The Tate is currently hosting a Paul Nash exhibition. It is a strange affair. Though maybe it has a lot to say about our post-factual, post truth world. If you can see, how do you show the truth?
Paul Nash was a painter, he was a soldier in the first world war, and was invalided out and then became an official world war artist. He painted atrocity. And he sited atrocity in the lovely countryside of Kent and middle England with twisted trees, and disturbed landscapes. You can walk in your beautiful England and be unaware, not seeing what your country is. Paul Nash made this disparity evident, death was here and now, and perpetrated and part of our garden England. As it always was, and is.
Then where are those commentators now ? War journalists and photographers are now the first to be barred by warring parties, Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands was the first to realise this ban, and so now when journalists get to the front they are the first to be targeted and killed.
War, as Baudrillard said, is not happening.
Neither is the armaments industry relevant, and killing and death is other people’s problem. We sell. Or our illustrious country sells:
‘Statistics collated by UK Trade and Investment, a government body that promotes British exports abroad, show the UK has sold more arms than Russia, China, or France on average over the last 10 years. Only the United States is a bigger exporter.’ (Independent). And if you don’t choose to believe the Independent any authority will provide similar evidence. Of course it is not a part of political discourse – here. Others die by their own hands.
In the Paul Nash exhibition, we didn’t see the twisted dead bodies of Yemenis, or Afghanis, then, we were made aware of twisted dead bodies in a desolate destroyed landscape of the first world war. It wasn’t the point that they might have been British, or German, or Austrian, or … the dead were the dead and we had managed to arrange a war. And humanity had failed.
How can we walk around our English countryside and not see the atrocities perpetrated on a landscape in our name. Paul Nash moved the atrocity home, so the calm English landscape was not so calm, but culpable, disturbed and complicit. Now the arms manufacturers are hidden quietly in countryside or townscape. Patriots scream from every media, ‘Leave the world’, thinking screaming makes you safe, thinking the country is not part of an outside world.
No-one is safe, and whether we like it or not we are all part of one world, whatever happened to John Lennon, oh yes, he was shot, shoot the messenger, like journalists, yet cleaving to identities; nationalistic, religious, class, or economic including a global neo-liberalist ideology, is a failure to understand we are all totally connected.
The world has to find a new empathy, scientifically with its home, and socially for all its people. The current recursive trend to revert to prefer family, community, nation, religion, is irrational and destructive of every individual and the globe we live on. It is the challenge of the human race to be able to see beyond the personal, the local, and like Paul Nash did when he painted his English landscapes, he saw the world in a copse of trees, a hill, still, yet uncertain and beckoning. an entrance into the wood … a dark entrance of death; he painted the familiar English rustic idealism with a deeper understanding of who we all are and what we can do to torture nature.
Image – Paul Nash examining his sculpture Moon Aviary through a blue glass screen which gave a ‘moonlight effect’ for the viewer. Courtesy Tate Archive