'Event on the Downs' depicts the view from Whitecliff Farm on Ballard Down, near Swanage in Dorset, where Nash and his wife stayed between October 1934 and February 1935. It is, however, more than a simple landscape. Indications of its meaning can be found in the incongruous placement of three motifs which are recurrent in Nash's art of this time: the tennis ball, the tree stump and the cloud.
Nash was then interested in Chinese art and philosophy, and the tennis ball should be read as an equivalent for the yin-yang symbol. The black (active, masculine) part, subtly indicated here by a shadow, is thought to activate the body in life along with the white (passive, feminine) part. At the point of death, the two are thought to separate. The masculine element rises into the sky, represented here by the cloud, while the feminine element sinks into the earth, represented by the tree stump, a romantic symbol of death. Like yin and yang, the tree stump and cloud echo each other in shape, and the cloud seems as solid looking as the chalky cliffs beneath it. Paul Nash had been preoccupied with issues of mortality since the death of his father in 1929, and this is one of a number of works to deal with the theme. Nash was influenced by Surrealism from the late 1920s but considered his approach to be an individualistic one, rather than one directly motivated by surrealist manifestos.
Adapted from Mary Beal, 'Paul Nash's "Event on the Downs" reconsidered', 'Burlington Magazine' November 1989.
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.
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