Paul Nash

Totes Meer (Dead Sea)


In Tate Britain

Paul Nash 1889–1946
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1020 × 1524 mm
frame: 1170 × 1680 × 97 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Display caption

This painting, the title of which is German for ‘dead sea’, was made during the first half of the Second World War. It was inspired by a wrecked aircraft dump at Cowley in Oxfordshire. Nash based the image on photographs he took there. The artist described the sight: ‘The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea ... the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. … nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead.’ He created an unsettling atmosphere by setting the scene at night and including a solitary owl in flight.

Gallery label, April 2019

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Catalogue entry

N05717 TOTES MEER (DEAD SEA) 1940–1

Inscr. ‘Paul Nash’ b.r.
Canvas, 40×60 (101·5×152·5).
Presented by the War Artists' Advisory Committee 1946.
Exh: National War Pictures, National Gallery, 1941–2; Leeds, April–June 1943 (23); Tate Gallery, March–May 1948 (54, repr. pl.14).
Lit: K. Clark, ‘War Artists at the National Gallery’ in Studio, CXXIII, 1942, p.4, repr. p.12; Michael Rothenstein, Looking at Paintings, 1947, p.14, repr. p.15 (in colour); Eates, 1948, p.79, repr. pl.101; John Rothenstein, ‘Paul Nash as War Artist’ in Eates, 1948, p.21; Bertram, 1955, pp.172–3; Digby, 1955, pp.128–30, repr. pl.42; Rothenstein, 1961, at pl.11, repr. (in colour).
Repr: Read, 1944, pl.27 (in colour); Eric Newton, War through Artists' Eyes, 1945, p.72 (in colour).

Painted 1940–1 on the basis of sketches (‘for colour’ - letter of 11 March 1941, see below) and photographs (‘for detail’) of a dump of wrecked aircraft seen at Cowley in August 1940. ‘There lived here in death innumerable vehicles of destruction of different personality once all directed by human agency, some in the character of ships manned by crews, others as clearly bound up with man as a horse to its rider.... There was a persistent suggestion of a ghostly presence.... I do not mean the wraiths of lost pilots or perished crews were hovering near, it was nothing so decidedly human, but a pervasive force baffled yet malign hung in the heavy air’ (the artist, reprinted in Bertram, loc. cit.).

Writing to Sir Kenneth Clark (letter of 11 March 1941 in Imperial War Museum files, partly reprinted in Bertram, loc. cit.) the artist described how, ‘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.... 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. 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.’

For the artist's idea of the personality of aircraft, see Paul Nash, ‘The Personality of Planes’ in Vogue, March 1942, reprinted in Outline, 1949.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

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