thu 21/11/2019

Yuletide Scenes 3: Winter Sea | reviews, news & interviews

Yuletide Scenes 3: Winter Sea

Yuletide Scenes 3: Winter Sea

Paul Nash's stark, icy seascape evokes a powerful sense of the artist's mental state

'Winter Sea' lifts us out of the everyday world, towards an exhilarating isolation© York Art Gallery

There’s movement towards a walk after lunch, but by the time everyone’s hummed and hawed about where they might go, rubbed their bellies after one too many forcemeat balls and argued about who put the Guardian Quiz where, it’s already dark and there’s only you and one other still up for it. They cry off – a mercy – and you’re alone, heading out across the garden, along the path towards the headland. As you crest the dark bank you’re hit by freezing wind and the radiance of the moon’s path across the icy sea. Instantly you’re outside the cosy fug of gleaming baubles, leftover turkey and twittering Yuletide TV, locked into your own exalted solitude.

It is of course one of the great romantic clichés, the silvery shimmer of moonlight on black depths. But Paul Nash takes it in a different direction: the presence of the moon implied rather than stated, the muted light creating a weird, unearthly numbness. Those jagged forms, breaking up the surface of the sea – are they cubistic waves or great shards of ice? Is what we’re seeing taking place at night or on one of those deep winter days when it never gets fully light?

Looking at this painting we know exactly what Nash thought and felt when he saw it

Nash moved to Dymchurch on the Kent Coast in 1921, while recovering from a breakdown caused by his experiences in World War I. The barren coastline, with not so much as a bush or tree in sight, dominated by the long, bare curve of the seawall, inspired some of his most powerful paintings. If his images of Wiltshire and Dorset – good as they often are – can feel a little too self-consciously poetic, here there’s nothing but a stark, dead end of things – a painting like the marvellously severe The Shore is at once almost abstract and imbued with a sense of place that is peculiarly British.

Winter Sea, with its brutal perspective roadway driving away across the shifting sea, was apparently inspired by the effect of light glimpsed by Nash on a night walk with his wife. But its creation was hardly spontaneous: begun in Kent in 1925, it was only completed 12 years later in London. Yet Nash has created the sense of a moment, a glimpse of his own mental state, a mood of spiritual desolation that is completely impassive. Having nearly drowned as a child Nash was ambivalent towards the sea. The ocean here is neither “beautiful” nor “terrifying”, it is simply there. Yet looking at this painting we know exactly what Nash thought and felt when he saw it.

If the painting is the perfect antidote to the Christmas card view of winter, it is an appropriate image to be looking at at this time of year. Like Christmas itself Winter Sea lifts us out of the everyday world, away from enforced conviviality towards an exhilarating isolation – a deep breath of the infinite before we head back to the daily grind.

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