18 JANUARY 1997, Page 38

Exhibitions 1

Paul Nash: Aerial Creatures (Imperial War Museum, till 26 January; Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno, 15 Feb-3 April)

Reaching for the sky

David Lee

Paul Nash was 50 years old when the second world war started. Having been gassed in the trenches he was now chroni- cally ill with the asthma that would kill him in 1946. He was also deep in debt and was tortured to the point of nightmare and death-wish by clinical depression, a condi- tion exacerbated by the ending of a recent passionate affair with the surrealist artist Eileen Agar. If all this wasn't bad enough, Nash and his loyal wife, Margaret, both of whom were scared of being bombed, had vacated their beloved Hampstead home and removed to Oxford.

These were not exactly favourable cir- cumstances in which to be painting the 'big' pictures on 'big' themes that were his ambi- tion. Unfortunately, the war provided for just these possibilities, so for Nash, depres- sion, sickness or otherwise, it was do or die. The pictures he produced in response to the first world war had proved that he could deliver a grand statement 'The Menin Road', 1919, which is strategically placed in an adjacent gallery so it can be seen as one enters (and, more poignantly, leaves) this exhibition of his paintings between 1939 and 1945, is among the most moving pacifist pictures of our bloody cen- tury. Appropriately, Nash's response to the destruction and slaughter he had personal- ly witnessed was one of youthful indigna- tion, an anger no less monstrous for being understated. 'The Menin Road' is a young man's picture, its naive passion and bewil- derment its strength. It proved to be too hard an act for the painter to follow.

Between the wars Nash took on board the full gamut of modernist tricks, even to the point of endorsing a few worthy mani- festos himself, but his experiments with a succession of fashionable foreign idioms resulted in cautious, ever-so-English accounts of the avant-garde. Considering his experience, the second world war should have supplied him with the emo- tional material to confirm his status in the top echelon of 20th-century British art.

Aerial Creatures charts the narrow failure of Nash's bid for immortality. In a show of ideal size for those who enjoy looking properly at a few works, the four paintings, `Totes Meer' (1941), 'Battle of Britain' (1941), 'Defence of Albion' (1942) and `Battle of Germany' (1944), on which Nash's reputation as a second world war artist rests, feature prominently. All except a handful of remaining exhibits are bin-end watercolours, competent enough but never- theless mere hors d'oeuvres to the more sustaining, even stodgy main course.

Nash began his stint as a war artist inaus- piciously by displeasing the RAF top brass. They wanted an artist who could paint proper pictures, portraits with manly expressions, Biggles bonhomie and medal ribbons . . . that sort of stuff. In short, they needed a witless flatterer, a hack, and Nash was the wrong man for that job. Pandering illustration was fine for journeymen but he was an artist. Luckily, his friendship with Kenneth Clark secured him a task describ- ing the aerial conflict, although, perhaps crucially, because of his sundry ailments Nash never actually got to fly.

`Battle of Britain' (1941) by Paul Nash Nash had come to see aeroplanes through a surrealist's eyes, as monsters, and his letters and autobiographical state- ments are filled with accounts of the terri- fying aspects of these droning beasts. Looking at these paintings now, with the hindsight of special effects and computer graphics, they look tame enough. Welling- tons, Whitleys, Blenheims, Hampdens are painted without artistic licence and seem pretty much bona fide. It was in paintings where the presence of aircraft is implied and not explicit that his work took off, so to speak. The only exception of a major painting featuring an aircraft, 'Defence of Albion', which shows a Sunderland flying boat grounded like a whale stranded in the surf, is a turkey of a picture, absurd in its pretentiousness and confused in composi- tion. Nash, who had no end of trouble with this painting and probably knew himself it was a dud, should have destroyed it. The Imperial War Museum usually keeps it safely in the basement.

Apart from 'Totes Meer', which shows a graveyard of plane wrecks based on a dump for crashed German aircraft at Cow- ley near Oxford, and which echoes a series of bleak sea and coastal paintings of the 1930s, the two other paintings which reward close study arc 'Battle of Britain' and 'Battle of Germany'. Both are brave, fascinating pictures not because they are masterpieces — they aren't — but because Nash, who was only too aware of the pit- falls of illustration, trod a fine line in these works between the need to make a painting which was useful as propaganda (his job, after all) and one which met his ambitions for a work of art.

The two weren't in his case easily com- patible. Both paintings are self-consciously artful efforts in which he confronts the dilemma of the history painter in a world of photography and instant newsreel. In `Battle of Britain' vapour trails describe buds and petals — pretty stuff — over an estuary presumably in Kent. In 'Battle of Germany', which has no identifiable sub- ject to hold it together, dense smoke from what appears to be a burning fuel installa- tion billows away in flat slabs of paint like camouflage while white clouds double as shell bursts or parachutes. It's all ever so artistic but in the end it doesn't work because all sense of feeling or tragedy has vanished. The commitment, the belief, that fuelled 'The Menin Road' is absent. Sadly, pathos has made way for the need to be artistic.

In both paintings, Nash deliberately drew attention to the quality of the paint. This process is taken to its limit in 'Battle of Germany', which must stand or fall on whether or not Nash is a painter's painter, a Rembrandt, a Bacon or a Soutine. Alas, he isn't in this league. Every stroke drops dead as soon as it leaves his brush. Perhaps Nash's own desperate circumstances got the better of him, or maybe in the end he just wasn't up to it.