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A bitter truth

Paul Nash's war-torn, decaying landscape symbolises a far greater devastation than the First World War soldier and artist was allowed to portray. Helena Stride reports

Paul Nash's expressive landscape paintings have become iconic images of the First World War. "We are Making a New World" (1918) sums up his unique vision, with its blasted trees, churned up mud and blood-red sky. As a landscape artist Nash loved nature but wished to express this not with the naturalism of John Constable but the poetry and symbolism of William Blake. He said in his posthumous autobiography Outline: An Autobiography and Other Writings (Faber amp; Faber, 1949; republished by Columbus Books, London 1988, now out of print) that he wanted to convey an emotional response to a scene, to discover its particular mood - "the spirit of a place".

After the First World War was declared on August 4, 1914, Nash enlisted with the Artists' Rifles and was selected for officer training with the Hampshire Regiment. In February 1917 he was on the Western Front at the notorious Ypres Salient in Belgium. This finger of land, surrounded by Germans on three sides, was to become the site of the infamous Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres) and was to provide the focus for some of his most memorable work.

Nash was sent home to recover from an accident at a time when the government's Department of Information was commissioning "soldier artists" to return to the battlefields as official war artists to make their own unique record for future generations. Nash was chosen and sent back to the Ypres Salient in November 1917 - just after Passchendaele - with the rank of second lieutenant and his own car, chauffeur and manservant. He took with him crayons, chalks and grey-coloured paper so he could work directly from the landscape as close to the front line as possible. These drawings would be worked into paintings and prints back in his studio in London.

The landscape was transformed by three months of continuous shelling and weeks of rain into a flattened land, pitted with huge shell craters full of stagnant water that were separated by a sea of mud. It was a dangerous environment for soldiers to live and fight in. Weighed down by heavy packs, some men had been sucked into the mud and drowned. Nature was as dangerous as the enemy and there had been 300,000 British casualties, many whose bodies could not be retrieved for burial. "We are Making a New World" was painted in response to this nightmare universe.

This painting can be used in a variety of different ways. Art students can look at it in a formal, aesthetic way, thinking about how it was created.

Using a "modern" style influenced by Post-Impressionism, Nash simplifies forms and repeats them to create a flattened design with an intense blood-red sky. Students will be able to identify the different elements and give their own explanation of why they look as they do. The stylised sea of mud and stunted, shell-blasted trees with drooping branches show the destructive power of modern warfare, and are also symbolic of the lives lost on the battlefield.

Nash was genuinely affected by the destruction of nature and used it as a metaphor for the devastation of human lives. Censorship of all official works would have prohibited him from showing dead bodies, especially those of British soldiers, but by treating the landscape in this symbolic, rather than a naturalistic way, he was able to suggest the degree of human devastation.

History students can assess the painting as a piece of evidence alongside other source material about trench warfare, such as photographs, letters, newspaper accounts and even oral testimonies and films. Does it offer a unique insight? What questions does it pose? What other evidence is needed to understand it better?

English students - especially those studying war poetry - could see it as an alternative creative response to that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon's poems and could also look at Nash's letters. Like most soldiers, he wrote home to his wife and although letters were supposed to be censored, those written by officers often got through unchanged. Such letters, like the one below, are an invaluable source of information for art, history and English students, giving them a greater understanding of why the paintings look as they do:

16 November, 1917

"The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave which is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead."

Finally, the title, "We are Making a New World", is important. Students can make up their own minds about its meaning. It could be a positive message of hope as the white beams of sunlight emerge from behind the blood-red sky, suggesting that all this destruction will have an end and there will be a new world - a better world. Alternatively, the blood-red sky is in danger of blotting out the sunlight. This nightmare vision with its wasted nature is the new world that man has created with his desire for war. I feel that for Nash the meaning was ambiguous and interchangeable. It is appropriate to end with Nash's own words from the letter quoted:

"I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back work from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may burn their lousy souls."

Helena Stride is head of education at the Imperial War Museum

"We are Making a New World" is part of the exhibition "Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War" on until April 27 at the Imperial War Museum LondonTickets: pound;5; free for pre-booked school groupsTel: 020 7416 53135444The museum has some 12,000 works of art, mostly from the First World War and Second World War, but also from more recent conflicts, which can be seen in the Art Galleries. To view particular paintings, call the Department of ArtTel: 020 7416 5211For general information and archives Tel: 020 7416 5320

* Paul Nash 1889-1946

Nash was born in London and trained at the Slade School of Art alongside Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth and Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson. In 1917 he was made an official war artist and is best known for his landscape paintings from the First World War and for his depictions of air battles during the Second World War.

Lesson ideas

Key stage 1

What are we remembering on Remembrance Day (QCA Primary Unit 17)? The painting provides a useful starting point when talking about the First World War with younger children.

KS2 to KS4 Art: Nash's landscapes, with their simplification and repetition of forms, provide a useful starting point for creating expressive, dramatic prints.

KS3 and KS4 History - art as evidence: the painting could be examined and evaluated alongside photographs and documents as a source of evidence to learn about trench warfare.

English and history: using Nash's paintings, photographs and letters by him and other soldiers as a starting point, ask students to write a letter home from the perspective of an ordinary soldier or officer describing the landscape and conditions. A contrast could be made between a censored and uncensored letter.

KS4 and ASA2 English and English literature (AQA syllabus, unit 6, Reading for Meaning, "War in Literature"): Nash's paintings and letters provide useful comparisons with the poetry produced at the time.

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