Lefevre Gallery, London
Gimpel Fils, London, April 1958 as ‘1942 (H.S)’
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Private Collection, New York
Galerie Apollo, Ben Nicholson, May -
June 1954, no. 9, as ‘Peinture’
Atlanta, High Museum of Art, on loan
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Nicholson and his wife, Barbara Hepworth moved from London with their young family, to Carbis Bay, in south west Cornwall. Initially they lodged with the painter and critic Adrian Stokes and his wife, Margaret Mellis at Little Park Owles, a ‘smart modern house’ that the Stokes had moved into in April 1939. Then, after a brief stay at Dunluce, in July 1942 they moved into Chy-an-Kerris, still in Carbis Bay, on a seven year lease. The present work was almost certainly painted at either Dunluce or Chy-an-Kerris. With materials hard to come by and with a limited budget, much of Nicholson's wartime work was executed on a small scale, often revisiting and refining his pre-war discourses, founded in his associations with contemporary European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian. Nicholson had met Mondrian in 1934 and it is Mondrian that is perhaps most relevant as a force in 1942 (H.S.). In 1938 Mondrian had moved from Paris to London where he stayed until 1940 and despite having been invited by Nicholson to join them in Cornwall, was to move to New York instead, where he died in February 1944.
During the 1930s Nicholson had explored the concept of abstraction in two major series of works: carved white reliefs, and paintings created with geometric blocks of pure colour. The rectilinear composition and clarity of conception aligns 1942 (H.S.) with an evolution of the latter series where intense colour is set against larger areas of softer hues, often muted towards grey and off white. Typically the surface is flat and evenly coloured, with little evidence of brushstrokes, qualities that are enhanced by Nicholson's preparation of the canvas, which he stretched over a plywood panel, ensuring the flatness that Nicholson sought and provided a solid surface for him to work on, free from the inevitable give of a canvas traditionally pinned over a wooden stretcher.
Regarding the present work, it is tempting to associate its palette with the silvery grey skies and sandy beaches of St Ives and Carbis Bay, as well as the grey slate and granite landscape of Cornwall’s Penwith Peninsula. Playing visual tricks with the viewer, Nicholson has achieved the effect of relief, in so doing harking back to his carved reliefs from the mid 1930s, by employing thinner and thicker lines. The central white Mondrian-esque, almost-square form in the centre of the composition, appears detached, floating in front of the remainder of the composition. The effect is that of a collage, built up in layers of overlay. Whether it is an absorption of Mondrian or a homage to Mondrian is for the viewer to determine; the combination of concepts seems evident. Other more figurative works dating from the early 1940s and painted in Cornwall show a distant landscape with a still life foreground. With 1942 (H.S.) we might read the right hand side grey/light grey horizontal dividing line as a distant horizon where sea and sky meet many miles away, and on the left side of the work, we might see the grey/light grey horizontal divide as the edge of a table still life, with the whole central section becoming the focus of the viewer’s attention; the two main off-white central areas partly shielding the red blue and black of the forms emerging on the right.
Steven A. Nash comments, ‘The geometric abstractions refer only through the most distilled terms to natural experience and represent a continuation of pre-war developments and show the characteristic balancing of asymmetrical compositions and tendency toward light hues slightly varied so as to bring out maximum luminosity. Nicholson’s increasing use of thin lines and circles at this time only heightens the sense of clarity that distinguishes all his work in this idiom’ (S. Nash, Ben Nicholson Fifty Years of his Art, Buffalo, 1978, p. 26).
Whilst 1942 (H.S.) perhaps incorporates a coastal landscape palette with muted whites, soft greys, browns and blue, it is also worth reflecting on Mondrian’s comment, 'I construct lines and colour combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation of things' (P. Mondrian, quoted in A. Elder, Color Volume, New York, 2006, p. 15). Discussing Nicholson’s 1940-43 (two forms) (National Museum, Cardiff) Dr Barnaby Wright comments, ‘That Mondrian’s and Nicholson’s works of these [last] years should have developed in such distinctive but comparable ways is not evidence of a specific dialogue between the two artists, not of casual connections or direct influence. Rather, the paintings speak of their profound affinity between their approaches to abstraction that had developed along parallel lines over the previous decade – whilst always maintaining their independence – and which reached a culmination in these [late] works'.