Dave McKean: “Black Dog”

By Alex DuebenDecember 23, 2016

Dave McKean: “Black Dog”
A LOT OF PEOPLE know Dave McKean for his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman, which include covers for the Sandman series of comics; illustrations for The Graveyard Book and Coraline; graphic novels like The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch; and the film Mirrormask, which McKean co-wrote, designed, and directed. McKean has also made comics of his own, including Cages and two volumes of short work titled Pictures That Tick. He’s made movies like Luna and The Gospel of Us; illustrated books by Ray Bradbury, Richard Dawkins, and John Cale; designed stamps for the Royal Mail; had gallery shows in multiple countries; written and performed song cycles; and is the director of story at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck.

McKean’s new project is Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash. Nash was a British painter who fought in World War I. McKean’s book consists of a series of dreams that incorporate imagery from Nash’s work, the landscape of the region where he lived, and iconography of World War I. Parts of the book have been displayed in a gallery show, and McKean also wrote music and created a performance piece that he and others performed at the Tate Britain in November, in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition of Nash’s work.

The book loosely follows the narrative of Nash’s life, starting in childhood and taking him through the war. Imagery and ideas from his career pop up throughout. By organizing the book around Nash’s dreams, McKean offers a different and immersive way to enter Nash’s mind and work. Here he speaks about what that meant.


ALEX DUEBEN: For people who don’t know, who was Paul Nash?

DAVE MCKEAN: Paul Nash and his brother John were artists working in the first half of the 20th century. Paul was a war artist in both world wars. He was part of a generation of Slade [School of Art] alumni — including Stanley Spencer, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Christopher Nevinson, and Edward Wadsworth — who heralded the birth of modernism. The first generation influenced by the experimental schools happening in Europe — expressionism, surrealism, Vorticism, futurism. Paul was certainly not the strongest draftsman of the bunch, nor did he have the most extrovert of characters, nor did he have the hardest war experience — his brother had a much tougher war than he did. But somehow he returned with, for me, the most powerfully symbolic images from World War I. They are hard, direct, unflinching, and say as much about the brutality of war in their depictions of what man has done to the natural world, as anything painted since. I think they are as relevant now, looking at the footage coming out of Syria, as they were a hundred years ago.

Do these images of Ypres and the trenches still resonate in the United Kingdom in a way that they do not here in the United States? You were born in 1963. Do you find that your contemporaries and younger people still find this imagery familiar?

Yes, very familiar. Remembrance Sunday is still very much part of the British conscience and most people wear poppies in respect of the dead. No matter that in recent years there have been discussions about this symbol, I think of the poppy as simply a little spark of memory, to make sure we don’t forget the sacrifices made by everyone to retain the freedoms in our society that we take so much for granted these days.

When did you first encounter the work of Paul Nash?

I grew up near Cookham, to the west of London, where Stanley Spencer lived and worked, so as a kid I discovered his painting, and then his circle of friends. I’ve loved Nash’s work in particular since then. There are not many artists I think who really manage to translate the landscape into a personal vision, but Nash does that without losing touch with pure observation. His paintings are dreamscapes. Even though there are no people in his work, you get a sense of the imagination of the person whose eyes you are looking through interpreting the world. Nash is not just a camera recording the scene. He takes an active part in it.

How did this project begin? Why did you decide to tackle a project about World War I by looking at Nash?

I was asked by the 14-18 NOW Foundation, who are commissioning all the World War I commemorative artworks from 2014–2018 via the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, to pitch a project inspired by any aspect of the war — a graphic novel, with a potential performance aspect. So there was a brief, but a very open-ended one. Most of the stories I’ve written are about individuals going through testing circumstances — the loss of a baby in Luna, creative doubt in Cages, a missing husband in Coast Road — so I was interested in trying to understand the war experience from one person’s point of view. The interesting thing about choosing a creative person is that, even if they are unwilling to talk directly about their experiences, they’re in the work. They can’t avoid it. I chose Nash as I felt his story was unusual, his work was the strongest of the war artists, and he grew up in my area (the home counties) and after the war moved to where I live now — Rye, Iden, and Dymchurch in south Kent and East Sussex. His work is full of landscapes I’m very familiar with.

How did you decide to look at Nash and his life in this manner? Did you ever think of doing a more straightforward biography?

There are many books about Nash, including his own autobiography, which, although he didn’t finish it before he died, was published with notes and letters. There’s a great biography by James King, and plenty of biographical material in his monographs, so there didn’t seem to be any need for another one. I was interested in a more imaginative response. Since his work feels very dreamlike to me, and since his first memories are all dreamscapes, I thought it would be interesting to imagine a series of dreams, a place — a no-man’s-land — where we could meet and I could ask him, through his work and writing, what his experiences were, how they changed him as a man and as an artist, and why, for example, he decided never to paint people after the war.

Dreams are our minds digesting information and experience. They conflate events and allow us to see our lives from different angles. Modernism was largely about this idea — fragmenting forms, remaking the world. Cubism was about looking at a subject from multiple angles at once and painting what we understand and imagine, not just what we can see with our eyes. I thought this structure would allow a degree of dialogue with Nash. I think, although we lived in very different times and had quite different lives, we share the impulse to create, to draw and paint, and I recognize the process in his work, so I wanted to get inside his mind and see where it would lead. Since working with the theater group WildWorks on The Gospel of Us and Wolf’s Child, I’ve been keen to continue the improvisational, playful working method I discovered with them, so I kept the Black Dog project as loose and changeable as possible, right up to the last week of working on it.

How did you start thinking about how this should look? You looked at a lot of Nash’s work, incorporated work and imagery from throughout his life.

Yes, I looked at everything he did, not just the World War I work. From my own experience, the work you are doing two or 10 years in the future is inside you now, working its way through. I looked at the stylistic side of his work, but also the context — the places he worked, the arguments around him at the time, the social pressures, his family background, the world he found himself in. I tried to find a style for each chapter that captured the nature of the scene, the atmosphere, the rhythm, the emotions, the conceptual ideas. I wanted the structure to be playful, a train of thought that explored ideas freely. There is a rough chronological sequence — a bit about his childhood and background; then his war years; then the years immediately afterward, struggling to come to terms with what happened — but, like a dream, it chops and changes and reflects back and forth on itself.

Starting at that point, were you thinking about crafting a narrative from images that Nash made? Were you trying to find a narrative behind some of the images he made? There are a lot of ways to approach and think about this.

I used some images directly, and placed them into the narrative, and tried to understand where they came from — part observation, part symbolic compression of experience and emotion. There are reasons why we choose to paint that particular tree, or that particular scene, with that particular composition and color scheme, so I wanted to understand Nash’s choices, and weave them into the nature of his experience. I think there is a clear narrative to his World War I work. He entered the war as a rather wishy-washy symbolist, in love with Blake, and his work in that vein was okay, nothing special. He never could draw people very well. The war made him angry, directed, politically aware. It hardened his drawing, made his lines and brush marks direct and unfussy. On the other side of the war, he looked back to the landscape for solace and peace, but the hard edges and construction he discovered in the trenches were still there, they never disappeared completely. They were the scars — or the strength of character — that the war embedded in him. I hoped to talk about this in the book. I think most great artists have some defining moment in their work, where their abilities as an artist meet the circumstances that give their work a universal power. For Picasso maybe it was Guernica, for Bacon it was the death of George Dyer. For Nash it was Ypres.

This isn’t just a book. As you mentioned, you also have a gallery show of the art and a performance piece that incorporates your artwork.

I’m showing the pages and panels from the book at certain spaces when we perform the live show. Some of the pages are as published, some were compiled from individual panels, so I’m displaying either one, or a few of the panels. Some of the sequences were finished digitally, so I’ve either gone back to the pages and added details to match the printed work, or I’m simply displaying the physical part of the final piece.

The live piece is just over an hour, I’ve turned the book into moving projections and I’ve written an hour’s worth of orchestral music and songs. I perform the narration and some of the dialogue, and play piano. Matthew Sharp sings the songs and acts, and plays the cello lead. My wife Clare plays violin and performs the lines for Nash’s wife. The orchestral score is synced to the film. It’s been great to perform the work at the Somme memorial, and we’ll be performing again at the Tate as they have a large Nash retrospective opening in late October.

What kind of music and songs did you compose? What kind of experience were you trying to create to complement the images?

The songs are hard to place, stylistically. They are inspired by orchestral music of the period, the end of romanticism — Mahler, Janáček — and the beginning of modernism — Stravinsky, Britten, Boulez. I listened to a lot of work created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Also songs from the era, Brecht and Weill. And I can’t help but include influences from great narrative songwriters. For me, they would include Stephen Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Chris Wood, some others. The music and songs were all written on piano and orchestrated and arranged by myself and Ashley Slater. The final score is orchestral with a strong pulse throughout, giving it a feel similar in places to the American minimalists. In the end, it’s my own response to the era, the atmosphere and emotions in the narrative, and the imagery. I hope the final performance deepens the experience of the book, and I hope the emotional intensity of Nash’s experience comes through. I thought it was important to keep the reading of the text light, not too declamatory. That seems to make it more affecting for a modern audience.

What size did you paint these pages in? What do the originals look like?

They are all different. The large pages — the Southampton docks; the conversations in the cafe and with his brother, Jack, in the trenches — are about 24 by 36 inches. Some of the panels are very large. Some of the other pages — the wedding, etc. — are smaller. I created the pages in the size that worked best for the medium. The painted pages needed a larger size, as they are more gestural. The work is very rough and ready, and the textures tighten up when reduced in size. Also, I knew it would be published in the large size and projected, sometimes in detail, on a large screen, so the work had to stand up to that scrutiny.

One reason I ask is because I have the book in front of me, which is this oversized hardcover, 16 by 12 inches, on really nice paper. How much time did you spend finding the right way to present this?

I really hoped to release the book in this large size in at least one format. I’ve long been a fan of Moebius’s books, and absolutely love the oversized Humanoïdes editions. There’s an immersive quality to spreads this size, and I thought that would be perfect for the nature of these dreams and this war experience. Dark Horse have been hugely supportive of my ideas and requests.

Dark Horse Comics have become your publishing home here in the United States. They also published the second edition of Cages, two volumes of Pictures That Tick, and other books. What do you like about working with them?

I like that they ask me, “What do you want to do next?” It’s that simple. I want to be able to explore the stories that I’m interested in, in my own way. Some will be more accessible, like Cages, Black Dog, and another book I’m working on. Some will be more experimental, like Pictures That Tick. But so far Dark Horse has supported my choices. I really appreciate having a safe home I can depend on.

I know that you’re in the midst of many projects because you’re always in the midst of many projects. In particular, you’re currently working on two books, Nitrate and Caligaro. Do you want to talk about them or anything else that you’re doing?

Nitrate is a long-term project that I hope to finish and release next year. It’s a series of large paintings and drawings inspired by silent cinema — one of my formative passions. I love that era, the era of the birth of modernism, when so many of my favorite art forms were born and their languages codified — film, comics, jazz, contemporary orchestral music. You can see the structure of cinema being carved out in those early films, and I never get tired of those flickering, ghostly, textural, illusive images. So I’m remaking those images for myself, to try and understand why they have been such a strong influence on my work.

Caligaro is a graphic novel in a similar vein. It is inspired by [the film] The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but I’ve written a new story, taking the bones of the original but reimagining it, playing with the anarchistic tone of the original script, playing with its twist ending that the original director Robert Wiene added, and also mixing in a lot of my own ingredients. It’s a long-term project for Abrams. They’ve been very patient.

In addition to all the books and comics and film projects and music, you’re director of story for the restaurant The Fat Duck. What exactly does that mean?

I’ve no idea. There’s a strong narrative component to The Fat Duck experience that starts online as you book your table. The lunch or dinner you experience is an imagined holiday on a fantastical island, keyed off memories of Heston Blumenthal’s youth, taking family holidays in Cornwall. In the “morning” you have breakfast, then you go to the beach, take a walk in the woods, have a fancy evening meal, and then go to bed and sleep. All these ideas are represented in the dishes that arrive, and so I’ve been helping to clarify this narrative, this journey, and to keep the whole experience cohesive in the menus, the packaging, the whole show. I’ve also been illustrating the cookbooks and doing murals for London and Australia restaurants, and the one at Terminal 2 at Gatwick.

Having spent all this time absorbed in Nash’s work and life, what do you think you understand about him now that you didn’t before you started this project?

I think the experience of being an artist, or someone who expresses what they feel and experience through creative work, is pretty universal. Once you get to know someone like this very closely, you inevitably see parallels with your own choices and trains of thought. It’s also interesting to me how unlikely he was to become the most important war artist. What makes an exceptional work of art? It’s a particular combination of facility, circumstance, opportunity, a concentration of experience.

He represents to me the last generation of artists who were not celebrities. They were not pop stars. They simply worked and lived quietly. Art in the 21st century has very little to do with artists like Nash. I feel much more empathy with his life than with those of Turner Prize winners.


Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, The Paris Review, the Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.

LARB Contributor

Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, The Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!