2 January 2012

On the lookout for artists with an interest in archaeology, I have been reading ‘Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape’ edited by J. Montagu (2003, Tate Publishing).   

As Sam Smiles explains in the accompanying essay, Nash looked on archaeological sites as landscape which would inspire him to make art.  The archaeology itself was ‘peripheral to his artistic response’ because ‘Nash’s  approach to megalithic Britain required that he go beyond archaeological understanding.’

This is confirmed by Nash’s own comments about his visit to the excavations at Maiden Castle: I was not particularly interested in the archaeological significance of the discovery.  But the scene in its dramatic elements had, indeed, an awful beauty.’

I find this a  little disappointing.  It seems to me that he was happy to divorce the scene from its content, and focus purely on the visual information in front him.  Is this because the facts and the data involved in such a site means more to me?  As I look forward to working in more of an archaeological environment sometime in the future, I am finding that my own response to particular sites needs untangling.  To what extent is the meaning of the place, as opposed to its physical presence,  an incentive to me to make art?  Is it the place, the landscape with its evidence of human interaction, that pulls at me, or is it more complex than that? 

To be fair, Paul Nash felt that resonance with ancient sites that I have been conscious of.  In response to the Uffington White Horse hill drawing, the essayist writes: ‘If the suggestiveness of these forms were to bear fruit it would be by liberating them from any safe historical or archaeological understanding, in order for them to work … as animate presences whose power was felt just below the threshold of consciousness.’  In this way he sought to ‘dialogue with the primeval landscape.’ 



Paul Nash  –  ‘Wood on the Downs’  1930



This perhaps is the key.  It is the landscape itself which draws him.  Writing about the Uffington White Horse in 1938 he explains : ‘Once the rather futile game of ‘picking out’ the White Horse is abandoned, the documentary importance of the site fades, and the landscape asserts itself with all the force of its triumphant fusion of natural and artificial design.  You then perceive a landscape of terrific animation whose bleak character and stark expression accord perfectly with its lonely situation on the summit of the bare downs.’  Landscape, for Nash, has the final word.

However, I have more empathy with the way in which Grayson Perry talks about his response as an artist to archaeology.  Writing in the magazine British Archaeology ( Jan/Feb 2012), he explains his attitude to dealing with archaeological artefacts as based on an awareness of the complexities of interpretation : ‘objects are open to many interpretations.  It’s up to us to make our own interpretations of the world, and in terms of whether they’ll give our life meaning, they’re just as valid.’  Interpretation is one area in which archaeologists acknowledge their limitations.  After all, who can tell whether what has been found is the whole story or merely a small part of it?  I must admit that this is an aspect which does intrigue me.  Perry goes on to show that his concerns as an artist override all others: ‘If painting it red makes it less easy to understand, I’m afraid it still gets painted red, because it looks better.’  Which makes an important point.  The artist, however interested in the facts, is still an artist, and the demands of that discipline must come first.




     Grayson Perry at work



Where I really identify with Perry is in his description of what it was like to hold in his hand a stone hand axe 250,000 years old, part of the collection at the British Museum.  He writes:  ‘I think of all the things I’ve held in my time round the British Museum, those ancient flint tools give the most potent tactile experience.  That man’s hand was the same size as my hand, and it did the same things, and it performed the same tasks.  It’s a connection.’

And that’s the word I’ve been looking for.  Connection.


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