Monday, December 8, 2014

Paul Nash, The Menin Road

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919
72 x 125 in.

Paul Nash (1889-1946) was a British surrealist painter and photographer.  He is remembered as an important landscape painter and for his war art.  Nash reluctantly enlisted as private for home service at the beginning of World War I in September 1914.  Many of his assignments were guard duty, during which he continued to practice drawing and painting.  However he received officer training in 1916 and was promoted to second lieutenant before being sent to the Western Front.  Nash painted his first scenes of the war while recuperating from an injury, using sketches he had done on the battlefield.  While in hospital he learned that most of his unit was killed.  Nash had his first exhibition in June of 1917 and his depictions of the war were well received.  He was commissioned to do a battlefield scene of Flanders by the Ministry of Information for the Hall of Remembrance Project so he chose to portray the Battle of the Menin Road Bridge, part of the Third Battle of Ypres.  The Menin Road is an extremely large painting (in fact it is quite intentionally the same size as Paolo Uccello's iconic Battle of San Romano) so the impact would be quite impressive in person.  The most prominent feature of the canvas is the torn up landscape.  The devastaton looks post-apocalyptic to a modern viewer, with concrete blocks piled around, metal trash half buried, stagnant pools of muddy water, and the dead desiccated plant life.  The many trees the punctuate the middle ground, and then thicken into a forest in the background, are particularly striking, all dead and broken, their tops likely blown off by bombs.  Two pairs of soldiers attempt to make their way across the desolate field but are dwarfed by the destruction and devastation.  Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this painting is the two beams of light from unseen airplanes that shine through the clouds; they mirror the rays of divine light that shine through the clouds in so many religious paintings to represent God's presence.  They shine onto a scene completely devoid of grace or divinity.

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