As a 12 year old, Twin Peaks was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.
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What made Twin Peaks so special?

Nothing since has been able to measure up to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Nothing has had its power. Why not?

I watched Twin Peaks the first time it was broadcast on UK television, and I have never really been back. It was the very early 1990s, Tuesdays or Thursdays, I think, around 9ish. Twin Peaks was on just after Food & Drink, which meant that each time I was propelled towards the sweaty, intimate horrors of small town murder and sexual violence, I had only fleeting memories of Paul Heiney holding a whisk to remind me of the world I was leaving behind.

As a 12 year old, Twin Peaks was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. It was also completely terrifying: an abstractly traumatising work fostering awful thoughts that would not be burned away by sunlight. Even my introduction to the show was unnerving. I accidentally caught the start of an early episode that my older brother was watching in the living room. I was sat quietly at a table in the corner, clumsily super-gluing an orc together. I remember the music, the slow pan downriver, and then the investigation began for the evening: a beautiful teenager had been murdered, and a community was coming apart as a result. Although the main narrative followed an FBI agent freshly landed in town to sort things out, it was instantly clear that this was not a crime so much as a sudden eruption of disorder, ill-defined but all-consuming – the sort of thing that might not remain safely contained behind the screen of our old spin-dial TV. That night, I had my first ever panic attack and was sent to bed raving. Inevitably, my mum assumed it was the glue. It wasn’t the glue.

Nothing since has been able to measure up to Twin Peaks. Nothing has had its power. I only realised that this week, almost a quarter of a century after the fact, while reading that the series’ co-creator David Lynch has pulled out of a follow-up due to budget problems. It’s a stark thought, and probably a shameful one: 25 years, and nothing has reached as deeply into my imagination as this dreamy potboiler about the adventures of a heroic federal agent who really likes donuts. Nothing has scared me as efficiently or as thoroughly. It’s made me wonder why.

The Showtime trailer for the Twin Peaks follow-up

Miraculously, in the years since I first saw it, I have not become a Twin Peaks bore. I don’t corner people at parties to quote the Log Lady, and I haven’t actually watched the 29 episodes since they first ran on BBC 2. To see me, you would never know that I have re-read The Autobiography of Special Agent Cooper until the spine crumbled away to white powder, or that I have the Official Twin Peaks Board Game in the attic. (It’s up there because it is terrible, incidentally.) This isn’t embarrassment; it is a question of intensity. I simply loved Twin Peaks with such a crippling passion that I had to put it out of my mind entirely once it was finished.

Mine was that special, bitter kind of love – common in superfans – that cannot be shared with anyone else, at any cost. The show was rebroadcast, it landed on video, then DVD, and now Blu-Ray; it has always been background chatter for my generation. I have studiously ignored all of this, just as I have ignored the fan-sites and the treachery of the central actors turning up in other programmes. (It’s not always easy to ignore this last part, mind. A few months ago, switching channels I briefly glimpsed Agent Dale Cooper, hair now grey but swept back and held in that same, laminated way, firing off lines on How I Met Your Mother. Distanced as I am from Kyle Maclachlan’s FBI days, I wanted to reach through the screen and rescue him.)

It’s a testament to the sheer potency of Twin Peaks that I can still remember quite a bit about it despite years of pretending it never happened. I remember the peculiar Twin Peaks tone, which is unique and coherent from the very start. It is born of a narrative that flirts with soap opera rather dangerously at times, and yet never gives you the easy distance of irony. It mints real terror and wit from its juxtaposition of the awful and the mundane, and this love of the mundane, of worn American icons like warm pie and diner booths and stuffed bears, cannot be written off as campness or satire. Lynch’s own historical support for the GOP isn’t satire, so it’s not entirely surprising that his TV show provided me with a loving introduction to a lot of things I now find rather tricky to love: cloying small town life, bland authority, the heroic FBI. Righteousness in Twin Peaks is often disquietingly simple. The darker supernatural side of things, meanwhile, is so frightening because its own rules never quite come into focus. We just have to accept that there is a portal to another realm hidden beyond a red curtain in the woods, and that the killer being sought is both a member of the community and also a denimy pan-dimensional burnout named Bob.

What I remember most clearly, of course, is Agent Dale Cooper himself, the man who will solve the murder of Laura Palmer and be swept away in its wake. He’s sharp, bright-eyed and good with a gun, but he’s also delicate, whimsical, and besotted, in a slightly alien way, by everything he sees, as if he’s witnessing it for the first time. From his breakfasts at the Great Northern Hotel, ordered with a wonderful oddball precision, to his late night dreams that provide crucial clues to the case, we spend a lot of time with Cooper. We get in close. His habit of dictating memos to his secretary Diane gives him a neat form of soliloquy and allows us unprecedented access to his mental world – and yet something remains unknowable about him. He is unusual: good-looking but rather sexlessly so, a shop mannequin right down to the sculpted, one-piece hair. Unlike other famous detectives, he is a creature of intuition rather than reason. Throughout the series, he seems filled with tantalising gaps. “I don’t like birds,” he says at one point, rather sharply. Why not, you want to ask. What happened? It is wonderfully maddening, such constant proximity to somebody who nonetheless remains slightly remote, who almost never appears outside of his interchangeable work clothes, even.

The energising sense of an absence at the centre of Cooper is echoed in the rest of the narrative - and might explain why it has such a power to fascinate. There is a sprightly haphazardness to the way Twin Peaks flings clues at you, a breeziness as it rockets between feral domestic tragedy and the ancient mischief of the Black Lodge, which makes you wonder if anyone was entirely clear on where things were headed. Breeziness is probably close to the truth, actually. Bob, the principal antagonist, was famously the creation of an on-set mishap: although the full story is apparently a little more complicated, he’s still a stage dresser accidentally caught in a reflection during a take. Created more by chance than by canny design, by intuition rather than reason, he knocks the entire narrative brilliantly off-kilter. He does not look supernatural – he looks like he might sleep in the back of an old Mazda – and so the mystery around him only feels more genuine. (Glancing at Wikipedia, it seems that much of the deeper weirdness of Twin Peaks may have been tidied up and codified in the years since the show was made. There’s now a careful internal structure in place that explains the strangest elements – or at least gives them standardised names – and, in doing so, gently robs them of their power. People who love the series have not been able to save themselves from ironing it all out; proof, really, that you only hurt the ones you love.)




It helps, of course, that in 1990 when it first aired in the US, Twin Peaks was a television pioneer. It was the first slice of TV that seemed to have engaged the full sweep of tricks available to cinema, particularly Lynch’s own work. Columbo didn’t have frequent, arresting close-ups of chess pieces or cigar embers, and it didn’t take a sculptor’s delight in the precise material qualities of creamed corn or maple syrup, dripping from a jug. The A-Team didn’t have the Dutch angles and the dreaminess. The dreaminess! There’s a persistent Valium haze to Twin Peaks. For all the bursts of sudden screaming, it works its wonders by quietly tranquilising you, delivering an unpleasantly romanticised murder victim who looks like a snow queen, wrapped in glittering plastic and gently frosted, and offering a vision of the afterlife that resembles the chill-out room in a low-rent casino. To say Twin Peaks was ahead of its time would be to ignore how beautifully it served as an introduction to the 1990s for a lot of us, right down to Cooper’s wonky new age preoccupations. Still, it certainly seems made for the present day just as well: its catchphrases, non-sequiturs and numinous hotel-room giants allow it to travel quickly through the world of memes and GIFs and 140 character limits.

Looking back, there are more personal reasons that explain the special way that Twin Peaks terrorised me. This murder mystery was very likely the first piece of art I had properly engaged with that was not made for children, and I was coming to it at a peculiarly receptive age. A perfect age. Somewhere around the same time that Twin Peaks was on, my mum, who was finishing an Open University course, told me about a book she was reading: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. What if Gregor Samsa wasn’t really turned into an insect, she asked. What if it’s just how he felt? My mind was blown by that. I was ready for Lynch.

How different it is to love a piece of art when you are 12. The TV I watched back then was so much more vivid, the books so much more writable. Not because I’m growing feeble with nostalgia, but because as a kid with less history weighing you down on this side, it’s just easier to cross over into the screen or into the text, to imagine yourself within a different world, witnessing it, moving it in different directions. Watching Twin Peaks each week became a kind of sweet punishment because I cared so much about what happened and who it happened to. Growing up inevitably distances you from that, just as an appreciation of how cleverly something is put together can distance you from it even more. Today, I squirm at the punishments dispensed in Fortitude each Thursday because they are graphic and because I am squeamish, but I don’t truly feel for those affected by them, and these people die the moment I turn the TV off anyway. Twin Peaks – OK, and Back to the Future – those two great loves of my childhood seem to have depleted the reserves of genuine empathy I have for anybody else who is not strictly real.

Maybe it was the exhaustion of being so deeply involved. If Twin Peaks was a terrifying education, nudging me towards the idea that life can be a slippery thing of false surfaces, it was still a landscape to dream about. Despite the incest and murder, in Twin Peaks I found a place I wanted to live. In Special Agent Dale Cooper, I saw not just a protagonist, but a model for the kind of adult I wanted to one day be. Dashing but idiosyncratic, he provided an aspiration so lofty and outlandish that it swiftly became embarrassing.

There’s nothing quite like the power of art when it’s encountered in the early years of your life. That’s probably why we bend in such strange directions to try and recapture it. In the same paper that I read about David Lynch pulling out of a new series of Twin Peaks, there was a piece that looked at the emerging genre of colouring books aimed at adults, unlikely bestsellers filled with delicate mandalas of black ink designed to delight and perhaps enrage. David Lynch would understand that combination, I think – and if the bizarre imaginative sprawl of Twin Peaks is anything to judge him by, I think he would safely resist the impulse to stay within the lines.

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Paul Nash: the modernity of ancient landscapes

Famous for his eerie First World War paintings, a new exhibition reminds us why Paul Nash was the greatest British artist of the first half of the 20th century.

In 1932 The Studio magazine printed a series of articles under the title: “What is Wrong with Modern Painting?” Internationalism, it claimed, was one ailment, with invidious Continental styles such as cubism and surrealism causing British art to lose its “native flavour”. “The Pernicious Influence of Words” was another, with “art jargon” and talk of “abstraction” helping to alienate and distance the public. What was to be done? Simple, the magazine pronounced: “A truce must be called to the post-war phase of ‘experiment’.”

For Paul Nash (1889-1946), the pre-eminent painter of the First World War, the Studio articles were a provocation. “In so many words we are being asked to ­abandon all research, all experiment; to close our eyes to the vital art of other lands – in short to be British,” he wrote. He also put it another way, in slightly less tetchy terms: “Whether it is possible to ‘Go Modern’ and to still ‘Be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today.”

Nash’s paintings – and his photographs, woodcuts, writings and book illustrations for the likes of Robert Graves, T E Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon – were proof that there was no intrinsic incompatibility between Britishness and European modernism. Indeed, what his work showed was that the avant-garde was a means of reinvigorating the British landscape tradition. There was everything personal about his art but nothing insular; Nash may have been, in the eyes of many, heir to the mystic pastoralism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer – and may have returned repeatedly to such heart-of-England subjects as Iron Age Dorset and Oxfordshire, the Sussex Downs, Romney Marsh, and the fields and orchards of Buckinghamshire – but he treated them with a sensibility that had a strongly European component.

How Nash managed to “Go Modern” and still “Be British” is the underlying theme of Tate Britain’s magnificent and comprehensive retrospective, which contains about 160
works. Nash the artist of two world wars is necessarily here, but the focus of the exhibition lies in his non-martial work. Nevertheless, it was the wars that defined him.

Nash had trained in London at the Slade School of Art as a member of an extraordinary generation that the professor of drawing Henry Tonks dubbed a “Crisis of Brilliance”. (On meeting Tonks, Nash recalled, “It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit.”) Among his peers were the greatest of the future war artists – Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C R W Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Yet it was Nash – who lasted only a year at the Slade – who outpaced them.

His visceral, stylised and unflinching images of trench landscapes on the Western Front, culminating in the shattered trees and churned mud of the painting We Are Making a New World (1918), brought him to prominence (the brooding, red-brown sky that bathes above the scene with such a sinister light reappeared 26 years later in his near-abstract aerial painting Battle of Germany). Nash was no good at painting the human figure, so instead, as he later said, “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human ­beings.” His war pictures are full of splintered stumps.

In 1917, at Ypres, Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib and was invalided home. Days later his regiment was all but wiped out. He returned to France later in the year a changed man, a sense of guilt in his heart and all ­naivety gone. It was from the front that he sent a letter – a philippic, really – home to his wife, Margaret, that is more than a raging description of his feelings: it also serves as a commentary on his paintings.


No pen or drawing can convey this country . . . Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.


He returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and his asthmatic lungs irreparably damaged by gas: the effects were to kill him, aged 57, less than a year after the end of the Second World War.

In the interwar years, Nash’s art was marked by an interest in interpenetrations and borders: of land and sea, dream and reality, night and day, man-made and natural, interior and exterior, organic and architectural. As an official war artist during the Second World War, attached to the air ministry (which didn’t really want a modernist), he remained in England and added German warplanes to his list. He repeatedly painted the incongruity of quintessential British landscapes pocked by the wrecks of downed enemy planes: a Messerschmitt ­being winched out of its crash site in Windsor Great Park, half a bomber resting in a wood, a fractured fighter in a cornfield lit by a blazing setting sun.

The most celebrated of Nash’s military-bucolic paintings is Totes Meer (“Dead Sea”) (1941), showing Cowley Dump near Oxford, where the remains of crashed planes were
piled on one another. He depicts the tangled wings and fuselages as a grey-green metal tide, washing up ineffectually against an ­adamantine Britain. He wanted the picture to be reproduced on postcards to be dropped over Germany, though it never was. In this aeronautical graveyard he painted, he saw the fate of the “hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores”. He felt that the battle being waged was one from the Norse sagas and that the aeroplanes were not machines but incarnations of evil: a watercolour from 1940, Wrecked German Plane in Flames, was subtitled Death of the Dragon.

Back in 1925 Nash had started the bleakest of the paintings he produced at Dymchurch, on the coast of the Romney Marshes. He had moved there in 1921 to aid recuperation after a series of collapses brought on by depression and shell shock. His seaside was a haunting, stark place: the waves held back by the angular sea wall (on which he would walk at midnight with Margaret) suggested the trenches and no-man’s land, and in Winter Sea he painted the water as a mass of metallic shards in a green the colour of putrefaction. It is an image of utter desolation.

With Totes Meer he reprised the composition, substituting the broken aircraft for the water. Here, though, there is just a hint of life; a white bird (an owl? a seagull?) flies over and away from the wreckage like a ­departing spirit. According to Kenneth Clark this Götterdämmerung was “the best war picture so far I think”. His statement no longer needs the “so far”.

Nash’s anthropomorphised warplanes are also extensions of his particular brand of surrealism. He was less interested in the radical politics or the focus on the unconscious that fascinated the French practitioners, and more in the evocative potential of objets trouvés shown in imagined environments. “How often then do we encounter strange objects in unlikely association and hear tantalising phrases which seem full of meaning,” he wondered. His paintings, he said, were “gropings” towards uncovering that meaning. However metaphysical his intimations, he grounded his explorations in the landscape: “I find I still need partially organic features to make my fixed conceptual image. I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration.”

In 1936 Nash was on the organising committee for the “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London: “I did not find surrealism, surrealism found me,” he wrote. The show introduced the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and others to a startled British public. Some 23,000 visitors came to the exhibition: the luckiest ones saw Salvador Dalí delivering a lecture while dressed in a deep-sea diver’s suit and holding two wolfhounds on leads. The poet David Gascoyne had to rescue him, with a pair of pliers, when he began to suffocate.

Three years before the surrealism exhibition, Nash had co-founded the short-lived Unit One group with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, Edward Burra and the critic Herbert Read. Their aim was to promote modern art in general: “to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture and architecture”. It was a brief that encompassed both abstraction
and surrealism. Nash believed unequivocally that modern art was in a precarious position and needed championing.

His Unit One works are among his least appealing, partly because of their rather dry formal aspect and their pallid palette. The Tate displays half a dozen of these pictures among a cluster of works by fellow group members: together, they appear as they were intended to, an uncompromising gathering that amounts to a manifesto of radical art. They make no effort to appeal to the viewer: little wonder the group held just one exhibition. Despite belonging in this forward-looking milieu, however, Nash refused to become a theoretical painter, confessing himself “far too interested in the character of landscape ever to abandon painting after Nature”. Whatever form future art might take, he believed, “it will be a subjective art” – and landscape, which underpinned all his art, offered him the subjectivity nothing else could. The countryside was animated by the presence of the genius loci, and his pictures are attempts to identify and capture that spirit of place – if not necessarily to understand it.

What he felt at Iron Age sites such as Wittenham Clumps, Maiden Castle or the White Horse of Uffington were the emanations of “old gods long forgotten”. A painting such as Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) invokes those old gods: a still life of chalk cliffs, a red sun, a mirror, floating spheres
and a hawk (Margaret Nash placed a statue of Horus, the Egyptian hawk god and guardian of the soul on its journey to the afterlife, on her husband’s grave). The objects are endlessly interpretable symbols of spirits, and the borders between real and unreal realms; together they offered, he said, the “suggestion of a super-reality”.

In the 1930s Nash produced a great many paintings showing random objects such as stones, chair legs and megaliths in half-imagined landscape settings. Such items, he believed, were elements of an equation that would be solved only when he put them together and revealed their true selves:


Sometimes one may find a pair [of stones] almost side by side. Inseparable complements, in true relation. Yet, lying there in the grass never finding each other until I found them that afternoon on the Sussex Downs . . . That problem was not then solved, but so soon as my stones came into my hands their equation was solved and they were united forever.


While his assemblages had much to do with the influence of his artist lover, Eileen Agar, Nash found that by putting objects together, “Nature became endowed for me with new life . . . The landscape, too, seemed now possessed of a different animation.” These pictures, showing a keen awareness of de Chirico’s work, also allowed him to combine the formal painterly elements of abstraction, surrealism and landscape.

Certain motifs – a twisted tree trunk pulled from the River Rother (“like a very fine Henry Moore”) which he exhibited on a plinth at the 1936 surrealism exhibition, or a felled tree, an architectural fragment that he likened to a “monster” – were for him living “personages” that stimulated the imagination and set in motion “a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes” through which “I could increase my actual vision”.

Nowhere is the effect of this inward ­dilation more obvious than in the series he painted in 1943 and 1944, showing what Nash called “a landscape of the imagination” but which was, in fact, the view of the Wittenham Clumps from the house of his friend Hilda Harrisson on Boars Hill, near Oxford. The tree-topped hills are shown under an equinox moon that perfectly recalls Samuel Palmer.

Here, in the middle of the war, during the “Little Blitz”, with Nash’s chest infection becoming increasingly debilitating, the countryside is at a tipping point, too – day and night are of equal length. The trees are coming into leaf so these are March landscapes, and winter therefore is receding; these pictures symbolise hope. The war might still go either way, into the dark or the light, but these ancient hills have seen invaders come and go and battles fought, yet the rhythms of nature reassert themselves regardless of man. No invader, however malign, can subvert the seasons.

The pictures segue from chilly moonlit blues to rich ochres, russets and greens under a red sun – a transition from cold to warmth. The careful experiments of his Unit One pictures and the precise compositions of found objects are gone. These landscapes are composed of loose and unblended patches of paint, the clustered trees look like mushrooms, and the result is something both profound and euphoric. Nash did not explain the pictures, other than to note that: “There are places, just as there are people and objects . . . whose relationship of parts creates a mystery.” The Queen Mother bought Landscape of the Vernal Equinox when the paint can barely have dried. She recalled returning to it again and again, unsure of quite why it drew her. Her daughters were rather less perceptive critics. “Poor Mummy’s gone mad,” they said. “Just look what she’s brought back.”

Nash lived out his last months in a state of “reclusive melancholy”; increasingly enfeebled, he would joke, “Knees up Mother Brown, feet up Mr Nash.” His heart eventually gave up. Nash’s subsequent reputation has been built on his emotive pastorals, with the feeling that his formal experiments were somehow half-hearted or an aberration. What the Tate’s superb survey proves is that they represent the true Nash every bit as much as his pure landscapes do, and that an artist did not need to be a neo-Romantic to believe in his creed that “to find, you must be able to perceive”. The exhibition proves, too, that the Queen Mother wasn’t mad.

“Paul Nash” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 5 March 2017.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage