Paul Nash and a classical education

Yesterday – actually last week now, but it's school holidays… – I was fortunate enough to visit the Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, originally at The Tate. It was a fabulous exhibition. Many thoughts occurred to me while perusing, but the most pertinent to this blog was to do with, unsurprisingly, the Classics.

Several of Nash's works allude to classical mythology. Lares (1929-30), for example, depicts a twentieth century fireplace. I wonder how many visitors would know without reading the text alongside the picture that the lares were Roman gods of hearth and home? I hope it goes without saying that hearth was once upon a time central to home; also, fascinatingly, our word focus is in fact a direct lifting of the Latin word for hearth.

Paul Nash, Lares (1929-30), Tate.

Knowing a little about the lares adds layers of meaning to this picture. The hearth, here, is overlaid with several objects of Nash's work – notably a set square, presumably to help him with the angles and parallel lines that pervade so much of his work. These items of Nash's everyday when placed in front of a fireplace burning with stylised fire make, arguably, quite a nice picture. The architectural elements incorporated into the picture are engaging and the design of the fire surround is attractive and interesting. The layers of the images are interesting too as Nash has created a trompe l'oeuil with some of the objects, the set square being partially transparent.

However, consider the name of the painting, Lares, and the composition takes on new resonances. The fireplace is transformed into the ancient hearth or figuratively the lararium at which the paterfamilias would leave daily offerings to the lares and penates to keep the family safe. Prayers were said daily and offerings were left, usually some food from the family meal, but given the superstition of ancient romans it is safe to assume that any object could be sanctified at the lararium. Nash's tools of his trade, then, placed in juxtaposition with the hearth and together entitled Lares, have become a kind of sacred offering to the household gods, or perhaps have received the blessing of the household to enable him to be a better artist. Given Nash's interest in mythology and mysticism which pervades the whole exhibition, this interpretation seems, to me at least, to be highly likely. How much richer do we become in appreciation of the art for some classical knowledge.

Image of a lararium from the House of the Vetii, Pompeii

Roman statue of a lar, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

I was going to write more, but as I said earlier, it's school holidays and I have small people to drag me away from pleasing myself at my iPad. I shall end with a gentle reminder that society is richer for art, for learning for learning's sake, and for those who strive to learn, to understand and to share their knowledge with others.

The exhibition ends this week, but you can buy the excellent catalogue here, and see the captions that go with the exhibitions here.

PS I wanted to write about Leda and swans, but even as my kids totally unreasonably nag me for lunch, I can't resist this image from the Nash exhibition. It's by John Armstrong, a friend of Paul Nash, and usually resides in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.