Nest of the Siren by Paul Nash is concerned with ideas of temptation and unrequited desire – recurring themes in several of his paintings. The title recalls Homer’s Odyssey, in which the sirens – the famous sea goddesses – lured sailors onto the rocks with their captivating song. Nash’s interpretation of this subject was primarily inspired by a visit to Caen in 1928 and by contemporary Metaphysical and Surrealist paintings that he saw while living in France in the 1920s.
In this composition, Nash locates us outside the scene, standing on cobbled ground, looking at a dark, mysterious window. A plant, (possibly a laurel bush), in a window box supporting an empty nest, fills the window. Foliage is entwined around a row of plant-training strings, which resemble bars in the window, as if signifying forbidden territory. In front of the plant stands ‘the siren’ – a statuette with a female human head and a bird’s body that Nash apparently based on a decorative wooden figure on a huxter’s cart that he saw in Caen, France.
To the right of the siren is a stylised sequence of two flying birds leading to an egg bearing two superimposed crosses. This has been interpreted as Nash’s adaptation of Dutch Interior I (1928, MOMA, New York), a painting by the Spanish artist, Joan Miró, which was similarly concerned with the notion of seduction. Nash called his wife, Margaret, his ‘dove’ and so it is possible that she is the siren represented here with the body of a dove. Both interlocking birds in flight could be doves too, perhaps representing Nash and his wife. The egg, a universal symbol of fertility, and the two superimposed crosses on it, recall the gender symbol of the female, a circle and a cross. Icons of fertility, they contrast starkly with the empty nest.
Nash’s painting encapsulates unfulfilled desire. The laurel bush evokes the legend of Apollo and Daphne, in which the god Apollo pursued the unwilling nymph, Daphne, who transformed herself into a laurel bush, thereby thwarting his desire for her. In this painting, two red rods balanced on the box and the windowsill act as links between the plant and the siren, inviting us to read the symbolism of both together. A third rod lying on the cobbles, possibly broken off from that on the sill, hints at a fractured relationship.
Born in Kensington, London, Paul Nash studied at the Slade School of Art (1910–11). He served with the Artists’ Rifles during the First World War and in 1917 he was appointed an Official War Artist, acclaimed for his paintings of shattered landscapes in France and Flanders. In the 1920s Nash moved to Rye, Sussex, painting bleak and ominous landscapes of the area. He began travelling abroad, visiting France regularly. In 1931 he visited New York, Washington and Pittsburgh. He founded the Unit One group in 1933 and participated in the ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ (London, 1936). In the Second World War Nash became an Official War artist to the Air Ministry and Ministry of Information. He died in Hampshire in 1946.
Sold through Sotheby's on 14 December 1960 (Lot 187); from which sale purchased by Tooth; collection of ‘P. Slot’; from whom purchased by the Leicester Galleries, London; from whom purchased by the Ministry of Works in February 1965
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