I had the pleasure of visiting the Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich on the UEA campus. I have visited before for other exhibitions but this was a bit hurried as the exhibition closes on the 20th of August and a couple of “promises” to go did not materialise.
Nash of course is renowned for his work in the First World War after he fought on the Western Front and the impact it had on him which he translated into his paintings.
Between the wars his work changed direction into the fantastical world and surrealism in many cases using the landscape as a backdrop to his visions.
At the start of the Second World War he was employed as the official artist attached to the RAF and produced a series of paintings of aircraft depicted as aerial creatures in animated positions ready for action, and then a series of crashed enemy aircraft.
But the interesting painting was his most famous Second World War work "Totes Meer" (German for “Dead Sea”), painted in 1941.
The work was a version by Nash of the Cowley dump, not one of the most obvious by products of war but a necessary place for the disposal of crashed enemy aircraft. It also contained as much British material but Nash focused on the German. It's a place I had not heard of before and not the only one of its kind in the UK, but it is the one immortalised in the painting.
It was of course on the site of the motor works, much of which had been turned over for the manufacturing of aircraft, and the salvage yard was a valuable resource of materials for refurbishment cannibalisation and reuse of valuable metals at this time of shortage.
The painting was done shortly after the Battle of Britain and this is what Nash said of his work.
'The thing (the salvage dump) looked to me, suddenly, like a great inundating sea. You might feel – under certain circumstances – a moonlight night, for instance, this is a vast tide moving across the fields, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no, nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead. It is metal piled up, wreckage. It is hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores (how many Nazi planes have been shot down or otherwise wrecked in this country since they first invaded?). Well, here they are, or some of them. By moonlight, the waning moon, one could swear they began to move and twist and turn as they did in the air. A sort of rigor mortis? No, they are quite dead and still. The only moving creature is the white owl flying low over the bodies of the other predatory creatures, raking the shadows for rats and voles. She isn’t there, of course, as a symbol quite so much as the form and colour essential just there to link up with the cloud fringe overhead.'
And here is Nash himself sketching at the dump:
What also comes out of this story is that it could be multiplied many times world wide during the war, showing the incredible production during the war effort, most of which ended up in places like this or the bottom of the sea.
So a fascinating snippet emerged from my morning of culture, that I would not otherwise have learnt about, time well spent.
The painting brings home the enormity of the war effort and also the tragedy of the lives that were lost...
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