The Kingdom of Paul Nash – unlocking the fable…

It’s been a while since we toured Nash and it’s back on the road so I thought I’d write a few words about the fable that it is and what inspired it to be unpicked as one might an arcane painting or map i.e. what the hell is that about?!

The Kingdom of Paul Nash was inspired by letters given to the Tate by Eileen Agar which revealed an intense and short-lived affair she had with Paul Nash in 1930s Swanage which was not short-lived for him as it was truly profound and was in part his voyage into an English surrealism that would – with his Trench paintings – define his life’s work.

They gave each other gifts from the beaches and coves – painted shells and strange objects imbued with personalities. Through his encounters with the Purbeck coast and the wider megalithic world of the South of England, Nash could finally fuse together the Blakean animism he loved with the avant-garde – the surrealism of the continent- the stone circles, megaliths, serpentine hills of Maiden Castle, described by Thomas Hardy as a great cephalopod – all rearing up and transmogrophying within the de Chirico coves, hills and even beach town-scapes of Dorset. For him the Isle of Purbeck was alive- the fossils rising up as snakes, the seaweed bulbous and alien.

But Nash was also experiencing a form of rehabilitation. He had been treated for shell shock in 1921 after a week of collapsing unconscious, having witnessed with an artist’s eye the horrors of Passchendale in the drowning mud of 1917.

We started with their relationship and decided to explore how we might depict this encounter less as a conventional narrative and more as a surreal or magic realist fable. In this Nash is seen washing up on a magical island – Tempest like. A totemic bird – possibly a cormorant – ushers him on his journey and soon he discovers a quarry leading to a headland chapel based on St, Aldhelm’s Head. There he meets an incarnation of William Blake, proto-anarchic artist who guides him into a tunnel which will lead him back to his lost memories. The tunnel leads to a stone circle where resides a further reincarnation – that of Thomas Hardy – a soothsayer cartologist who knows where Nash can rekindle his repressed trauma. On the clifftop at Winspit, where a ship ran aground, he sees the full horror of his repressed memories, that of Passchendale, 1917. He plunges into the water and there meets the siren-like Agar, who ushers him back to land from the forests of kelp where she resides.

So that’s what it all means!

Kieron Chissik, July, 2019.

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