which includes ‘Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash; Shock and Awe’, curated by Paul Gough; The Death of Nature, paintings by Michael Porter RWA; and a revolving exhibition featuring a series of commemorative commissions funded by Arts Council England in collaboration with Bristol Cultural Development Partnership.
[iv]Saunders, Nicholas, Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), p. 143. In this text Saunders makes the particularly interesting point that human interaction with the landscape was at an unprecedented level during WW1, provoking a need to renegotiate the social construction of landscape.
Image: Photo © Sansom and Co.