An article for Charlie Waller Memorial Trust newsletter.
Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash was commissioned by the 14-18Now Foundation, The Imperial War Museum and The Lakes Festival, as part of a four year slate of new artworks for the centenary commemorations of the First World War. It is a graphic novel, and a live performance piece, covering the life of the British landscape artist Paul Nash during his time as an officer in Ypres, and how his experiences there changed his art and his character. He went into the war a young, idealistic, romantic, rather wishy-washy symbolist, and emerged the other side a hardened, angry, expressive and committed socialist. He didn’t label himself an ‘artist’, he had become a ‘messenger’. His calling, to show the people back home what had happened, what the truth of war means to the men caught up in it, to ‘wipe the cant and lies from English life’. And to show how the devastation we inflict on the land, on the natural world, reflects the scars and violence we inflict on each other.
The project is called Black Dog for a number of reasons. Nash painted psychological landscapes, dreamscapes that reflect our inner lives and emotions. His first childhood dream, recounted in his autobiography ‘Outline’, was of being trapped in a claustrophobic tunnel and encountering a black dog that leads him to safety. This strange shadowy companion, who stayed with Nash as he grew up, appeared to represent a number of things; the anxiety of a solitary and imaginative child, the darkness of war approaching, and most clearly, the depression of Nash’s mother that became more and more a part of their home life as her condition deteriorated. The fact that he doesn’t mention the cause of her eventual death while still a child, gives some indication how confusing it must have been – an adult world of irrational anger, solemn silence, isolation and fear that he never understood. According to her death certificate, after she had been committed, she actually died of anorexia,
This shadow never left Paul. His brother John, who, maybe because he was that much younger, or maybe because his character was always lighter in spirit than Paul’s, never seemed to be as affected. John had a much tougher war than Paul, being one of only 12 soldiers, from his platoon of 80, to survive the Battle of Cambrai. Yet, he had a comparatively happy life after the war, locking his memories away, becoming a successful painter and illustrator, with a pleasing, superficial style, unlike Paul’s haunted, restless work.
Paul found it very hard to adjust and refocus after his war experiences – a war artist without a war. He moved to Dymchurch and painted the shoreline, where the turbulent, angry, chaotic sea pushed against the static, hard lines and simple, certain shapes of the sea wall, again and again. Worrying over the images, he blackened the skies, reformatted the compositions, working something out. Notional people would walk through his etchings or watercolours occasionally, but Paul never committed to drawing people in any real sense, he was interested in the longer, even eternal, timelines of trees, skies, rocks, oceans. What he wanted to express could not be found in the overly specific faces of transient human beings.
In 1921, after the death of a close friend, an alarming encounter with his unconscious father (who had not died as Paul had feared), and the accumulated post-traumatic stress of the war, Nash passed out, and remained unconscious for a week. After he recovered, he never painted another person. The voice he’d discovered during the war never left his work, even when painting the most pastoral of landscapes. He managed to keep the depression that killed his mother at bay, using his landscape painting to express his innermost feelings, and finding, in the woods at Iden, the Wittenham clumps, the standing stones at Avebury, his favourite and most profoundly affecting places, solace.