14-18 NOW is a centenary arts commissioning body, the goal of which is to reconnect people with the First World War. As such, it commissioned acclaimed illustrator Dave McKean to produce a performance.
His response was Black Dog, a graphic novel reimagining the life and works of war painter Paul Nash as a chronology-hopping dreamscape. In performance, the piece is presented as an animated film, live-narrated by McKean, Matthew Sharp and Clare Haythornthwaite, with a recorded soundtrack composed of a richly orchestrated libretto written by McKean, again, enhanced with live aspects played by the trio (Haythornthwaite plays violin, Sharp plays cello and sings, and McKean plays piano).
The result is a multisensory tapestry of history, art, poetry, sound and music which needle-pierces the senses. The work is divided into chapters, introduced only by date and location. We hop between Nash’s childhood, his time in the trenches, fever dreams from the hospital wards he inhabits when he is injured, dodging bullets in Salonica and Passchendaele, to times after the war where all appears calm, but he is lost: a war painter without a war. And as Nash’s brother remarks to him, for others, the explosions happened around them, but for Paul, they happen in his head.
McKean brilliantly draws scenes together around the locus of the natural world – Nash’s childhood in Iver; a friendly robin in his school’s grounds; the blood red of war becoming nightmarish briars around the lone figure of his psyche; the green, safe spaces of his childhood; the long, blank beaches of his life post-war. Nash’s work was, of course, deeply pastoral, but new connections are made – deeply human connections between life and landscape.
The music is a revelation. Anyone familiar with McKean’s illustrative works will know that his signature uses of light and form are astonishing. What came as a surprise to me is that his music employs the same techniques, almost synaesthetically. His work is the same calibre across illustration, classical composition and poetic narrative. And Sharp’s strong, clear, rounded bass-baritone is perfect for the piece.
It’s a dark, rich, deeply emotional work. Haunting, powerful, necessary. As Nash said: “I’m not an artist. I’m a messenger.” The message can still be heard, loud and clear as bombs.