Monday, 2 March 2015

Paul Nash: Camera Man

Paul Nash, Ploughed Field and Haystacks, 1937 (copyright Tate)

Paul Nash was a very good photographer. His pictures aren't just studies for paintings, although he certainly did use them in this way. They are fully formed works of art in their own right, mesmerizing studies of objects and places that caught his eye. 

You get the feeling, looking at his canvases, that Nash used paint to say what he needed to say, rather than revelling in the medium. If anything I think he preferred the lightness and immediacy of watercolour to the weight and permanence of oil, but he was too shrewd a customer not to use the more 'serious' medium; even during periods when he was mostly painting in watercolour he would knock out an oil or two, and it is these which have ensured his reputation.

His interest lay less in particular media than in his subjects, which by the 1930s were firmly established as place and object. The mysterious power of inanimate things fascinated him as much as the peculiar qualities of certain places - like the Wittenham Clumps, to take his favourite example. To explore place and object he increasingly used a camera, partly because his poor health made it difficult for him to sketch. 

Previously he had mastered oil painting, watercolour, wood engraving, lithography and sundry other media - he was also a very good writer. In photography he found the most immediate way of communicating his ideas and feelings, and proved himself adept at using the camera's eye as an extension of his own. 

One of Nash's last peacetime projects was 'Monster Field', which grew out of his experience of encountering fallen elms in a Gloucestershire field. He took photographs, painted watercolours and oils, wrote text and eventually produced a book. It's difficult now to see why he put so much effort into this one subject, but I think he was striving to get closer and closer to the initial experience. This was conceptual art born of emotion rather than idea. (Discuss!)

Anyway, a selection of his photos is on display this week at the Art Workers' Guild, together with work by Edward Bawden, Ian Beck, Glynn Boyd Harte and Alan Powers, courtesy of Neil Jennings Fine Art. 

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