Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1993, pp160–4, Victoria & Albert Museum version illus colour pl.146
Ben Nicholson created twelve versions of this iconic 1936 painting, at least two of which are held in public collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London [P.2-1961] and the A. E. Gallatin Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art [1945-91-4]. While retaining the geometric precision and considered arrangement of the oil paintings, the radiant colours of this gouache (inscribed version no. 5) are far more powerful, in particular the vibrant central primaries red and blue, but also the luminous light grey and a clearer distinction between soft black and brown. The juxtaposition of interlocking light and dark, opaque and transparent coloured planes of various sizes creates the illusion of different depths in space.
Utilizing the same flat, rectilinear forms in tightly orchestrated arrangements, Nicholson’s abstract paintings of the 1930s saw an avid exploration of colour in direct contrast to his white reliefs of the same period. The introduction of vivid primary colours to an otherwise muted if not monochromatic palette can be attributed to a number of artistic influences, including Nicholson’s interaction with the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), whose studio in the rue du Départ, Paris, he first visited in 1934. In their coloured abstract work, both artists frequently introduced a small area of intense colour (in the present work red) into a rigorous system of straight-edged, interlocking planes. While Nicholson centralised the arrangement of his composition around the key note, it was Mondrian’s practice to relegate it to the margins.
The links between abstraction, the power of colour relationships and the illusions of pictorial space had already been established for Nicholson in the early 1920s by the post-collage, Cubist works of Picasso and Braque. Nicholson created his first abstract paintings in 1924, 1924 (first abstract
painting, Chelsea) (Tate Gallery) and 1924 (painting – trout) (private collection), having the same year experienced a ‘completely abstract’ work by Picasso with, at its centre, ‘an absolutely miraculous green – very deep, very potent and absolutely real’. (1)
By 1936, Nicholson had met and fallen in love with Barbara Hepworth. In 1932 he parted with the artist Winifred Nicholson, moving from Chelsea to Parkhill Road, Hampstead, where he worked alongside Hepworth in her studio. Winifred’s move to Paris with their children meant that Nicholson visited the city often, picking up on the latest developments of the European avant-garde and meeting its key proponents. As a member of Abstraction-Création and co-editor of Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art with sculptor Naum Gabo and architect Leslie Martin, Nicholson became ‘a kind of Paris-London liaison’, establishing and maintaining links which revitalized English Modernism in the 1930s. (2) By the end of that decade Nicholson’s
reputation as the country’s leading exponent of geometric abstraction was assured and his international reputation was taking off.
1 The artist in a letter to John Summerson, 1944 cited in Picasso & Modern British Art, exh cat, Tate Publishing, London, 2012, pp. 95–96.
2 Sarah Jane Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, London, 2000, p. 119.