13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 66

Lyrical celebration

Andrew Lambirth

Paul Nash: Modern Painter, Ancient Landscape Tate Liverpool, until 19 October

There's a school of thought which denies the very existence of such a thing as British Modernism, and holds the phrase to be an oxymoron. These cynical souls allege that no native-born 20th-century British artist ever came near to doing anything that was truly modern, original and capable of taking a place beside the originators of international Modernism. It's true we did not produce a Picasso or a Matisse, but we did nurture many fine painters, several of whom (Sutherland, Piper, Ravilious) have centenaries this year. An older figure, but by no means less distinguished, is Paul Nash.

He was born in 1889 and died too young in 1946. He was an official war artist in both world wars, but is better loved as a landscape painter of singular originality and invention. Was he a Modernist? The current exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool seeks to prove that he was.

Although only about half the size of the last major retrospective of Nash's work that I attended — the 1975 exhibition at the original London Tate — this one still seems vast. At only 115 works, the extent of the exhibition may be accounted for partly by the intensity of the individual exhibits, and partly by the inclusion of much archive material. This includes a good selection of Nash's black-and-white photographs — he was a talented photographer of mostly still-life and landscape subjects — and various letters and papers relating to the different periods of his life. These are well displayed in glass-topped cabinets set into the walls, encouraging visitors to pore over them but not cluttering up the centre of the room where such display cases are usually placed.

This is one pleasing aspect of the exhibition, but it does little to mitigate the disastrous effect of these top galleries in a converted dock warehouse. The low ceilings combined with (for the most part) a lack of natural light are bad enough, but the really distressing thing is the noise. These rooms echo and magnify any sound, and when visitors no longer deem it necessary to lower their voices or control their children in an art gallery, the resulting clamour destroys concentration. But this is an exhibition where you particularly need to concentrate.

From the start, there are superb things to be seen. Nash was a Romantic artist, drawn early to the Pre-Raphaelites and visionary poetry, and some of his first works have a poetic edge as fine as anything he produced as a mature artist. Take for instance 'Pyramids in the Sea' of 1912, a strange and hauntingly dark image of just that. From the same year dates Nash's first depiction of Wittenham Clumps, two conical treecrowned hills in Oxfordshire; Iron Age hill forts, and one of those places of deep resonance for the artist, which he painted again and again. Nash had a particular love of trees. as witnessed here by a fine grouping of mixed-media early drawings (mostly in watercolour, ink, chalk and crayon) of elms in the Buckinghamshire countryside.

The next room is filled with the shrieking horror of the first world war in the trenches. Again, Nash used trees to express his deepest feelings, though this time they are shattered and strung around with barbed wire in a landscape of manmade desolation. A number of poignant mixed-media studies are hung next to Nash's first real forays into oil paint — his early masterpieces of war art: 'We Are Making a New World' (1918) and 'The Menin Road' (1919).

It is a relief to move into the next gallery to view the majestic spaciousness of the Dymchurch pictures, painted as Nash recuperated from a serious breakdown caused by 'war strain'. The great sea wall at Dymchurch, on the edge of Romney Marsh, was the perfect subject for Nash, all calm, reassuring structure with a hint of theatre. The best painting of the subject is simply called The Shore', and usually lives in Leeds City Art Gallery, but a less familiar image called 'Dymchurch Steps' (1924/44) has been borrowed from the National Gallery of Canada. It is this kind of unexpected loan, allowing comparison with more familiar pictures hung near it, that makes an exhibition of this sort so special.

The exhibition moves on chronologically through Nash's various stylistic developments, principally his least interesting abstract phase and then his love/hate relationship with surrealism. I was particularly interested in this period, for Nash embarked on an affair in 1936 with the artist Eileen Agar, whom I got to know 50 years later. (In fact, I assisted her in writing her autobiography, in which, among other fascinating episodes from a surreal life, she recorded her memories of him.) There are a couple of Nash's illustrated letters to Eileen, and the collage he made called `Swanage', which, like the oil painting 'Nocturnal Landscape', contains elements of imagery derived from her.

Some people find the dream-like paintings of this period — full of odd objects and disquieting juxtapositions — unconvincing, though I find the best of them, such as 'Landscape from a Dream', or 'Landscape of the Megaliths', distinctly compelling. But soon life was to grow stranger than surrealism, for the second world war was waiting in the wings.

Nash had always wanted to fly, and dreamt of it all his life. Sadly, his severe asthma prevented him from going up in a plane, but as an official war artist he was assigned to the Air Ministry, and produced one of his most famous images: 'Totes Meer' (1940-1), a breaking wave of crashed and dismembered planes. He dreamt of aerial flowers — though his picture 'Flight of the Magnolia' looks suspiciously like a pig's ear or airborne prawn crackers — and he painted sunflowers poised for flight. But his greatest achieve ment was a series of late landscapes featuring once again the Wittenham Clumps. The last room of the exhibition holds a fabulous array of these lyrical celebrations of the English landscape, rich in palette, painterly in application, and immensely evocative of the changing seasons.

Throughout the exhibition there are a number of fine pictures borrowed from private collections, including things new to me, but on the whole the selection didn't hold any great surprises. There is a catalogue accompanying the show, but I found more useful David Boyd Haycock's short monograph on Nash, interesting and clearly written, and published by the Tate at £8.99.

I found it impossible to do justice to this excellent collection of paintings and drawings in one visit. (If only it were travelling South, but Liverpool is its sole venue.) And I remain unconvinced that Nash was a giant of British Modernism. His flirtations with abstraction and surrealism were just that: attempts to conic to terms with contemporary developments, which never really penetrated to the heart of his artistic identity. He may have needed to explore these approaches in order to forge his own magnificent late style, but they were waystations, however fascinating. Paul Nash is quite simply one of our most marvellous landscape painters, and this exhibition confirms it.