We are Making a New World (Art.IWM ART 1146) image: The view over a desolate landscape with shattered trees, the earth a mass of shell holes. The sun hangs high in the sky, beams of light shining down through heavy, earth-coloured clouds. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20070

Friendly Conversations About Art: Jemma Nicholls talks to me about Paul Nash and War Art

In this series, I will be getting people to pick an artwork, tell me about it, and have a conversation. Through this series, I aim to make talking about art more fun, casual, and accessible to those without an arts background.

Jemma (she/her) is a recent graduate from the University of Birmingham, with a BA History and History of Art (first class with hons). Her BA dissertation was about the representation of Indigeneous Americans in 16th century European art, entitled ‘Representing Indigenous Americans in Late Elizabethan England: The Illustrations of John White and Theodor de Bry’. We have matching travel mugs that are really cute. 

We Are Making a New World 1918 is a painting by war artist Paul Nash. It depicts the sun rising on a war-torn landscape, with no evidence of human life.  

Jennifer Wilbur: You ready to do some art talking?

Jemma Nicholls: It’s been a while but I’m ready!

JW: Yay! So, what have you chosen to talk about today?

JN: Today I have chosen to talk about Paul Nash’s ‘We Are Making A New World’, 1918. I love this piece. I think it’s such a beautiful image in itself, and then also there’s the message that it sends about the First World War, and war in general. I think I was first introduced to it in either GCSE or A Level art. We had to pick a specific area, and I went down the war art route because there’s so much there. 

JW: I did the exact same thing!

JN: I came across Nash’s work and loved it. There was an exhibition of his work at Tate Britain which was awesome. His latest stuff is a lot more surrealist versus his earlier stuff. They had everything, tonnes of stuff, which was amazing. It’s so cool, I just love his work, I think it’s awesome but this work in particular is just stunning. 

JW: You did A level or GCSE art and you looked at war, did you look specifically at just the First World War, or did you do broader narrative history?

JN: I picked war, and then it was literally anything as long as you could justify the path you were going down. So I definitely started with Nash, and I ended up concentrating on landscapes and how artists use landscape. I found this contemporary artist called Tiffany Chung who looked at contemporary war. They created aerial maps of war, and they would mark out where things were destroyed or bombed. I looked at that as aerial landscape, and then I brought it back to World War One. I looked at Nash, William Orpen, Otto Dix, and focussed on how the artists played with nature, rather than people.

Tiffany Chung, Easter Offensive 1972 – route 13 and abandoned airfields, 2018, https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/chung

JW: Paul Nash got into art by painting landscapes, and from what I’ve read about him, he felt personally connected and in touch with nature. In the war, he was seeing the human destruction and devastation of nature, which is still very relevant to now.

JN: Yeah, definitely. I think for us, we’re living in the UK so the physical destruction of war is so hard for us to realise. We don’t experience that in any way. We experience war politically, not physically. You see images and it’s insane to see how much destruction there is, destruction of human life, but also to the landscapes and the countries. You can see that imagery from the first world war to now. The landscape and its destruction from war is so intense.

JW: We don’t necessarily experience it, but it is the UK government that are responsible for arms deals with so many countries that then cause devastation, and so the title ‘We Are Creating a New World’ is a very powerful statement. We and our government are complicit in creating this new world that is reflected in Nash’s painting, that, although is depicting the impact of the First World War, does transcend history and the meaning of the work is still a lesson that we can learn from, that we need to listen to.

JN: You could chuck that title onto any image of war and it would be so relevant, so important to say. The things that we’re doing in these horrible situations are impacting the whole world, whether that’s by nature, human nature, politically, economically, etc. It’s completely impacting everything. Nash talked about how war was affecting nature and the look of the world. The title in itself is stunning, as is the artwork. 

JW: I think that an interesting thing about the First World War is that you get a break from war art that traditionally portrays the glory and the triumph of war. Prior to this you have the great images of battles, like paintings of Napoleon dramatically leading the way, all glorious and flamboyant, and it was propaganda. But what’s interesting about Nash, and a lot of the British war artists, is that they were officially commissioned by the government, but they weren’t solely producing propaganda. Some works obviously were propaganda images, but this work is very much being thrown into the government’s face, and criticising the war

JN: Oh definitely, it’s such a negative work, it’s saying “how dare you, look at this, this is so awful.” I love it, it’s so petty like, “Who do you think you are?!”. And obviously he was out there fighting as well. 

JW: And his brother, John Nash, was also a war artist.

JN: It is really interesting that it was commissioned by the government, he was a war artist, it was something for the British to use.

JW: It was was used for propaganda as the cover for a magazine in 1917, and the work didn’t have that title on it. But as soon as you chuck that title on it, it says so much. It’s no longer that this is the remains of a battlefield, but actually makes the viewer think about the wider implications of this war-torn landscape 

Sunrise, Inverness Copse (Art.IWM ART 724) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20067

JN: His original drawing didn’t really have much colour, but adding that colour creates a whole new layer to it. There’s the dark red type sky, the green, brown sludge, and these really dark trees. It gives it so much emotion and it makes such a difference. Those trees as well, they’re so dark and so stark in that image. I always thought that while obviously he’s referencing nature and the destruction of nature, they also symbolise fallen men, whether you look at  them as people or them as markers. Farmers in France and Belgium today still turn up the earth and they find fragments of bones. As much as the landscape is destroyed, there are destroyed people within the landscape.

JW: Nash says ‘We are Creating A New World’, and they did, and we still feel the impacts of that. Growing up, I went over to France every year to visit the Lochnagar crater, which is the largest remaining physical crater from the Battle of the Somme. Every single time we went over there, we would find fragments of bullets and bomb shells. One of the people who we stayed with every year is an historical ammunitions expert. My dad went out for a walk once and came back and was like, Oh look, I found this old grenade! And this guy just carefully went over to my dad and took it and said, Mike, that’s still live, so I’m just going to dispose of that.

JN: Oh my god!

JW: But that was 90-100 years after the events of the war. We still have these scars on the landscape. Not only is there the personal human trauma from it, but there’s also the physical, landscape trauma. Every single war produces those marks on the nature.

JN: He says that so brilliantly in that image.

JW: Especially as the sun’s rising in it, and so we’re making this new world, it’s a new day, the sun’s rising, but there’s still this torn up battlefield.

JN: That sun, as well, it’s hitting all of the markers and the ground, and you get these shadows. And so there’s a really strong contrast, the sun is rising but what is it showing? What is it revealing?

Otto Dix. Corpse in Barbed Wire (Flanders) (Leiche im Drahtverhau [Flandern]) from The War (Der Krieg). 1924

JW: It’s such a powerful work, and I’m glad that you chose it because there’s so much political meaning in it that isn’t necessarily visible upon first view. If you view the work on its own without knowing the title, it is just ‘this is a battlefield’, which while a poignant image in itself, we’ve got used to seeing images like that. When you add the title to it, it takes on all these different complex meanings. I wonder how it would have been perceived in 1918, because we’re aware of these battlefield images but they were completely new when created. They were showing a completely new form of warfare. How important was it to have these images that the public could see?

JN: There was an awareness of what was going on. You’d have people coming back and explaining things, but to have visual imagery would have been important. For anyone to see something visual, rather than to hear it described, is so important. If you look at other war landscapes, by Orpen or Dix for example, that contain dismembered bodies, or markers of human existence like hats or sandbags, then you concentrate so much on that. But to have an image void of humanity for the public to be able to focus on the landscape, and it’s a very nonspecific landscape, then that could be anywhere. That could be your backyard. For them to see something with no distraction, other than the landscape itself, for it to be so general in what it’s depicting, it would really drive home that this is the destruction being caused. Don’t forget that these are people’s backyards that are being torn to shreds.

Sir William Orpen, Zonnebeke, 1918, Tate Gallery, Presented by Diana Olivier 2001 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07694

JW: One of the ways this piece is so powerful is that there’s no timeframe to it. You don’t know when last people were there. The battle that was fought there could have been four months ago, or it could have been yesterday. And it’s humans that have come to this place, ripped up the earth and left this mark, and now they’ve gone. This is man and machine’) effect on the land. We are responsible for this, we’re responsible for using this machinery and we’re responsible for this devastation. We have to own up to that and acknowledge it.

JN: And help it. You look at land, it’s dead. Nature is resilient but there’s a point where it’s like, hang on a minute. We need to do something.

JW: That’s what is so poignant about the title. It makes us think about how we interact with nature. You could take that title and put it on images of the climate crisis. The ocean is overtaking areas of land that are inhabited, and there’s all these different things that are affecting it. Put that title on an image of that and it makes it so that this isn’t just something that has happened, but it’s something that we have done, we are making this new world.

JN: Using language was really important for Nash, he used to take sections of poems and attach them to his images. He definitely used language as a way to sculpt the images. He knows the relationship between the two and how important one is for the other, which is definitely evident in this case. The title adds so much to the image.

JW: Are there any other images, either of Nash’s or other artists of that era, that also stand out to you?

JN: There’s another one by Nash. It’s called Totes Meer, meaning Dead Sea, from 1940-41. It’s a landscape, but it’s built out of wrecked planes. Both of the works have real connections to seascapes. It’s much more explicit in Dead Sea, but the waviness of We Are Making a New World reminds me of the fluidity of the sea and the changing nature of nature. What differs is the use of machinery. It’s the actual physical planes that create this broken landscape versus We Are Making a New World which has the earth and the trees that make the physical destroyed landscape. I think Dead Sea is also gorgeous, it looks awesome. The way he’s created this landscape-eqsue destruction, all tied in with war.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 Paul Nash 1889-1946 Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05717

JW: The title again, Dead Sea, thats very poignant. Here’s a seascape filled with death.

JN: And again, no physical bodies. It’s the dead planes, but you know what comes along with crashed planes. You know the connotations of that. And it’s this huge area of land that is just filled with plane wreckage, and again, there’s the effect on the landscape, on an area of land, how the war has done that.

JW: So many planes were shot down. What did we do with them? They must have just been carted off somewhere to be dealt with and there we go, destroying the landscape with our waste and rubbish from machines. A cool thing with this work that is related to We Are Making a New World is that Nash has a really interesting use of cubist/vorticist imagery. In Dead Sea he’s laid out the planes to create this geometric landscape, and in the We Are Making a New World he’s painted the land in a way that shows how the war was destroying the land, making landscapes that were jagged and rugged and not natural.

JN: It really adds to it, definitely. I think you can see that in a lot of his war landscapes, especially in his ones that are portraying action or are in the trenches, there’s are all these jagged edges. It really adds to the effect of war on objects and landscapes.

JW: He’s a very good war artist. He knows how to portray a mood and a setting that is completely separate from his other works, because his other works aren’t jagged, they don’t use vorticist imagery. From what I’ve seen, his other works are a lot more fluid, but then when it comes to his war art, they’re a lot more rugged. He knows how to create a chaotic image. 

JN: That shows his relationship with nature. He has such strong ties with local natural landmarks, like the Wittenham Clumps, two groups of trees on two hills, which inspired his art. There’s the jagged, harsh reality of war and landscape versus the comfortable homely sphere. He’s used his style of painting to reflect how he feels. They’re all images of nature, but some of them are so hostile and horrible that they need to be portrayed completely differently and with different techniques to something that’s comfortable and homely, and he wants to maintain it that way. Not that cubism can’t be used to portray nice things, but you can definitely see him here take into consideration what it looks like. And yet We are Making a New World doesn’t quite sit on one side or the other. When I first saw this work while doing art at school, I just went and searched conflict artworks, and We Are Making a New World really stood out to me because it’s almost peaceful. There’s that imagery of the sun rising and these wavy shapes, so it does come across as very peaceful, and then you look a bit closer and notice the harshness of the colour and then the contrasts between the light and dark, and read the title and you think about and look into it. You realise that it says a lot.

Paul Nash, Wittenham, 1935, https://www.nashclumps.org/middle.html

JW: War landscapes like this that show no signs of human life have got such a dark undertone to them because there’s no way to figure out what happened here. Where is this image? Was that just a random empty field that became a battlefield? Or was that a village that has been torn down? It just raises so many questions. 

JN: How much is hidden under that? All that soil has been upturned, what’s hidden under there? 

JW: It’s such a politically poignant image that still resonates today. We should still be taking the idea and message of We Are Making a New World.

JN: I think that’s when art hits you hardest, same with history in general. It’s when you can go, oh this is still so relevant. It really hammers it home.

Thanks Jemma for having this chat with me! This was a really cool artwork to talk about and I’m glad you introduced it to me. 
Jemma’s LinkedIn

Jemma and me at the 2019 UoB History of Art Society Winter Formal.

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