Illustrated companion

The British government appointed official war artists in both the First and Second World Wars. Paul Nash served as a war artist in both and out of his experiences of each produced, among much else, one or two exceptionally large, powerful, and disturbing paintings in which he gave a personal expression to his recording of the war.

'Totes Meer' is his most compelling statement as an official war artist in the Second World War. He spent the first part of his service attached to the Air Ministry, from 1940-41, and most of his Second World War pictures are of subjects related to the war in the air.

Nash, like Graham Sutherland, effected an imaginative, at times visionary, transformation of what he saw. 'Totes Meer' has its origins in a set of photographs taken by Nash at a dump for wrecked German aircraft at Cowley near Oxford. On 11 March 1941 Nash wrote to the Chairman of the War Artists' Advisory Committee, Kenneth Clark (later Lord Clark) describing the dream-like, or rather, nightmare, vision of this place that had come upon him: 'The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea. You might feel - under certain influences - 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. By moonlight, this 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.' The owl can be seen low on the horizon on the right.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.185