Interpretations of Avebury by Paul Nash and John Piper
The works of Paul Nash and John Piper provide a stark comparison of individual style, interpretation and modernist commentary on the British landscape. They both used the prehistoric site of the standing stones of Avebury in Wiltshire as the setting for their works. Both works coincide with the idea of ‘going modern and being British’ as they employed modernist styles to define British identity. Both works resemble an abstract and surrealist quality but executed in contrasting ways. Nash uses oil paint on canvas to convey a realistic cornfield setting while Piper utilises a collage technique to amplify the texture and colour of the landscape.
It is important to note that their shared reimagining of the British landscape was the result of the promotional campaign of the Shell guides. Both artists participated in the Shell guides, developing on-site and aerial photographs, paintings and interpretations of the landscape. The Shell guides encouraged people to explore renewed places of interest and contributed to the campaign to evaluate the British landscape in the context of modernity.
For both artists, form was an important inspiration for the modernist dialogue in their works. However, the sites also had significant historical resonance with emphasis on the meaning of an ancient setting. With Equivalents of the Megaliths, Nash is focused on mystical elements and tries to invoke an emotional reaction by introducing architectural forms into the natural landscape. The heavily constructed landscape with Silbury Hill in the background is interrupted with the presence of monumental architectural forms. Inspired by the standing stones of Avebury, he created a dialogue about the ‘presence’ of modernity against the historic British landscape and explicitly brought together the most contemporary cultural forms and objects with the country’s most ancient.
In contrast John Piper places a more significant emphasis on portraying historical resonance rather than an allusion to form which resulted in an abstract collage that blurs the boundaries between art and archaeology. His more representational approach towards the landscape made a statement about the neo-romantic concern with the object in the national landscape. With the medium of collage, he captured earthy tones and dark colours through various materials combining continental modernism such as cubism with his love of the local landscape. Unlike the highly constructed nature of the Nash painting that highlights the division between the modern and the antiquated, Piper’s representational collage is loosely constructed and appears as a spontaneous, interpretive survey of the landscape.
Another significant difference in the construction of each work is that Piper created the majority of his piece on site, which is depicted through the representational quality of the collage. Nash, on the other hand, painted after the moment of observation. He emphasised painting ‘after’ nature rather than ‘from’ nature. Equivalents for the Megaliths is indicative of how he was able to transform a specific remembered scene into a composition of complex relations with emotional resonance.
It is evident that both artists were responding to modernity against the antiquated landscape. They both used Avebury as the ancient setting and give new meaning to the form of the standing stones. However, at a categorical level, their response differed in their interpretation of modernism. Nash’s work symbolised his individual fascination with the mystery of relationship, which can be seen as highly surreal. Piper’s collage, in contrast resembled the techniques of abstraction and cubism, executed through the ambiguity of the physicality of the landscape and created, through the layering, depth in a flat plane. Both artists created a vision of novelty in the British landscape. They created an interesting dialogue between the modern individual, and the antiquated heritage they were trying to promote through the Shell Guides. Moreover, these representations showed how antiquity were points of reference for a generation of artists who were concerned with rediscovering primitive forms in the landscape such as the British landscape for British artists like Nash and Piper.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in