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18 September 2014
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Art in War: Exploring a Painting

One of the ways to achieve maximum pleasure from a work of art is to find out as much as you can about the subject matter, the artist and its historical context. What can be uncovered about Paul Nash's Totes Meer?

Painting: 'Totes Meer', 1941 by Paul Nash
'Totes Meer', 1941 by Paul Nash, Tate Britain, London ©
What is the subject of the painting?
Who is the artist?
When was it painted?
Is there a deeper meaning?




When was this painting commissioned? What was the commissioner's reaction when it had been completed? Is there a deeper significance in the subject matter? Select the topics to find out more.

What does the image depict?
The scene is at the Metal and Produce Recovery Unit at Cowley, near Oxford - an aircraft salvage dump during World War Two. The painting was made soon after the Battle of Britain. This is the artist’s own description of what he saw.
'The thing (the salvage dump) looked to me, suddenly, like a great inundating sea. You might feel – under certain circumstances – a moonlight night, for instance, this is a vast tide moving across the fields, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no, nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead. It is metal piled up, wreckage. It is hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores (how many Nazi planes have been shot down or otherwise wrecked in this country since they first invaded?). Well, here they are, or some of them. By moonlight, the waning moon, one could swear they began to move and twist and turn as they did in the air. A sort of rigor mortis? No, they are quite dead and still. The only moving creature is the white owl flying low over the bodies of the other predatory creatures, raking the shadows for rats and voles. She isn’t there, of course, as a symbol quite so much as the form and colour essential just there to link up with the cloud fringe overhead.'

Other issues you could explore when looking at a painting could be: Is the painting a recognisable type - a portrait or a landscape? Within that, are there recognisable elements in the painting; a landmark, an object or a personality, for instance? Is the painting describing an event or a response to an event? Does the title or date offer any clues?

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The artist and the commission
Paul Nash had established his reputation during World War One when his art became a strident and angry response to the Western Front, using the destruction of the landscape as a metaphor for the cost of the war. During the interwar years, his work adapted surrealism to the English landscape, animating incongruous, surprising or unusual objects within a traditional setting of urban or pastoral scenes. This inter-relationship arouses a sense of a hidden, almost mystical ordering of the land. He was employed as an official artist attached to the RAF during World War Two and produced first a series of British aircraft as aerial creatures, animated and ready for action then a series of crashed German planes.

Paul Nash had been commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee. Its chairman, Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery declared Totes Meer to be 'the best war picture so far I think'. It was an immediate success when displayed at the National Gallery in May 1941.

As a major British artist, there are a number of exhibition catalogues and books devoted to Nash’s work. Looking at the themes and subjects he was interested in will start to give some insights into this particular painting. In addition, Nash wrote frequently about art, including his own and this is another useful source, for instance his own description of Totes Meer is very revealing of what he saw and understood about the aircraft dump. Another way to understand Nash’s own vision is to compare his paintings of planes with those of other artists during World War Two.

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Historical significance
Postcard created by Paul Nash featuring Hitler's face on an aircraft salvage dump
'Postcard created by Paul Nash featuring Hitler's face on an aircraft salvage dump ©
Cowley was the base of the Morris car factory, parts of which were converted into aircraft workshops at the beginning of World War Two. It was vital to return damaged aircraft as quickly as possible as part of the aerial defence of Britain. Damaged aircraft were disassembled and transported to Civilian Repair Depots for repair, cannibalisation or complete write off. Wrecked aircraft of all nationalities were a source of alloy, aluminium ingots, rubber and plastic.

Whereas for Hitler, modern art was at best a means of foreign currency and at worst morally degenerate, for Nash it had an explicit purpose - the defeat of Nazism, itself. “I want to use what art I have and what I can make as directly as possible into the character of a weapon”, he wrote. Immediately, Nash saw further propaganda possibilities in this painting and he anxiously sought out official figures of the numbers of planes brought down - information that could be printed on the back of a postcard reproduction and then dropped over Germany. The message was clear Britain’s borders are absolute and its defence unforgiving, every Nazi invader is repelled or defeated and then added to victorious tally. Nash was prepared to alter and corrupt the image further. Taking a postcard sized reproduction he added a photograph of Hitler’s head. Perhaps the end result loses the coldness of the original, but the joke and ambition is clear.

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What does the painting symbolise?
The Cowley Aircraft dump contained as many, if not more, British planes, but it is the German ones Nash has chosen to represent and German title (‘dead sea’) indicates the final destination of the planes. Here the detritus of Nazi over-ambition fills the landscape and completes the picture. He is not specifically interested in the construction detail but the whole mass – the sea. Within that, certain elements, such as the central wing with the German markings, are stretched to give the impression of movement. The scene is painted at night when the eye is easily misled or mistaken, and any sort of movement threatening. In contrast the land is fertile, gentle and rolling. Nash did not see the owl as symbolic, but the watchful eye of a hunting bird is a reminder of the forces that brought the German planes down.

The one obvious symbol in the painting is the aircraft marking, identifying the nationality of the planes. Interpreting symbols is very difficult: recognising a crashed German plane would please a British audience, but think of how a German public would respond to the same sign. Rather, it is important to piece together all the elements of a painting and its title and to look for signs and symbols as part of this whole. Are their elements of the painting that support one another, or are there a deliberate contrasts or surprising juxtapositions?

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Published: 2005-04-11

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