Nash and the Neo-Romantic Landscape
On the 11th of May 1889, English surreal war artist Paul Nash was born in London. Malcolm Yorke identified him as part of a group of nine British artists who worked in what he defined as a ‘neo-romantic’ vein. The Neo-Romantic landscape was a reaction to naturalism, and stressed external observation, by focusing on feeling and internal observation; it was characterised by the lack of the urban element. The setting was an invented landscape, often an idealised rural scene which seemed disrupted by ruins, “suggesting a dislocated spirit of place” (Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and Their Times, 1989), as a response of the individual to the contemporary historical situation. Although frequently accused of being insular, nostalgic or idealising, the major contribution of neo-romantic art was its strong introverted nature, the value it placed on the individual and the artist’s intuitive abilities.
A real shift in the perception of the genius loci (or spirit of place) occurred mid-twentieth-century with Paul Nash’s revision of the concept. This modern take involved an imaginative interpretation of nature in a way unique to each artist. The painter was first to ‘invent’ a specific place by showing it to the viewer in his chosen light. The non-interfering attitude towards a wild nature allowed Nash o discern what was unique to a certain place. He “created places by visually redefining them, filtering their history, mythology and lineaments through his sense of the mysterious and evocative” (Clare Colvin: ‘Introduction’, Paul Nash Places, exh.cat. South Bank Centre, London, 1989, pp. 4-9, derived from Garlake, New Art, New World : British Art in Postwar Society, published for Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, London, 1998). This theory was the exact opposite of the picturesque approach to landscape gardening, where the artist resorted to a specialised vocabulary of specific patterns and structures in order to order all landscape according to a prescriptive model.
Most importantly, Nash initiated the shift from aesthetic to the phenomenological considerations of place in British painting. By mental conversion of a wild scenery, the neo-Romantic artist would bring to the created image the unique and personalising touch of its creator, who would from then on be identified with the place. He achieved this by using elements specific to a certain landscape which he endowed with metaphorical connotations, however he never used these as cultural symbols, but always considered them through his personal interpretative prism. Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase is a view of Wittenham Clumps in Berkshire, which features regularly in Nash’s late mystical landscapes inspired by Romantics like Palmer and Blake. The Sun, Moon and the changing seasons become personal symbols of life and death to the artist and the place itself, the site of ancient earthworks, evokes humankind’s primitive past.
“While all landscapes that have undergone human intervention have been acculturated and carry symbolic meaning, Nash has probably contributed more than any other artist to our contemporary emphasis on personal constructions of place, in contrast with readings of earlier representations of landscape symbolism as expressions of political and social values.”(Garlake).
Herein lies the essential modernising effect of Nash’s painting on the future of the landscape genre, and, implicitly, on the whole of postwar painting. This view differed greatly from that of the Essex landscapists working at Great Bardfield, for example, or artists such as Greaves, Fell, Lowry, whose perception of the landscape can be closely associated with the concept of human intervention as labour int the landscape and the latter “as productive system rather than aesthetic object”.
Nash’s theory came at a time when there was a stringent need to establish the existence of a home-grown avant-garde, as a valid counterpart of the French one; Nash achieved this by the medium of landscape painting, by “claiming the genius loci as a British characteristic, alignining it with a cool, rationalised ‘national idiosyncracy’. He discerned ‘behind the frank expressions of portrait and scene, an imprisoned spirit: yet this spirit is the source, the motive power which animates this art. […] this spirit I would say it is of the land…’ ”( Paul Nash: statement in Read, Unit One 1934) Influenced by the romantic art of William Blake, who had spiritually transformed nature as a means to find a national voice, “Nash established a model for modernist painting about places in which the ordering intellect of the individual is paramount and the place is invented by the artist, acting as the Genius of the Place, in order to express some aspect of the relationship between landscape and humanity.”(Garlake)