As World War Two loomed, Paul Nash’s obsessions leaned towards more esoteric forms. The landscape became a fantastical entity, the realm of old magic that had already been of much interest to the artist, but one that gradually heightened as reality darkened around him once more. He moved more to photography as a medium in itself, as well as to take reference material for his main form of painting. But, in doing so, he seems to have uncovered some of the weirder elements found in the English landscape, most overtly captured in his photographs of a variety of standing stones, especially those found in the village of Avebury. Yet another aspect that seems to have fascinated the artist is how perception can lead to a weird, even supernatural angle in which to view the landscape through, never bettered by the artist than in his photographic series, Monster Field.
It is 1938 and Nash comes upon a field in which several trees have been uprooted and are lying on their sides, most probably due to high levels of wind or by being struck by lightning. But Nash is not seeing the field’s surface level; there is menace to be found in the quadrant. For Nash, through a perceptive occulting of the view, removes the cause of the trees’ uprooting and labels it as a sentient choice. Pathetic fallacy is often discredited as variously an attempt to poeticise and bring the natural world closer to us via an anthropomorphism of sorts and yet its role as an instigator of the unnerving and eerie cannot be underestimated. Nash imbues the objects found in natural landscape with an agency, where accident and serendipity does not exist; where all is by choice and will.
The genius of Monster Field is its taking advantage of the still medium. Through changing the perception, even through simply titling the photos Monster Field, Nash hints of a potential motion rather than a static reality of the creatures he captures. The trees, and especially their roots, become giant spider-like hands that crawl across the landscape, captured deftly by Nash’s camera; the artist having risked harm by splintered tentacles, perhaps capturing the moments in the same way as a wildlife documentarian. Two of the photos in particular capture this sense of movement and it’s clear that the effect only really works if the whole of the tree is in the photograph. Cutting the trunk or the roots off the picture renders it lifeless, back to the dead object that it really is. When seen in full, the field is filled with monsters, roaming, patrolling their territory.
Nash once wrote that “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human beings.” This is the impetus behind Monster Field and Nash’s oeuvre as a whole. The landscape can fight back, is devoid of the necessity of humans as it always really has been, and simply gets on with living. The beauty of the photographs is that each one hints that, after Nash has strolled away and packed up his camera, the trees or monsters will continue in their roaming. The old philosophical adage, “Does a falling tree make a sound if no one is there to hear it” becomes eerily subverted; the falling tree roams even if no one is there to see it, so to speak. The monsters of the field would find their way into Nash’s paintings variously but specifically a year later in Monster Field; effectively a painted version of one of the photographs. Nash’s painting has always toyed with the potential in the static; it is his photography that often hints at uncanny movement. Here, the monster has its claws clipped and becomes a tree once more, the lack of movement in the painting rendering it simply another felled tree.
It is the photographic medium that Nash excels at in this regard. He is not documenting so much as augmenting the landscapes that fascinated him. He would address such themes through other methods in his painting – with his stark and vibrant use of colour especially – but the black & white, fragmented nature of his photography is a powerful counter-current to his own work. One of Nash’s most famous quotes is concerned with such ideas. He suggests that “There are places, just as there are people and objects… whose relationship of parts creates a mystery.” Monster Field is a mystifying of the landscape, taking its “parts” out of contexts to find menace, sentience and agency that denies us our top role in the landscape. With the world turning to chaos before Nash’s eyes once more, and having not learned the lessons of the calamities of mere decades before, perhaps the artist took solace in such monsters; unnerving creatures which were strangely reassuring in their lack of care or bother towards its more violent, human neighbours, in a world where monstrous actions and scenarios were soon to become as normal as a fallen tree in a field.
Crawling across a field,
One dead night,
More alive than should be,
A tree walks on its side.
They care not for who sees them,
With the eyes of men distracted,
By more impending violence.
Many disappeared souls,
Taken under by the creatures of the field;
Their voices cry,
In between the split crack sound,
Of branch and bark,
Across the land.
Grasping at the grass,
Leaving a many-footed trail,
In the field of a farmer who,
Shrugged off such mysteries.