We are Making a New World by Paul Nash, 1918
Paul Nash has painted a bleak landscape.
It is of the Polygon Wood in Ypres Salient in 1917. The landscape is reduced to a few ragged stumps, all that remains of the woods that once stood there. Devoid of figures, it is a haunting image that leaves the viewer with a sense of how this new form of warfare affected the people on the frontline.
It asks what a weapon capable of ripping apart an entire landscape would do to a human body. In many ways, it is the lack of figures that give Nash’s painting its power. It asks questions without providing answers, leaving the audience to ponder the experiences of those who fought in such places and questioned the nature of war itself. This is a political portrait with a difference.
We are Making a New World a 1918 oil-on-canvas painting by Paul Nash.
The optimistic title contrasts with Nash's depiction of a scarred landscape created by the First World War, with shell-holes, mounds of earth, and leafless tree trunks.
It has been described as one of the best British paintings of the 20th century and has been compared to Picasso's Guernica.
The painting measures 28.0in. × 36.0 in. It depicts a bright white sun rising above ruddy brown clouds; the sunshine beams down on a desolated green landscape below, with unnatural mounds of earth piled up between the skeletal remains of blasted trees. Nash's style is developed from Cubism and Vorticism.
His first major painting, it is a remarkably pared-down composition in colour and structure. Muddy green craters and the spiky stumps of blown-apart trees form a pattern into the distance; above the horizon, the blood-red clouds of dawn part for an abrasively white sun. The scene is backlit. Barely a brushstroke has been wasted.
The painting has the confidence and urgency born of outrage. It is low on sentimentality—none of the mothers and children of Henry Moore, or the church spires of John Piper—and high on horror. In fact, this is one of Britain’s best paintings of the 20th century. While Guernica, the original war painting of modern Spain—the land of Goya and José de Ribera—is full of people and animals screaming in pain, Nash’s is about nature.
The power of this picture, however, lays not so much in its subject matter as in its relationship to its genre. This is also a painting about other paintings. Its execution is loosely that of modernist cubist-expressionism. But Nash chose to work in this style, not because of an abstract allegiance to its principles, but because the new kind of landscape produced by mechanised warfare looked expressionist-cubist.
The scene brings to mind one of Samuel Palmer’s idyllic rural scenes, framed by trees. Then there is the title, We are Making a New World. Its bitter mockery—like a slogan lifted from an advert—catches you by surprise. Nash seems already to understand and undermine the utopian promise of technology as a contribution to modernism.
In 1918, Nevinson chose to exhibit Paths of Glory in London and when the government heard about it they said, 'You can't exhibit this...' But Nevinson put it up in the gallery, he covered the whole thing in a great big sign, that read in capital letters: 'CENSORED'.
About Paul Nash
Paul Nash was born in 1889.
He was a British surrealist painter and war artist, as well as a photographer, writer and designer of applied art. Nash was among the most prominent landscape artists of the first half of the twentieth century. He played a crucial role in the development of Modernism in English art.
Nash grew up in Buckinghamshire where he developed a love of the landscape. He entered the Slade School of Art but was poor at figure drawing and concentrated on landscape painting. Nash found much inspiration in landscapes with elements of ancient history, such as burial mounds, Iron Age hill forts such as Wittenham Clumps and the standing stones at Avebury in Wiltshire.
The artworks he produced during World War One are among the most iconic images of the conflict. Nash was working as an official war artist, but the picture could hardly be described as propaganda for any nation’s cause. He painted it in the same spirit as the war poets wrote their poetry. He wanted those at home who still supported the war to know what it was like; he wanted, he said, 'to burn the truth into their lousy souls.'
After the war, Nash continued to focus on landscape painting, originally in a formalised style but, in an increasingly abstract and surreal manner. In his paintings, he often placed everyday objects into a landscape to give them a new identity and symbolism.
When the war ended Nash was determined to continue his career as an artist but struggled with periodic bouts of depression and money worries. Throughout 1919 and 1920 Nash lived in Buckinghamshire and in London where he made theatre designs for a play by J. M. Barrie.
Along with several other artists, Nash became prominent in the Society of Wood Engravers and 1920 was involved in its first exhibition. From 1920 until 1923 Nash taught, on an occasional basis, at the Cornmarket School of Art in Oxford. In 1930, Nash started working as an art critic for The Listener.
Nash became a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the European avant-garde styles of abstraction and surrealism throughout the 1930s. In 1933, he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth and the critic Herbert Read.
It was a short-lived but significant move towards the revitalisation of British art in the inter-war period.
During World War Two, although sick with the asthmatic condition that would kill him, he produced two series of anthropomorphic depictions of aircraft, before producing some landscapes rich in symbolism with an intense mystical quality. These have perhaps become among the best-known works from the period Totes Meer (Dead Sea). Nash was also a book illustrator, and also designed stage scenery, fabrics and posters
He died shortly after the end of the 2nd World War in 1946.
The Bigger Picture
Why paint war: why send artists to the battlefield when a camera could capture the face of conflict so much more convincingly than a painter with a canvas and brushes? The question is as timely now as it was when war broke out in Belgium in 1914.
Quick to spot a propaganda advantage, German and French artists accompanied troops to the front, making spontaneous sketches and watercolours of soldiers as they engaged with the enemy en masse. Belgian artists fled into exile, many taking refuge in London where they gathered and started to recreate terrifying visions of the overthrow of their country.
In the years before the war, many younger artists, such as Wyndham Lewis and CWR Nevinson, had been inspired by the ideas of the Futurist Movement that glorified machinery, noise, and destruction, welcoming the prospect of war as an ‘essential hygiene’ that would cleanse a decadent society. For the right-wing press, however, war offered an opportunity to rid the country of the avant-garde, with its distinctly un-English and unpatriotic ideas.
Moreover, the UK government’s attitude to artists was ambivalent. Artists were expected to paint scenes that would encourage the USA to join the war effort. The led to narrative and celebratory style paintings.
However by 1916, perhaps the two most memorable British paintings to have emerged from the war were by those who had first volunteered for the Front – Eric Kennington’s reverse painting on glass ‘The Kensingtons at Laventie’, and Richard Nevinson’s ‘La Mitrailleuse’, a daringly modern canvas of French machine-gunners. When the latter was first exhibited, in early 1916, attendants had to be placed to keep the queues moving past it.
For a short while, Nevinson became the enfant terrible of the British art scene. He met the essential criteria of the war artist: dogged, dangerous, inspirational; capable of rendering the dreadful nihilism of the war in an uncomplicated figurative form that blended realism with geometric modernism. Above all, he had unchallengeable authority, his reputation as a painter underpinned by proven credentials
A new Department of Information was created in February 1917 under the direction of John Buchan (replaced in 1918 by the Anglo-Canadian media tycoon Max Aitken – Lord Beaverbrook). Beaverbrook altered the direction and tone of official war art, moving it from the representation of the present (with a short-term emphasis on propaganda and documentary record) to the creation of ‘a permanent legacy for future generations, an emblem of remembrance, and a lasting memorial expressed in art’.
There was intense rivalry between Beaverbrook’s department and the newly-formed rival National War Museum (renamed the Imperial War Museum in December 1917), which also saw itself as taking the lead in gathering existing war art and settings its agenda for commissioning new art.
Under the energetic leadership of Arnold Bennett, and with the support of Beaverbrook, the British War Memorials Committee set itself on a very different trajectory from the War Museum. Independent and original in its thinking, the committee did its utmost to frustrate establishment efforts to promote the old guard of British art. Instead, Bennett and his fellow members offered work to the cadre of younger soldier-artists with the ulterior motive of assembling a significant contemporary collection that would be representative of ‘the greatest artistic expression of the day’.
Remarkably, this meant the Committee are giving its support to the sort of modernist work that right wing and conservative factions in the press and society at large despised since it reminded them of alien and undesirable movements (Futurism, Cubism, and Expressionism!) which they regarded as antithetical to British values.
The popularity of draughtspeople such as Muirhead Bone convinced the British government to be bolder and to commission a second wave of artists. Amongst these artists were those who would shape modern British art in the decades to come – Paul Nash, Percy Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts, David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer.
Nash arrived at the Ypres Salient at an unusually quiet time (though nowhere in the trenches could be considered safe or particularly quiet). At twilight, as he patrolled the trenches, Nash had time to absorb the strange beauty of the battlefront landscape. He was impressed by the powerful continuity of nature in the midst of the bombed and battered countryside.
Nash, like many other artists, writers and poets on the Western Front found himself wrestling with the cruel irony that the destruction and depravity all around him were feeding his imagination. His early drawings from this period use a bright, even colourful, palette, depicting natural scenes that appeared undisturbed by war.
As the messenger, Paul Nash created some of the most devastating landscapes of war ever painted; his outrage at the waste of life was expressed through his depiction of the violation of nature in landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.
Of all British artists of the last century, Paul Nash is perhaps the one most readily associated with the sanctity and loveliness of trees. As a visionary painter, Nash sensed the supernatural power of trees – how they linked the underworld, the earth’s surface and the skies.
Nash was sensitive, not only to the human carnage he witnessed but also to the devastation of the verdant plains of Flanders, Artois and Picardy, where trees had offered ‘vantage and protection, raw materials and nourishment’, in thick forests and neat copses
.Once cherished as a place of refuge and shade, copses or small woods now became death traps, infamous killing grounds. Trees were cleared for safety by artillery shelling or felled for military use.
Nash saw all this, and his painting reflects this.
Some artists rebelled against their commissions. Society painter William Orpen known for his swagger portraits of officers hit the self-detonate button. Days after the Armistice, the Imperial War Museum asked Orpen to make two large official paintings of the Peace Conference at Versailles. These were officially deemed to be ‘unsatisfactory'. Having completed those, Orpen embarked on a third panorama of the statesmen gathered in the gilded surroundings of the Hall of Peace at Versailles. Then, without warning the museum, he painted them all out. Methodically, he obliterated thirty-six figures, painting in their place a coffin covered by the Union Jack, two semi-nude soldiers guarding it and two cherubs in the air.
Orpen told the Evening Standard: “It all seemed so unimportant somehow; I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France forever”.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1923, with the title To the Unknown British Soldier in France, it was voted ‘picture of the year by public ballot. However, the posture of the soldiers, the nudity, and the bitter irony of the symbols gave rise to contrasting reactions in the press, with right-wing papers attacking it as an ‘a bad joke’ that lacked dignity and good taste. The left-wing press praised the painting: the Daily Herald calling it ‘a magnificent allegorical tribute to the men who won the war’.
The Imperial War Museum rejected the painting and withheld the final instalment of Orpen’s fee.
The war stimulated some of the best British art of the twentieth century, giving shape to a scheme of arts patronage on a scale never seen before, and nourishing the work of dozens of artists who would populate the creative milieu for decades to come.