The illustrator Dave McKean discusses the influence of WW1 artist Paul Nash on his 14-18 NOW commission: Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash.

Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash is released as a limited edition book this May and as a graphic novel in October.

On Paul Nash

14-18 NOW: How did you first discover Paul Nash’s work?

Dave McKean: I became aware of Nash’s work, and of many of his contemporaries, really via the tumultuous cultural time he lived through. It was the birth of modernism, I love the orchestral music from that era, the origins of cinema, moving from the extraordinary expressionism and experimentation of silent film into sound, and the birth of my first love, comics. Obviously at this time, it was often the art, in particular the painting, of the time that was at the bleeding edge. So I fell in love with surrealism and vorticism and all the other ‘isms’ that this young vital generation created as a way of finding and defining each other, and to find ways of explaining the chaotic and confusing time of change in which they found themselves.

14-18 NOW: What drew you to Paul Nash’s work in particular?

DM: I’ve always lived in the country, but have always found inspiration in the inner lives of people, so Nash seemed to encapsulate both. Clearly a landscape painter, yet all his work seemed to show an inner, dreamlike landscape, a landscape of the mind. He was obviously not the most gifted draughtsman at the Slade, he wasn’t the most compelling personality, he didn’t have the most traumatic of war experiences to draw on, yet somehow he seemed to crystalize the war and the changing landscape of art in the most direct way. There’s a great quote; ‘everyone else witnessed the explosions going on around them – for Nash, the explosion happened inside him’.

14-18 NOW: Paul Nash created haunting surreal landscapes based on his experiences in the trenches of the First World War. It’s possible to draw similarities between his work and the dream-like scenes in many of your previous pieces. Has Nash been an influence in any earlier works such as your feature film Mirrormask?

DM: The exciting thing for me working on MirrorMask was the opportunity to recreate the expressionistic city and landscapes that were explored for a short time during the 1920’s in German cinema. MirrorMask was, like most of my films, a love letter to early cinema. Silent films were heavily influenced by painters, and Murnau, Lang and others were inspired by the art movements of the time. Probably the most important aspect of Nash’s work for me, is its Englishness. There are surreal elements, because Nash actually saw the world mutated into a surrealistic vision in front of him in the battlefields of WW1, but somehow his interpretation of these sights, and his adaptations of current art movements, always seemed filtered through a very British restraint – a sense of the real world, real people, real human emotions, and an unfussy, underplayed sense of stoic calm and quiet.

14-18 NOW: In Black Dog, you explore the devastating nature of war and pain on people – what was your experience working with these difficult themes?

DM: Thankfully I have no direct experience of war. I have dodged the bullet in the period of time in which I’ve been born. I think it’s so important to realise that, and to never take these freedoms we enjoy for granted. In many ways, we live in trivial times, yet war still rages in various hotspots around the globe. And like Orwell’s perpetual war, it all feels so chaotic and complex, how can we deal with it in any coherent way? I think story and art and music are all ‘empathy machines’. They can allow us to see through another person’s eyes, experience a little of another person’s life. In a cultural landscape that seems to want more and more ways of escape from the real world, I think now more than ever, we need to empathize and try to understand this insanely complex world as best we can. We only have a short time to be here and have a crack at it. It’s spending time in the mind of a man like Nash, at a time like 1917, that starts to bring reality into focus for me.

14-18 NOW: Do you feel it has changed your perception as an artist?

DM: As I say, it has certainly focussed it, and made it clear to me that trying to make sense of things in my own particular way, rather than painting pretty pictures for commercial products, is the only thing I can do that has any value.

14-18 NOW: The influence of Nash’s iconic paintings is clear in some of the stylistic choices you make in Black Dog – what other materials did you draw from when depicting Nash’s life and experiences?

DM: I looked across all the work that was being made at that time, and also the work that was to follow. I know from my own experience that changes in style or insight rarely happen in one sudden hit. They hang around, out of focus, in peripheral vision, for a while, and slowly make their presence felt. I’m sure Nash and his contemporaries were similar. I’m sure they could sense how the culture was shifting and made their best attempts to deal with those changes. Since I’m dealing with the inside of Nash’s mind, his dreams, I thought it would be right to suggest some of the ways in which Nash may have developed in the future.

About the commission

14-18 NOW: Black Dog is a commission spanning many different media and artforms: performance, music, storytelling and visual art. How do you feel these all work together/complement each other?

DM: In a way they are really all the same thing. They are simply tools for explaining ideas. They can all take the same theme or idea and contribute facets to the final work. They talk to each other, bounce off each other, leave room for each other.

14-18 NOW: You have previously created films like Mirrormask and Luna which fuse live action with animation, and now Black Dog will feature a series of live multimedia performance – do you see this as a natural progression?

DM: It’s the performance aspect which is unusual for me. I used to perform a lot as a teenager, but really left that behind when I started to get busy as an artist. I’ve managed to bring music back into my work in film, but it has been wonderful to play live again, and especially with some of the extraordinary players I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. It’s true that music is the only form in the present tense (actually that’s a quote about jazz I think), but the music I write is certainly theatrical, and needs that inspiration in the moment to work.

14-18 NOW: Do you see the graphic novel as just one facet of a larger piece?

DM: I suppose I’m reluctant to see it that way, because I want to make sure that the graphic novel is the core, the primary work. So often these days comics are seen as marketing tools, or development documents for crap movies. It was never supposed to be like this! Comics are a vital form in their own right. This is a unique medium. I couldn’t have made Black Dog in any other medium. I want to hear Nash’s voice in my head. I want the images to quote from still imagery, and NOT to move, you, the reader, have to create that illusion when necessary. Scale of image changes, you are in charge of time. These are all important facets of what makes comics such a powerful and intimate medium.

14-18 NOW: Do you think that being an artist yourself gave you an insight into Paul Nash’s world?

DM: Yes. I think once you devote a significant amount of your life to something, you get a good sense of how it works, technically, psychologically, historically. And you start to see your own choices, development, struggles reflected in the work and lives of others. It is a great connecting force. As I say, an empathy machine.

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