Dave McKean takes us into the war-ravaged mind of artist Paul Nash.
It’s been an eventful hundred years since the end of the First World War, but cultural examination has not let the period be put aside. Though histories have been written from various points of view, the primary methods for emotional remembrance come in the form of art in all its guises.
The symbol of the poppy, worn in the UK every November as a visible memory of the soldiers killed in conflict, comes from the war poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian military doctor John McCrae. The poem is thought to have been written during the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915.
In 1917, artist Paul Nash fought and was wounded in the third great battle in that place. His experience of its violence marked the art he produced for the rest of his life.
The following year, six months before the signing of the armistice, Nash produced the oil painting We are Making a New World, its title a devastated irony of Britain’s nationalist rhetoric at the time. Applying cubism and vorticism to the landscape of the Western Front, his work from then on was a personal reckoning with the force of war and its effects on nature and the mind, explored through his own perception.
Now, as part of the commemorative projects that mark the centenary of the ‘Great War’, Nash’s legacy is interpreted by an influential artist for our own time. In Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash, Dave McKean (Sandman, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth) adapts events from Nash’s life into a narrative dreamscape haunted by the roiling absurdity of the horrors he witnessed at the front.
Making sense of the senseless is a ubiquitous motif within art, literature and other cultural artifacts that have been seeded in war. For Nash, whose experience was not the worst of the millions of soldiers whose lives were split and abstracted in the trenches, what he gained perhaps matched his loss when the lines blurred between his war and the rest of his life.
In an early chapter of Black Dog, McKean shows us scenes at a friend’s house in the Lake District and Café Royal in London in 1914, where Nash moves from talking about his recurring dream of a black dog to a discussion of the purpose of art. He says that although, yes, he has sold several pieces, he might as well be selling carrots if ‘it’s only the selling of them that gives them purpose’.
With the inspiration that came from death and destruction, Nash found the purpose of his art. War gave him something to say. Questions to ask the people who would view his paintings a hundred years later in remembrance, who might discover his work through a semi-biographical comic about the missing lines between reality and his perception of it.
Black Dog is several layers of meta in this way, its story crafted from McKean’s interpretation of Nash’s memories of the interpretation of his memories. Thought about in detail, it’s the kind of mindblowing that gives us some small taste of how incomprehensible Nash’s—and the young men shot to pieces in front of him—experience might have been.
Coming up for air to see the book as an object of art in its own right, it really is a masterpiece of visual atmosphere. Created as part of a wider project that incorporates McKean’s further talents as a musician and architect of performance, the book uses the form of comics to build the story of Nash’s life from fragments, using panels and the space around them to add segmented layers to each experience so that it’s not clear where dreams and reality’s paths intersect without further research.
While much of the artwork can stand on its own, as it has done in gallery exhibitions as part of the extended universe of this story, McKean’s skill as a writer should not go unexamined here. His choice of style, and its application, varies from chapter to chapter alongside the art, with conversation, soliloquy, poetry and narrative crossing and changing to tell the internal story of an external experience. Each word earns the full attention we give it when our focus is drawn by the micro-sized lettering and thoughtful positioning of word balloons.
Aside from Nash himself, the only constant character is his black dog, which haunts, guides and follows him from childhood, its form and function changing with each chapter of his life. The symbol of a black dog is a common one, used by Winston Churchill and others as a personification of depression, appearing as an omen of death in mythology and fiction such as The Hound of the Baskervilles or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or considered a sign for both ends of the spectrum of luck and loss.
It is this symbolism that ties the book together thematically. We know from the aforementioned chapter that the black dog was a feature of Nash’s dreams from when he was a little boy, and its presence, as hellhound, friend and even doctor, reminds us that these events are largely impressions of a reality that is recorded elsewhere.
History doesn’t require symbolism to make itself known, but a symbol is a convenient emotional shorthand for memory. As we see from Salvador Dali’s 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory, the way that we understand time internally is non-linear, because our minds work in abstract ways, a mess of images and words and evolving feelings. The melting clocks act as a symbol that remind us of our own perception.
The poppy is a hardy flower. One that managed to grow in the ruined landscape of Western Europe between periods of mass bombing, gunfire and excavation in the early 20th century. Inspired by its appearance in such a desolate place, John McCrae used it as a symbol in his poem of the First World War’s restless dead. In In Flanders Fields the dead remember and the poppies bear witness. The little red plant’s adoption as a national symbol of remembrance for this and all future wars lingers because it holds a memory of senseless loss.
Art is as senseless as war, until someone ascribes it meaning or value. For the men losing their lives at the front, the value of the conflict was outweighed by its losses. It didn’t make sense to them, economical or otherwise.
Paul Nash wanted his art to have a value beyond money. As a war artist he created value from symbolism, abstracting reality into emotion that viewers absorb as memory, first experiential and then cultural. Dave McKean is working from the other end. Through the symbol of Nash’s black dog, which guides us through one person’s experience of what is now a cultural memory, we begin to understand and empathise with that memory as an experience.