Untitled signed, inscribed and dated 'BEN NICHOLSON/1940/FOR STEVO & KATHLEEN/1941' (verso) gouache and pencil on board 25.5 x 25.5 cm. (10 x 10 in.)
PROVENANCE: Gifted by the artist to John Cecil Stephenson and his wife Thence by descent
The geometrical forms often used by abstract artists do not indicate, as has been thought, a conscious and intellectual mathematical approach a square or a circle in art are nothing in themselves and are alive only in the instinctive and inspirational use an artist can make of them in expressing a poetic idea. If you take a large ultramarine blue and a small cadmium red square and place them on a cool white surface along with a pencilled circle, you can create a most exciting tension between these forces, and if at any time this tension becomes too exciting you can easily, by the smallest mark made by a compass in its centre, transfix the circle like any butterfly! (Ben Nicholson, Notes on Abstract Art, Horizon, London, October 1941)
In the 1930s, Nicholson forged his place as the leader of British Modernism. His 1935 exhibition at the Lefevre gallery secured this position, where he exhibited all white reliefs, excluding from his work all external references including colour itself. The uncomprimising and complete reduction of content in these reliefs, was for some, the ultimate and inevitable conclusion of abstraction the apotheosis of Modernism.
The present work, painted in 1940, was realised after this decade of radical reduction and revelation for Nicholson. His marriage to Winifred Nicholson was formally over in 1938, when he married Barbara Hepworth, the mother of his triplets with whom he had lived since 1931. As a fellow avant-garde artist, Hepworths artistic ideas as a sculptor were closer to Bens in spirit than his first wife, the painter Winifred. Undoubtedly Hepworths work demonstrated to Nicholson new directions and possibilities for his art, as naturally the converse was true. Hence, Nicholsons interest in carving into his work to create a more 3-D element that developed in the 1930s can surely in part be attributed to his close relationship with Hepworth. The picture plane and its surface were throughout his career of utmost importance to Nicholson in his work.
In 1939, just days before Britain declared war on Germany, the Nicholsons moved from their London home in Hampstead to St Ives in Cornwall at the invitation of Adrian Stokes and his wife Margaret Mellis. In London, Nicholson and Hepworth had been at the forefront of the British avant-garde movement, and the couples home in Hampstead had been a magnet to fellow artists engaged with Modernism, as key members of Unit One and later the Seven & Five society. One of the most influential friendships Nicholson developed at this time, was that of Piet Mondrian, a founding member of De Stijl. Nicholson had visited Mondrian in his Parisian studio in 1934, the year before his groundbreaking Lefevre exhibition, and the profound effect of this visit is not only recorded in his later letter to the biographer John Summerson, but also in the very work he produced after that time.
Conditions for the Nicholsons at the Stokes' residence in St Ives were cramped and after six months, in January 1940 they moved nearby to a house called Dunluce, which afforded the two artists better living and studio space. Hence two essentially urban artists were dislocated by the effects of the war and compelled into the rural community of St Ives. Hepworth and Nicholson with their uncompromising Modernism were at first somewhat incongruous interlopers in the St Ives artistic community, firmly bedded, until now, in traditionalism. However, with Gabo, Wells, Mellis and Lanyon, kindred spirits were soon found and St Ives became the melting pot for the British avant-garde and Modernism.
In the present work, Nicholson has excluded all references to reality or external influences. Colour however has re-emerged as a tool for creating form and harmonising the picture plane. The composition is pure geometry. The finely balanced blocks of colour are held in fine tune by the carefully drawn pencil circle that stands out on the white gouache. This circle alerts the viewer to the very surface of the work. The inclusion of a different, subtle medium for a non-block form in this work provides the centre chord of the entire composition. The painting is conceived much like a piece of music that is brought into harmonious balance by the fine-tuning and realisation of all its elements. Indeed, Nicholson himself saw his art in terms of architectural and musical relationships between form, colour and tone. In the present lot, proportion, tone, colour and line are all combined to create an image of absolute balance and equilibrium. For Nicholson, abstract art was the ultimate, he stated I think that so far from being a limited expression, understood by a few, abstract art is a powerful, unlimited and universal language. (Op.Cit.) It is clear to see with the present work how Nicholson secured his international reputation as the leading British Modernist.