Internationally acclaimed artist Dave McKean talks to Anna Morell about his graphic novel and multimedia work ‘Black Dog’ – a dreamscape reimagining of the life and works of World War I artist, Paul Nash.
One hundred and two years ago, aged just 25, the artist Paul Nash signed up for home service in the Great War. Three years later, and just one hundred and six miles from the Kentish coast, he was posted to Ypres. Already recognised as a visionary landscape artist, the Slade School alumnus found himself able to walk the trenches during a relative lull in action, drinking in the terrain. An accident saw him invalided, a move which saved him from the annihilation of his division at the Battle of Hill 60.
Upon his return, he was an official war artist, again, painting landscapes, and overlaying them with the emotions inherent in the fabric of the battlefield: beauty, calm, a sense of the eerie, violation, terror, horror. Nature persisted, as man fell and destroyed copse and corpse, both ravaged and left raw, bare, scarred and bleeding. Under his brushes, the figurative forms of these works are transformed into psychological studies.
His palette and styles changed during the period, reflecting the intensity of fighting as he saw it: through a prism of emotion and psychology. He wrote: “no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like… If I can, I will show them.” And he did. And then again, perhaps more famously, in WWII.
This year, we are at the mid-point of remembrance of the centenary of the Great War. For the internationally acclaimed illustrator and graphic novelist Dave McKean, Nash’s works also mark an important point in the birth of modernism and surrealism. His love for both is evident in his work.
At the end of last year, McKean was commissioned by 14-18 NOW, The Lakes International Comic Art Festival and On a Marché sur la Bulle to create an interactive, multimedia work, part graphic novel, part narration, part music and part screening, about the Great War. Having been performed to acclaim in Kendal and Rye, ‘Black Dog’ will be performed in Ashford ahead of sell-out performances as part of a Nash retrospective at Tate Britain in London. I interviewed him to find out more about the work, his art, and why he chose Nash as the focus of his commission.
What exactly is this work?
It’s a kind of an imaginative response to his work and his life, and to that particular time of huge upheaval, social change and madness. Everything in the book is biographically correct, but it’s structured as a series of dreams – like a dream it conflates events, interprets events and moves people around – you travel quickly from, for example, the Café Royale in London to the battlefield, then back to childhood, then off to Dymchurch beach, so it moves around in a sort of dreamlike logic but essentially its biographical. I didn’t see the point of doing a straight biography. There are some very good biographies out there already.
When did you write the book?
I was contacted to pitch an idea by 14-18 Now at the end of last year and very quickly zeroed in on focusing on one person’s life. There was no brief – it was an open pitch. So I picked Nash because I liked the idea of getting inside the head of creative person. Because even though he doesn’t necessarily want to talk about the war directly in his letters and writing, it’s in his work – his feelings about what happened. I wrote it in December and then I kept on – I had an improvisational way of working on it all, working on little bits, and as soon as one bit started to feel solid I could start drawing it, and working on that, but I carried on drawing and playing with other elements right up until finishing it in April, moving it all around.
Whose idea was it?
It was my idea. The brief really was that open. 14-18 NOW wanted a graphic novel because they’d commissioned 20-odd artworks across all media for four years, but not a graphic novel, and they wanted it to have a performance aspect. I wasn’t interested in the scale of the war, or the geography or history – the bigness of it. I was interested in the small, individual experience of one person going through this hell.
What is it specifically about Nash that you are drawn to?
Well, I loved his work anyway. I have always loved that era of creativity really – it was the birth of cinema, modernism, and a much more psychological, personally expressive kind of attitude to art and culture generally, so I really loved the era for that. I grew up near Cookham which is where Stanley Spencer lived, so I got to know that circle of artists pretty well from my childhood, and now I live near Rye, and Paul Nash lived near there at Dymchurch just after the war, so I feel a connection to his work, and geographically.
He was a landscape painter, but they’re all sort of psychological, dreamlike landscapes really, and once you know where he worked you can see these connections. And honestly, I think he came back with the most – still – relevant and troubling views of the war. He didn’t make work that was consoling in any way – his work is much more troubling. He felt he wasn’t an artist so much as a messenger – he communicated the sheer bloody hell of war – I like that power in his work, really.
Tell me about the narrative of the graphic novel. Whose words are they?
The words are mine but they’re taken or adapted from multiple sources really. I read a lot of books, and paraphrased, and took key little moments or lines from those. I read a lot of books and saw a lot of films about the First World War, including first hand accounts of soldiers. And the Imperial War Museum was keen that there should be first hand accounts in my work.
So I found two to three moments where I could put the words of actual soldiers in the mouths of characters in Nash’s life.
One of those moments was with his brother John, who had a far worse time of it in the war, and who Paul did actually meet once behind the lines. Another moment was a conversation with a good friend he met in Dymchurch after the war, Claud Lovat Fraser. He was also a painter, but he died rather suddenly, and it affected Nash greatly. And something between Fraser’s death and a strange happening with his father, where he thought his father had died as well – actually he hadn’t – as well as the trauma of the war all caught up with him in about 1921 and he had a complete black out – he was unconscious for about a week – that’s the last dream in my book, where he’s trying to come to terms with all this stuff – and where he makes his final decision to paint out all the people in his work. And he never paints people again.
Is there a story to ‘Black Dog’ as such?
There’s a narrative threading through it. The core of the narrative goes from 1914 when war is declared, through those initial conversations which were had on quite a superficial level – they’re worried about how it will affect the art market. They think it will all be over by Christmas. And then through getting married, going into the Artists Rifles, getting called up to go to Thesalonika, contracting measles so he couldn’t go – he almost certainly would have died there so he was very lucky in that respect.
He was lucky, but also felt guilty, as his friends and comrades were having to go and suffer these things; and then he went to Ypres and was due to go to the Battle of Passchendaele but fell and cracked a rib, and was taken to England and was lucky once again. So he sort of tiptoed through the war, recovered and went back to the front line and made this extraordinary collection of work.
Even though he never saw direct action, he saw horrific things and his anger and ability as a painter coalesced into this amazing series of images. And then I hop back for a little bit to his childhood, so you get a sense of the man, his background, his relationship with his parents, his education – things like that, and then I go forward a little bit to the end – being a war artist without a war, and struggling to deal with all the things that he experienced.
What parallels are there between you and Nash as an artist?
Nash and that school of work – he came from a time where there were a lot of different schools of work – people trying different styles: expressionism, surrealism, vorticism, futurism – these are all ways for angry young men, I’m sorry to say it did tend to be the men recognised back then, even though there were some fine female artists as well – defining themselves in this confusing and difficult time, and I really love a lot of the experimentation and ways of understanding the world that they tried because most of it was deeply pyschological. It was taking inspiration from cityscapes or people’s lives, or in Nash’s case, the countryside, but filtering their inner feelings through imagination: anger, turmoil and confusion, all represented through these landscape or cityscape paintings.
I suppose that’s the main thing I’ve always been interested in – the psychology of stories and ideas. Most of my work is about how the mind works – a way of expressing what is going on in our minds. I’m not really interested in goblins, fairies and fantasy stories for the sake of it. The kind on fantasy I’m interested in is Kafka and that kind of magic realism – the kind of story that gets under the skin. All of Nash’s works of Southern England are actually mindscapes – dreamscapes. What I learn about from them is the inner state of his mind, not literally what the countryside looks like.
Death is obviously a huge theme in his work. There is a darkness in much of yours. Do you relate to him about that?
His mother suffered from depression – the phrase ‘black dog’ is the common metaphor for depression – so that was one of the sources for using the phrase for this book. His mother was eventually committed and died, and that cast a shadow over his childhood and his whole life really. He always felt those genes were inside him and worried that he would suffer the same fate as his mother.
My dad died when I was 12 and that kind of coloured my view of the world for a long time and probably still does, so I always had that sense of death being around. And that’s ok. That’s just part of the cycle. I don’t like stories that try to exclude that – always insisting on a happy ending to everything, so maybe there’s a connection there.
Of what other significance is the black dog to the work?
Almost the very first thing that Nash talks about in his autobiography is his first dream. He remembers being a little boy in a dark tunnel and the walls are coming in and its very oppressive and restrictive and suffocating, and there’s a black dog that he sees in the shadows, and it leads him out of that dark place.
I love that that’s the first thing he chose to write about – that the first thing he remembers is a dream with this strange avatar that’s a dog. So I picked on that partly for the link to depression and partly because it’s his first memory, and also as a way of being a sort of shadow in his life that follows him through his life. The character of the dog changes in his life. Sometime it’s leading him on, sometimes it’s quite threatening and sometimes it assumes human form and talks to him. So it’s a sort of confidante and avatar in his life.
Now, I’m reading a lot into that: teasing out moments and building a character in my book, but that was the point of the book really – an imaginative response to his life. Dreams were a place where I could meet Nash really, and ask him questions. I had lots of questions for him about his life and work, like why did he stop drawing people and why did he draw certain images again and again and again, and why did he give life to trees and stones – they feel very much like characters – they feel animated in a way.
As a kid he loved William Blake and had a very romantic, symbolist kind of mind – he would paint the trees and give them names and imagine them as characters. He had a wonderfully creative imagination.
There is one particularly striking image of a cockroach. Tell me about what that signifies.
That’s a strange one. It starts as a scene where he meets his brother John behind the lines. I wanted to create a sense of their different experiences in the war. Paul had a relatively easy experience in the war and had a breakdown, whereas John had a much tougher experience. In a platoon of 80 soldiers he was one of only 12 who survived, but somehow, he let the experience fall away from him more easily. He seemed to be able to deal with it all in an easier way.
I had found a film – James Whale’s first film Journey’s End – that was made a few years after the war, and it had some wonderful banter in the trenches. The men are talking about the cockroach races that they have. I loved that because it’s both very light-hearted and bantery but also quite dark – cockroaches everywhere and everything that implies.
So the scene grew out of that, and turned into this moment where there’s this huge explosion which completely destroys the dream, and Paul finds himself in a muddy wasteland, in a crater of blood, and I have this little skull bob to the surface of one of them, to carry on the conversation with his brother, and tell him, “For everybody else, these explosions happen all around them, but for you Paul, the explosions happen inside of you”.
As a final note of horror this cockroach that they can’t find is now looming down on him, a huge black monster. It’s a nightmare image, really.
From what I have seen of the artwork, it reflects his sense of modernism. What was your approach to combining his styles with yours, graphically?
I didn’t want to just do a knock-off version of Nash’s work. Obviously there are aspects of Nash’s work in my own because I’ve always loved that structuralist, vorticist, hard-angled way of making compositions. I wanted to find an appropriate, sensitive style that finds the right tone of voice for each of the chapters.
Some of them are quite simply comic dialogue sequences, but the drawing of the people reflects the expressionist and futurist styles of the time. But some go into other areas. There’s a sequence at Southampton Docks which almost becomes abstract. And then there are other abstractions and playing with the forms of the woods he played in as a child.
It’s not necessarily strictly quoting from Nash or even the era of Nash, but I’ve spent my life drawing and painting. I get 50 to 70 per cent of what I had in mind down on the page, but the rest I’d like to get down one day. So I was trying to imagine how his work would have developed in later life, reacting to new artists in the newer schools of art coming through.
He was always attuned to things changing in the world of art, so I’m imagining him as a man ageing. Even though you don’t see that in his work, I can imagine those ideas beginning to form then.
There is a luminescence to your work. It glows. Nash’s work has a chalky flatness to it. I always feel like I want to reach through the pen strokes and touch that light. Did you feel you were becoming more Nashian in your style while working on the book?
It was wonderful to be allowed to go to the Imperial War Museum store rooms and see their big stash of Nash – a huge collection – and see the quality of the lines and the really raw quality of his painting up close. A lot of it is really direct, really strong, blocks of colour, very unfussy, so yeah, a lot of that went into some of the characters when it was appropriate. But it’s also my work and these are dreams, so I wanted some of that light and luminous and translucent quality to come through.
Why do you paint with so much light?
I don’t know! It’s been a conversation with my computer really. Most of my stuff used to look pretty dead. Then when I got Photoshop and started playing with transparency and translucency, I started to take what I’d learned there back into painting. Before that I played with photography, but never very successfully.
The great thing you can do with a computer is a layering of images, where you get a sense of something through the mist – through layers of information, time, colour or objects, that each have their own histories or life that they bring to the image as well. I love that way of showing memories, or showing the way the mind works. It feels like an accurate representation of our dreams and our thought processes.
Why did you decide to expand the graphic novel ‘Black Dog’ into a multimedia experience beyond a straight graphic novel or art exhibition?
It was part of the brief, but also, my last couple of projects have also been multimedia. I used to play a lot of music in bands when I was a teenager but I got so busy as an illustrator and designer that I wasn’t playing in public so much. In the last few years, I have got back into it.
I did a project at the Sydney Opera House with film projections and live music and really loved that and then there was another commission from the Manchester Jazz Festival with Iain Ballamy, and that was a narrative with poetry and songs in many different styles, with drawing and paintings and projections, and again I really love being able to tell a story with all these different media, so I was very much up for doing another piece like that.
When part of this brief was for doing another performance aspect, I was very keen to turn the concept into a full, immersive theatrical sound and music piece. I’ve been doing more work orchestrating recently on the soundtracks of my own films, so I was very keen to write an hour’s worth of music for this.
I work with an arranger and producer called Ashley Slater. We gave the demos to Matthew Sharp, the cellist and singer. He also performed in the project in Manchester and I realised that his was the voice that I wanted for ‘Black Dog’. He sings the songs and plays cello and I play piano and perform the narration.
It’s a very classical piece, really. It’s influenced by orchestral music from the time and just before – the end of the romantic era going into modernism. The songs are influenced by people who were writing at the time like Kurt Weill – those sort of cabaret and classical songs. But also, I can’t help it really, they’re influenced by the people I love – the great story-songwriters like Stephen Sondheim and Paul Simon, and the great jazz song writers.
Why explore the world through the oblique lens of dreams and mythology, rather than say, straight narrative?
I think we need ways of looking at the world that surprise us and allow us to see things from a different angle. I think the world is so confusing and difficult to get a handle on at the moment and is so full of political double speak – words are used to obfuscate and anaesthetise difficult subjects, so we don’t have to really think about them any more.
The point of art, fiction and music is to cut through all that and look at the world in a different way so we see things anew, so that world events are not covered with dogma and doublespeak, but are actually just presented as human events that we can then reinterpret ourselves. They’re not that complicated. They’re all interpretable, but we need to see them in a new light, or with a new focus.
That’s my problem with the art world at the moment – that it’s committed to obfuscation and not saying anything – literally not saying anything. It’s leaving the audience to wander round in confusion. If you’ve got something to say, it’s worth stepping up and putting it out there. Start the dialogue.
Do you think society has lost touch with a sense of the importance of mythology and dreams?
I think it’s more that people have lost touch with the reasons why they are important. There are a lot of stories and culture around at the moment that are merely escapist – about running away into those worlds. It’s a way of getting away from those things which are important in the world, rather than shining a light on them, to focus on conflict, to focus on the world in a new way or with a different clarity. There’s a lot of dream-based stuff around but it tends to be used to help people to forget rather than to help them to remember.
How can we reconnect with the subconscious and its dreams?
I think probably, I would say, in recognising exactly what they’re for and how they work. They are just part of our everyday lives. Dreams and our desires and the way that our minds interpret the world and imagine how things could be and how we look back on the past and interpret these things – it’s all just part of our real world perception.
There’s a huge amount of the world that we can all agree on as being real, quantifiable and true for us all. But within that we can navigate our way through it and use art and conversation and all the things humans can do to sharpen our understanding of things. Not endless, meaningless, fantasy worlds that have nothing to do with our real lives, and not outdated myths and theology that we really need question.
We should look with our own, open eyes at the real rational world and understand it. I think the two – dreams and the real world – are crucially linked. Dreams are an echo – a reflection – for understanding the real world. They’re not an escape from it.
To make your own future you have to form a mental picture of where you want to be and what you want to do and that’s important. That’s still a dream, a fantasy – but in the best possible use of that word, and then once you imagine that life, you can bring it into the real world.
What would you hope people take away from the performance and the book?
I hope they have an understanding of not just Nash but people like Nash – at a crucial, important time – who bring all of their insights, in whatever medium they work in, and also their passion and their anger into the expression of something meaningful and lasting.
The reason Nash’s work lasts is because those pictures are as relevant now, looking at images coming out of Aleppo, as they were a hundred years ago. You can’t say that of John Singer Sargent or so many of the official war artists.
I hope people get a little sense of what it was like to go through that experience psychologically.
I hope they see that comics are a medium that can deal with this material – that it’s not just a medium for children. It’s still often seen as a trivial medium – one that’s not as serious as a ‘proper novel’ and it’s simply not true – it’s just a different medium.
So I hope people get a sense that comics can go anywhere, and that if anyone is interested in being a creative person, that they will look at comics as being a really strong way of self expression. I hope we find an audience that’s really receptive to that.
For anyone who wants to make a living as a painter in the art world right now, it’s tough to have a strong singular opinion and express that, because that form of clear commitment to an unequivocal point of view in not what the art world is about at the moment. I hope that will change soon.
‘Black Dog’ is at Revelation, Ashford on Friday 11 November, then at Tate Britain, London on Sunday 13 November.
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