Surreal sunflowers – Paul Nash and William Blake

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite artists, Paul Nash. While there are plenty of figures I have an interest in because of their connections with Blake, Nash is one of those I have a long and abiding love because of his own work. I had been fascinated with Nash since my teenage years as perhaps the best of the British surrealists and only much later did I discover the connection between him and Blake. (Note: the perhaps is for the benefit of other readers who may have particular opinions about British surrealist art – in my mind, there is no “perhaps”.)

To reduce Nash to a convenient tag, surrealism, is problematic: he contributed to abstraction and Vorticism through the group Unit One. Born in London on May 11, 1889, he studied briefly at the Slade but, according to his biographer Andrew Causley (Paul Nash, 1980), was largely self taught. A printmaker, designer, writer and photographer as well as painter, Nash served as an officer during the First World War before becoming Official War Artist in 1917. His ‘Void of War’ exhibition in 1918 established his reputation, but his real innovations came in the 1920s and 1930s.

Many critics have placed Nash in a tradition of British art that includes Blake, Samuel Palmer and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In a letter to Dora Carrington in 1913, he observed to her “I expect you love Blake as I do”, and early works demonstrated a clear debt to Blake, such as “Angel and Devil” and “Our Lady of Inspiration”, drawings completed in 1910 and the latter drawn from Blake’s poem to Thomas Butts, ‘Over sea, over land,/My eyes did expand/Into regions of the air’ (E712). He also completed two illustrations in 1917 based on Blake’s poem Tiriel.

Most of Nash’s most famous work, such as his Landscape in a Dream (1936-8) and Landscape of the Megaliths deals with abstract visions of place, and as such appears to place him at odds with Blake. Yet his series of woodcuts, Places (published by Heinemann in 1922) showed the profound influence of Blake’s series of illustrations to Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil (1821), with the link to Palmer providing the fulcrum between the two. Nash himself was aware of the irony of his fascination with both Blake and landscape, as he wrote in an article on ‘Abstract Art’ for The Listener in 1932:

Perhaps the strongest contribution to the history of the pictorial subject in England, and one whose character is, in a sense, extremely modern, was made by William Blake. Blake is said to have hated Nature, and his work certainly shows a contempt for natural appearances. Like the Surrealists of today he sought material for his pictures in other worlds. Within the realm of the mind he conceived certain very precise and solid images, bright with colour and of a rather persistent curvilinear design. The finest of these do indeed burn with unreal life and seem the product of unique vision. (cited in James King, Interior Landscapes: A Life of Paul Nash, 1987, p. 137)

Towards the end of his life, Blake’s poem ‘Ah! Sun-Flower’ became another source of inspiration for Nash’s art, leading him to depict a series of gigantic sunflowers such as Sunflower and Sun (1942) and Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945). In these late art works, Nash does not simply respond to the obvious energy of the emblematic flower, but also to the ambivalent tone of melancholy within Blake’s original poem.

Blake, then, occupied Nash’s thoughts and inspired his practice at the beginning and the end of his career. Nash’s real significance as an artist was to promote modernism and the avant garde, both in his own work and his friendships with others such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Herbert Read at a time when such art was viewed with suspicion in conservative Britain.

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By Jason Whittaker on May 11, 2010 · Posted in Arts and Culture