After Paul Nash
I have had a long held interest in the work of the English artist Paul Nash (1889-1946) for the most part because of how strange and unsettling his paintings appear. Best known for his paintings of both world wars such as We are Making a New World of 1918 and Totes Meer (Dead Sea) of 1940-41, it is primarily the work he produced during the inter-war period that intrigues and beguiles me. Their English take on Surrealism is evident. Pastoral scenes are interfered with through the presence of forms and ‘personages’ and are characteristic of Nash’s ongoing experiments with collected found objects and photography. Shot with a strong disquiet, his largely unpeopled paintings possess a stillness that is all the more unsettling when rendered in muted colours so as to present worlds that exist in some kind of near-alternative hinterland. Nash’s paintings of this period aren’t necessarily direct formal antecedents of the strange and frightening dream nightmares of the European Surrealist canon of Dali et al, but more of the still spaces of de Chirico whose work Nash saw in an exhibition in London in 1928 and was in all probability in thrall to.
In addition to his paintings and drawings, Nash was interested in using materials found on his walks in the landscape such as flints, wood and shells and coercing them into assemblages. These, along with photography of both encountered phenomena and also compositions he made by juxtaposing disparate objects in new configurations, often found their way into his paintings. Sometimes Nash even reconfigured these photographs of objects into new compositions and associations such as Swanage of 1936. It was in Swanage where Nash – in constant ill-health for much of his adult life – spent time recuperating and met the younger artist Eileen Agar with whom he embarked upon an affair. Combing the shoreline and exploring the possibilities of the objet trouvé - one such object that was possibly a piece of anchor chain discovered at Lulworth Cove, anthropomorphised by Agar and photographed by Nash, found its way into Swanage. It is a form to the right of the composition and is suggestive of a bird’s head.
(Right) Figure 1 Swanage, 1936, Paul Nash (1889-1946), Medium: Graphite, watercolour and photographs, black and white, on paper. 400 x 581mm. © Tate, London 2016 – T01771
This curious collage presents a coastal scene of monstrous forms that reach into a brooding sky or jostle clumsily in the landscape. All the fragments of photographs are cut from exposures Nash took of natural objects he encountered in the landscape and were sometimes combined and given new associative titles in works such as Black and White Negative – ‘Marsh Personage’ (1934), Black and White Negative, a Found Object, Mineral Kingdom, Vitreous Subject (1936) and Black and White Negative, bark, Yellow House (date unknown)
(From left to right)
Figure 2 Paul Nash. Black and white negative, ‘Marsh Personage’ 1934. © Tate. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/tga-7050ph-757/nash-black-and-white-negative-marsh-personage TGA 7050PH/757
Figure 3 Paul Nash. Black and white negative, a found object, mineral kingdom, vitreous subject 1936. © Tate. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/tga-7050ph-746/nash-black-and-white-negative-a-found-object-mineral-kingdom-vitreous-subject TGA 7050PH/746
Figure 4 Paul Nash. Black and white negative, bark, Yellow House. Date unknown. © Tate. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/tga-7050ph-781/nash-black-and-white-negative-bark-yellow-house TGA 7050PH/781
The value of collecting
Although the two artists collected and interpreted found elements through assemblage, collage and photography in the service of their own respective creative outputs, it is, as Julia Kelly suggested in her lecture to coincide with the exhibition Eileen Agar: Natural Readymades at the Henry Moore Institute on the 24th June 2015, that collecting was not necessarily an art practice in its own right and that Agar didn’t necessarily see her photographs as works of art (Kelly, 2015). However, she also points out that Agar and Nash did manipulate and transmute this material that had been appropriated or recorded into works of art.
This consideration struck me as an interesting one: through the Surrealist tradition of the interpreted object there was an ongoing enquiry for Agar and Nash into the potential of such elements to disarm and become renewed when juxtaposed with other disparate objects or transmuted into new contexts that served to heighten the atmosphere of their respective work. What was this process of finding inert materials and charging them with qualities that might be deemed uncanny?
At the centrepiece of Eileen Agar: Natural Readymades was her Marine Object of 1939 which featured a piece of terracotta amphora, horn, bone and shells. I was interested in how a grouping of separate objects could conspire through the hand of the artist to become resonant and potent. To put this into context, Kelly went on to explain that the Surrealist artists use of found objects was an accepted method of art production and the sea shore was a rich source of unpredictable objects to create assemblages through chance discovery. Although Agar wasn’t a card carrying member of the Surrealists, her association with Nash was a fruitful one as the two combed the coastline around Swanage.
From the archive of their photographic output, I hoped to glean some visual stimulus or at least an idea of what they recorded and whether (particularly with Nash) any of their recorded encounters were transcribed back into their work or that I might reflect upon for my own project. At this juncture I should point out that my own practice involves ‘collecting’ snapshots of visual phenomena that gets referred to as prompts to my sculptural practice so the opportunity to trawl these archives and consider how secondary material might act as visual triggers.
Encountering the photographic archives of Agar and Nash held at the Tate1disclosed a great deal of similar ‘snapshots' of friends, places and things, but it became clear to me that both artists used photography in divergent ways. Nash, in particular, recorded objects in binary and multiple formations that re-emerge into his paintings, whereas Agar seemed to take pictures out of curiosity and did not seemingly use them as works, although some of her photographs were exhibited at The New Art Centre in the 1970s.
A good example of Nash using a photograph of found and arranged objects which emerged later in his work could arguably be found in Black and White Negative, Still Life on Car Roof of 1934. It is a photograph that presents an assemblage of probably wooden shapes and what appears to be a tennis ball placed in a way that suggests ancient or archaic architecture.
(Right) Figure 5 Paul Nash. Black and white negative, still life on car roof. 1934 © Tate. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/tga-7050ph-478/nash-black-and-white-negative-still-life-on-car-roof TGA 7050PH/478
This assemblage can be traced to his painting made a year later in 1935 called Equivalents for the Megaliths, which presents forms in a landscape that is symbolic, Romantic (Causey, 2003) and also very sculptural. Although not a direct transcription of the assemblage taken on the car roof, through the positioning and evocation of a scale using close-up photography of the objects it could be argued that Nash referred to this photographic composition to inform the painting itself.
This painting presents a number of large scale objects that appear to be placed together without necessarily becoming amalgamated into a singular monumental form and thus true to the separateness of Nash’s photographic arrangement where no discernable fusion has taken place between each object. Within his archive of photographs was a continuous rearranging of objects that were reused time and again in different permutations. I became interested in such reuse and how sculpturally this might be achieved through my own investigation into assemblage. I was keen to explore the idea that sculpture is something that can change and be reformed through the rearrangement of disparate elements rather than adhesing materials together into a visual but also structural whole.
1Upon Agar’s death in 1991 her entire photographic collection was donated to the Tate.
Assemblage and its value
My approach to sculptural thinking around the work of Nash and to an extent Agar is based on an interest in both the presence of sculptural forms recorded by both artists, photographically as found objects ‘in situ’ or staged assemblages, and how these forms emerge into Nash’s paintings or are literally collected and transposed into sculptural assemblages such as Other Egg (1937) and Marine Object (1939).
After encountering Marine Object and with my uncertainty around an assemblage acting more than the sum of the component parts I was mindful of what Kelly states in ‘The Anthropology of Assemblage’, an article that discusses the influential exhibition curated by William Seitz in 1961 at the New York Museum of Modern Art and its accompanying catalogue:
Seitz’s reading of assemblage favored (sic) the transfiguration of collected elements, via poetic associations, endowing assembled works with an “aura”.
(Kelly, 2008: 27)
With such historical distance between myself and such a ground breaking exhibition, how could I possibly make an assemblage with any “aura”? Certainly Marine Object possessed a resonance suggesting something ancient and strange, and through looking at Nash’s photographs of staged assemblages, there was something quaint yet strange about these oddly juxtaposed tableaux in his back garden or on the roof of his car. The close cropping of works such as Black and White Negative, still life on car roof suggests something monumental.
This prompted me to consider how I might use found objects through a process of assemblage instead of relying upon a method of art production that generally depends upon a process of design mediated through casting or constructing. I was conscious of the legacy of assemblage as a praxis and decided to employ this method to form a thought position around how sculpture could be made ‘after Nash’.
I wanted to use access to their archives to retrieve any visual material that might somehow give me ‘permission’ to approach making sculpture through the process of adapting ready-mades in a way that avoided making dilute versions of their works but used the process of collecting and juxtaposing disparate elements to form new associations. Was there value in attempting to transmute my own collection or archive of materials and objects in the service of creating new sculptural assemblages? Was the act of assemblage a known exercise with limited contemporary potency? What actually is an assemblage?
William Seitz in his catalogue essay ‘The Realism and Poetry of Assemblage’ to accompany the exhibition The Art of Assemblage, states:
Assemblage is a method with disconcertingly centrifugal potentialities. It is metaphysical and poetic as well as physical and realistic.
Identities drawn from diverse contexts and levels of value are confronted not only physically, within the limits of the work they form, but metaphysically and associationally, within (and modified by) the spectator.
(Seitz, 1961: 84-85)
I was certain that Nash and Agar invested metaphysical and poetic resonances within their works through the associative power of their assemblages, and I knew I wanted to respond in some way to these archives through my own material investigation – but how and with what? Could I attain what the Surrealist photographer Paul Nouget called ‘Subversion des Images’, that is, the ability to separate known objects from their contexts to attain the uncanny or to represent something other. Might this develop into sculpture that operates ‘associationally’ or with an ‘aura’?
This is where the project splits and I begin a trajectory of working between two approaches to sculpture with no clear answer other than on the one hand, a long standing compulsion to make manifest a sculptural rendering or transposition of one of Nash’s sculptural forms found in his paintings, and on the other hand, a riskier (to me at least) exploration of assemblage in the truer sense of arranging disparate elements together. In a way I was occupying two thought positions: one, being the maker of a sculpture formed out of an interpretation of a Nash painting and the other, as an ‘assembler’ (or ‘bricoleur’) of found and collected objects in the spirit of Nash and Agar. The big question across both sculptural iterations was whether I was creating a pastiche or using a method of making that was overused and underwhelming, like a bad cover band churning out versions of classic songs to a disinterested audience.
Sculpture Out of Painting
Of all the paintings Nash made perhaps the one that beguiles me most is The Archer which was executed over twelve years as he revisited and refined the image. The scene is painted with a hue that suggests a low sun and long shadows. In the background a fence appears to be braced by a wooden structure and an open gate reveals a circular form with a pierced centre. Although overtly Freudian in its proposition, the aspect that attracted me most was the strange structure at the centre of the painting, teetering on a point and supported by a flimsy tree-like form that seems neither substantial nor convincingly embedded in the earth.
My response to The Archer – or rather the ‘sculpture’ within the painting – was a piece that emerged as my first thought position. My concern was whether it was possible to render in material a rephrased version of the peculiar object in the painting. Formed out of a conjoinment of a wooden shape relating to the pinched elliptical form standing on its end and some pieces of steel at the top referring to a flower image; a kind of figurative ‘head’ sculpture emerged relatively quickly. The painted surface of the elliptical ‘body’ of the sculpture suggests camouflage and was intended to relate to the colour of the long shadows in the The Archer. Fiberglass matting was employed to ‘fuse’ the disparate elements together so that the parts of the sculpture were aggregated rather than associated. The final element to the sculpture was a nod to Surrealism and the frequent use of images of games and puzzles. I used a found biscuit tin lid with a printed game on its surface, the ‘Ace of Spades’ on the lid echoing the elliptical shape of the sculpture but also suggestive of a dartboard or a target and thus alluding back to the title of the painting itself.
(From left to right)
Figure 6 Desmond Brett Work in progress (2015)
Figure 7 Desmond Brett No Title (2015) Plywood, steel. fiberglass, newspaper, found lid
Homage or Assemblage?
Out of a growing concern that I was leaning on an all-too-knowing method of making sculpture, I began working concurrently on a second piece that was more firmly rooted in assemblage by making a cluster of disparate elements of objects that I had collected. This piece became my second thought position: this mode of thinking felt less comfortable but more in keeping with the intent to engage with assemblage.
Approaching the second work I was mindful of the photograph I had found in the archive that Nash took at an aerodrome during the early part of the second world war at (possibly) RAF Harwell in Oxfordshire. It depicts an array of objects seemingly designed for some kind of purpose that might be related to weather reading. This is purely speculative on my part, however, I can imagine it being an intriguing image for Nash as if a sculpture had been made in the landscape straight out of his Surrealist tinged vision of objects and contraptions not a great deal of distance away from those found in his paintings.
(Right) Figure 8 Paul Nash. Black and white negative, aerodrome [Harwell?] 1940 © Tate. Available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/tga-7050ph-31/nash-black-and-white-negative-aerodrome-harwell TGA 7050PH/31
In some ways this picture is the most inspiring (a rather obsolete word when used critically within one’s art practice perhaps!) photograph I had encountered in my archival research at the Tate as it offered a readymade ‘tableau’ and propelled me to make my own ‘assemblages’ through drawings that represented my own immersion in the archive and the inferences that led me to stage my second thought position. Through the making of a series of watercolour drawings that were intentionally rapid and suggestive of ‘things’ or invented objects ‘assembled’ on the page and made without direct reference to the archive, something emerged that was distinct from my direct observation of the photographs. Was this a sort of transmutation in action? Although I wasn’t finding objects I was calling on references seen or remembered or borne out of my own photographic archive and through a reading of Nash’s photographs.
(From left to right)
Figure 9 Paul Nash, Black and White with Negative, still life flints on a doormat (date not known). Available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) - http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/tga-7050ph-527/nash-black-and-white-negative-still-life-flints-on-a-doormat TGA 7050PH/527
Figure 10 Desmond Brett. Untitled drawings (After Nash), 2015, watercolour on paper.
Between the two pieces – on the one hand, a singular sculpture assembled and formed as one object and on the other, a collection of elements associated through no logical pre-planning but rather by chance and opportunism – I decided to exhibit the latter as it operated out of the experience of seeing the archival photographs. The sculpture selected for the exhibition in turn became an assemblage not necessarily directly ‘of’ these drawings or the possible sculptural forms I had invented within them, but perhaps ‘about’ them instead.
Certain elements were coerced to form the outcome presented in Thought Positions in Sculpture.I am interested in the piece being somehow contingent and suggestive of further change or reorientation so that it becomes almost antithetical to the monumentality suggested in Equivalents for the Megaliths, or indeed much contemporary sculpture practice or civic aspirations for the next Angel of the North. The title of the work A Bastard Piece although deliberately misspelled, alludes to the poem by William Carlos Williams of an enclosed area of wasteland and the small details observed therein and thereout. This is a sculpture of mixed genealogies and mixed materials.
The cast plaster twist snakes through a buckled barrier that pinches a folded paper bag whose pattern echoes the zigzag form of the steel structure. The draped cork is held in place for the time being by a sprung steel bar and a small cast of the grip of my hand in porcelain sits in a loop of metal as if watching from the stalls. Although this is the current iteration, it is possibly not the only one.
(Above right) Figure 11 Desmond Brett, A Bastard Piece (2015) [Found objects: steel, paper foam cork, cast object, wax and enamel and formed object, glazed porcelain].
Like a riff or a quotation ‘after’ Nash, this sculpture became a composition of disparate elements that - unlike the piece made in response to The Archer as a kind of sculptural amalgam – was instead an attempt at an assemblage using objects I had found, acquired, was given or had fabricated for other intentions. At present I am undecided about the true critical worth of this piece, coming as it does, out of a relatively untried method of working.
Causey, A. 2003. ‘Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape’. Papers of Surrealism Issue 1 Winter. Available from: http://www.surrealismcentre.ac.uk/papersofsurrealism/journal1/acrobat_files/Causey.pdf
Kelly, J. (2015) Eileen Agar’s Found Sculptures, Institute lecture Series 24th June, The Henry Moore Institute.
Kelly, J. (2008) 'The Anthropology of Assemblage'. The Art Journal, Vol.67, No.1. Spring. pp 24-30.
Seitz, W. C. (1961) The Art of Assemblage. New York: Museum of Modern Art. [exhibition catalogue].