Paul Nash was one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century. After the outbreak of the First World War, he joined an infantry unit of the British Army known as the Artists Rifles as a Private. After training and service in the UK he was commissioned as an officer in the Hampshire Regiment, serving in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front. However, Nash was forced to return to London for treatment in the summer of 1917 when he broke a rib; a few days later his division suffered heavy casualties in battle. During his convalescence Nash exhibited a group of artworks depicting the Western Front. As a result, he was commissioned to go back to Belgium as an official war artist.
When Nash returned to Ypres, which in his absence had been the scene of one of the war’s most brutal battles, he was appalled by what he saw. As a nature lover, he was deeply angered by the destruction of the landscape and outraged by the plight of the ordinary troops. In his notes he wrote, ‘I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like … If I can, I will show them.’
During his second spell at the front, Nash made dozens of sketches. Back in England he translated his sketches into detailed drawings and oil paintings. The drawings are shocking, dark, and bleak: muddy landscapes are criss-crossed by driving rain; tiny figures move miserably across obliterated landscapes. With their jagged edges and harsh contrasts, the paintings captured the hopelessness of life at the front. Nash used his understanding of new movements in art—specifically Surrealism and Cubism—to show how the natural landscape had been tortured by war into something weird, frightening and inhumane.
These images made a huge impression when they were first exhibited, helping to change public perceptions about the war. In 1918, Nash was commissioned to make a large oil painting. Titled ‘The Menin Road’ it is one of the most influential works of art to emerge from the First World War and is one of many of Nash’s paintings in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, London.
‘The Western Front Paintings of the Nash Brothers’ Imperial War Museum website
‘Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape’, Tate website
‘Paul Nash,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica
‘Analysis of We Are Making a New World’ Imperial War Museum website
Paul Gough, A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War
Paul Gough: Brothers in Arms: John and Paul Nash and the Aftermath of the Great War (2014)
Richard Cork, A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War (1994)
Sue Malvern, Modern Art, Britain and the Great War: Witnessing, Testimony and Remembrance (2004)
Rain: Lake Zillebeke (1917); Sunrise: Inverness Copse (1917); After the Battle (1918); Men Marching at Night (1918)
Ruined Country (1917, from his first stint); Wire (1918); The Ypres Salient at Night (1918); The Mule Track (1918) We Are Making a New World (1918); The Menin Road (1919); Totes Meer (1940/1)