Research point: Ben Nicholson
‘All the still lifes are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me‘ – Ben Nicholson in a letter to artist Patrick Heron in Feb 1954 (Button, 2007).
Find out about Ben Nicholson. Why does he simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape?
Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) was an English painter and sculptor. His life and career are well documented elsewhere, so I shall give just a summary of them here. The son of artists William Nicholson (a noted still life painter) and Mabel Pryde, Nicholson turned to Modernism in 1920 – prior to that, he’d worked in a traditional manner, influenced in part by his father’s work. From this point, however, ‘strength of expression was valued over accuracy of description, and ‘integrity’ and ‘freshness’ of formal invention esteemed over practised facility in delineation’ (Oxford Art Online, 2013). He was particularly influenced by Cubism, with an emphasis on uncomplicated themes. During the 1930s, he moved away from landscape subjects, preferring non-figurative themes, and began working on a series of abstract white reliefs. At the end of the thirties, he and Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall. This shift saw a return of colour to his reliefs. Nicholson was greatly inspired by the work of Alfred Wallis, a self-taught St Ives artist whose work deviated from the conventional rules of perspective. He gradually returned to still life and landscape themes, albeit organising them ‘in terms of flat and hard-edged planes’ (Oxford Art Online, 2013). This was one way of balancing his need to make money with his desire to pursue abstract ideas.
‘The typical composition of the later 1940s is a relatively small-scale crystalline formal cluster, based on a series of well-practised still-life motifs, edged either towards abstraction through a flattening of the pictorial space, or towards naturalism through the addition of a landscape background; see 1943–45 (St Ives, Cornwall)’ (Oxford Art Online, 2013). Here, abstraction and naturalism combine in a style that seems quintessentially ‘Nicholson’. Even as he painted a scene recognisable as St Ives, he treated the picture planes in an undeniably Modernist way, flattening first the curtains, then the sill with its collection of equally-compressed objects, then the glass pane, the houses beyond, the water, boats and landscape. It reminds me of a child’s paper theatre, each element sliding in behind the one before. The arrangement of negative space is fascinating, too – the verticals of the curtains and the horizontals of the sill framing the entire scene, and all in the subtlest of palettes (Union Flag notwithstanding).
It was during the 1920s that Nicholson began to experiment with presenting still lifes in an abstracted way. 1926 (Still Life with Fruit – Version 2), ‘illustrates his developing concern with the way simple, trivial objects are formalised into expressions of durability, stillness and permanence. Nicholson never merely describes an object: he suggests it through outline and a sense of the relationships it forms with the elements that surround it’. Objects are seen as ‘simply flat planes’ (British Council, 2011). The very description, ‘durability, stillness and permanence’, evokes ideas of landscape to me for, while the details of it may change, the land itself endures.
Nicholson would sometimes scour the surface of his paintings, as in 1946 (Window in Cornwall), to reveal the real depth of the canvas surface, an act which contrasted with his compression of the subject matter. In this way he ‘achieves spatial ambiguity in the painting’. ‘The delicate tonal and textural modulations the technique creates are contrasted elsewhere by area of intense, flat colour’ (Treves, 2000).
Increasingly, Nicholson’s still life paintings became further abstracted. This is evident in 1946 (St Ives). There is still a suggestion of curtain, but nothing immediately recognisable as a sill. Almost as though the objects are edging their way out towards the landscape beyond. Likewise in Trendrine (2) December 13-17, 1947 (below).
This trend continues in 11 November 1947 (Mousehole) (below). Here, there is no window frame and no curtain. The still life objects are grouped together tightly and leaning towards the scene outside. In fact, they could be outside already. The space they occupy is indeterminate – the assumption they are inside is based solely on still life conventions. The objects themselves are moving away from the solid, with volume being merely suggested.
In this painting, ‘the colours of the still life appear borrowed from the landscape’. ‘The textures, too, are significant, binding each of the separate elements together’. This painting ‘is a perfect example of what Chris Stephens has termed Nicholson’s “domestication” of the English landscape. Nicholson compared his manner of working with the memory of his mother scrubbing the kitchen table, revealing his determination “to show that the making of art was ordinary and domestic, as essential as housework”‘ (British Council, 2011).
By the time Nicholson painted June 11-49 (Cornish Landscape), he had dispensed with solid still life objects almost entirely. Instead, the viewer is presented with a series of outlines superimposed upon the landscape. ‘In such compositions Nicholson was interested in being able to unite objects in the foreground with those in the background, allowing the eye to travel over large distances and periods of time at one glance’ (Christies, 2008).
To return to the question ‘Why does he simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape‘, one can only speculate. Many reasons are possible, but the following are what seem most likely to me:
• His early interest in Modernism led his work to be interpretative and expressionistic, rather than purely representational.
• For Nicholson, treatment of space seemed paramount. He created spatial ambiguity through fusing the different picture planes, and unified them further through use of colour and texture.
• His desire to marry abstraction with naturalism, via expressing still life as landscape. The quote with which I began this post would seem to support this: All the still lifes are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me. His work conveyed a fusion of still life with landscape, the two things gradually becoming indistinguishable as framing devices such as windows and curtains were less in evidence over time – thus the domestic sphere merged with the outdoors, the land and sea, allowing the eye to take everything in at a glance (echoing the way human vision tends to work).
• Related to the point above, it is possible that his work may have been influenced by the war, leading him to explore the connections between home and the land. What constitutes home? What is our relationship to place?
This approach to space and connection is intriguing to me. It stops still life being merely a collection of unrelated objects existing in isolation. I already look at still life as a kind of portraiture – portraits of objects – making an effort to understand the essence of whatever it is I’m drawing. This takes that idea a step further.
‘Nicholson wanted to make abstract art accessible. In 1941, he wrote that looking at abstract paintings should be easy: “There is no need to concentrate; it becomes a part of living”‘ (Art Cornwall, 2013).
Art Cornwall (2013) Ben Nicholson [Online], Available at http://www.artcornwall.org/profiles/Ben_Nicholson.htm (Accessed 21 July 2013).
British Council (2011) 1926 Still Life with Fruit (Version 2) [Online], Available at http://collection.britishcouncil.org/artist/artist/30783/17773/object/44653/0 (Accessed 21 July 2013).
British Council (2011) November 11-47 (Mousehole) [Online], Available at http://collection.britishcouncil.org/artist/artist/30783/17773/object/45107/0 (Accessed 21 July 2013).
Button, V. (2007) Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery Publications. (Accessed 21 July 2013).
Christies (2008) June 11-49 (Cornish Landscape) [Online], Available at http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/ben-nicholson-om-june-11-49-5088891-details.aspx (Accessed 21 July 2013).
Oxford Art Online (2013) Ben Nicholson [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T062342pg3?q=ben+nicholson&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 21 July 2013).
Treves, T. (2000) 1934-6 (painting – still life) [Online], Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nicholson-1934-6-painting-still-life-t07007/text-summary (Accessed 21 July 2013).