You know what’s weird? Reading a book about an artist with no examples of that artist’s work – but pages filled with art by somebody else. It might be inherent in the form – a graphic novel about an artist who’s been dead about seventy years – but it’s still weird.
It would be fine if the artist the book was about was someone world-famous – someone’s whose style was instant recognizable, and could be called to mind by any of us. Oh, it would still be at least a little weird to have a book all about an artist with art by someone else, but it would be the kind of weird that happens every day.
Paul Nash, though, is not world-famous. He was a British gallery painter in the first half of the 20th century, formed strongly by his fighting in the Great War, and noted as a surrealist for the rest of his life. Art historians know him, devotees know him, probably a lot of museum-goers do – but he’s no Picasso or Monet or even Turner, to live in the minds of millions every day.
All that hit me, as I got to the end of Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash , a 2016 graphic novel by Dave McKean. I realized I really didn’t know what Paul Nash’s art looked like. I now knew how McKean drew Nash, and how McKean interpreted Nash’s life, but not what an actual Nash painting looked like. If you’re in a similar situation, the Tate (I assume the London museum) has a Paul Nash page with some of his art, a potted bio, and other details.
Unsurprisingly, he looks to my post-Black Dog eye a lot like a Dave McKean precursor, angular figures (very occasionally) in muted landscapes filled with heaped objects. His work, from the little I’ve seen now, is awfully quiet and still for what I’m told is a war artist: Nash’s stuff looks almost frozen to me, pictures in which usually nothing is moving and often it looks like nothing will ever move.
I have no idea what Dave McKean sees in Nash’s work: I assume entirely different things, since that’s how art works.
Black Dog is a biographical story: it doesn’t tell Nash’s whole life, or even the whole of his service in the war. Instead, it focuses on a recurring series of dreams he had, about a black dog, starting in childhood and ending around the end of the war. This is a book about the war, but mostly elliptically: not the flow of lives in the war, or the mass deaths, or stories of fighting, or troop movements, but individual, small moments, mostly as remembered afterward. The thoughts of someone who survived the war. But then all stories are from those who survived their wars.
I wanted to read this because I’m a fan of McKean. I missed it for five years because I suspected it was mostly for people who already knew Nash, or at least more about the Great War art scene in the UK. I was not wrong: this book was commissioned by a festival and by a project to commemorate the war a century later; it’s a book by one person for his own reasons, but it’s also a work of public art for a public purpose, made as part of public commemorations.
Many of McKean’s characters are ciphers; Nash is another one of them. We do get some answers, but much of what we see in his dreams is strange and inexplicable because they are dreams. So the more you know about Nash, and the war, and the UK at the time going in to this book
, the better.
This is a fine thing to exist, but it is a bit chilly and a bit official, like so much public art is. It can’t shake the fact that it was commissioned, that it has a place in the world because of arts bureaucracy and a rollover of the calendar. If, like me, you knew nothing about Paul Nash going into this book, you won’t get all that much out of it.