As two major museum exhibitions currently on show in London demonstrate Ben Nicholson is a master of 20th Century Art. 'Picasso and Modern British Art' at the Tate shows him as a young man intoxicated by the European avant-garde, working through the issues and ideas raised by Picasso and the cubists. Whereas the exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, 'Mondrian and Nicholson in Parallel', shows him to be an equal if younger colleague of Mondrian, working towards a pure abstraction that culminated in Nicholson’s celebrated White Reliefs. However Nicholson’s long and successful career transcended both of these moments.
The works on display at Bernard Jacobson Gallery date from throughout Ben Nicholson’s distinguished career and range from his 1930s and 40s geometric abstract paintings such as Painting, 1939 and Painted Relief (Painting) 1941, paintings on canvas and board from the 1950s, through to his later reliefs, Untitled Relief, 1960-69 and to his last works in oil and felt tip, 1979 (Elephantine).
Nicholson was born in 1894, the son of William Nicholson, the successful and elegant Edwardian painter of still lifes and portraits. Nicholson said: ʻI owe a lot to my father especially to his poetic idea and his still life theme. That didnʼt come from Cubism, but from my father- not only what he did as a painter but from the very beautiful striped and spotted jugs, mugs, goblets and octagonal and hexagonal glass objects which he collected.’ Nicholson studied at the Slade between 1910 and 1911, later commenting that he had learnt more at the billiard table of the Gower Street Hotel than in lessons. In 1922 Nicholson had his first one-man exhibition at the Adelphi Gallery in London. Throughout the ‘20s he painted landscapes and still lifes in a naïve or primitive style in a reaction to his father’s slick and sophisticated manner. In the 1930s he first spent time in Paris where he made himself known to the greats of the avant-garde, Picasso, Miro, Arp, Calder and Giacometti. In 1933 Moholy Nagy introduced him to Mondrian, the two were to become great friends, Mondrian later coming to live near Nicholson in Hampstead in order to escape the ravages of war-torn Paris.
It was during the 1950s that Nicholson achieved real fame, his paintings of this period owe much to older art, particularly the works of the early Italian Renaissance painters such as Giotto and Piero Della Francesca. Often using a rubbed down surface that reminds one of frescoes, Italian Wall, 1955 or working on aged wood panels Still Life (Lorca), 1949. These works, mainly abstracted still lifes display an elegance and sophistication which was rare in a British art scene which was in thrall to the so called ‘Geometry of Fear’ of the post-war period. After being commissioned to make a mural for the Festival of Britain in 1951, he had his first retrospective outside Britain at the Detroit Institute of Art in 1952 and in 1954 he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. Retrospectives at the Tate and a first prize at the Sao Paulo Biennale followed. In 1968 he was awarded the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II, and in ’69 had another major retrospective at the Tate. His reputation continued to grow, with major exhibitions in Japan and in the USA. Nicholson died in 1982 in London.
Our exhibition coincides with Mondrian||Nicholson In Parallel at The Courtauld Gallery, London which explores the relationship between the two artists during the 1930s when both were leading forces of abstract art in Europe.
The Courtauld Gallery, London: 16 February to 20 May 2012