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Ben Nicholson and Still Life
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In our exhibition, Ben Nicholson: From the Studio, we explore the relationship between one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century and the everyday items that inspired his work. Wherever he travelled, from St Ives to Switzerland, Nicholson filled his studios with these objects.
But just how did this ordinary collection of cups, mugs and jugs inspire one of the most significant British artists of the 20th century?
Ben Nicholson was born in 1894, the eldest son of the painters Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. William was a highly successful portraitist but we now remember him for his elegant still-lifes. These works were particularly inspiring to Ben.
I owe a lot to my father, especially to his poetic idea and to his still-life theme. In my work, this theme did not originally come from cubism, as some people think, but from my father – not only from what he made as a painter, but from the very beautiful striped and spotted jugs and mugs and goblets, and octagonal and hexagonal glass objects he collected. Having those things in the house was an unforgettable early experience for me.
A still life is an artwork depicting an arrangement of everyday objects. Historically, they were an opportunity for an artist to showcase their technical prowess. However, still-life paintings were often regarded as a less important art form – elaborate paintings of biblical scenes or figure painting were seen as much more prestigious. Nevertheless, still-life paintings could provide an emotional, aesthetic and spiritual space, and in the modern period became a means by which artists could pursue new ideas to challenge artistic conventions.
For Nicholson, still life provided an opportunity for experimentation and with it, he reinvigorated the genre for the 20th century.
One of the earliest works in the exhibition is 1914 (striped jug). ). Nicholson had used this motif before in two other still-life paintings, which he referred to as “slick” and “Vermeer”. Even in this early work, we can see Nicholson’s clarity of vision and engagement in surface texture – something which had also preoccupied his father.
Nicholson used still-life to search for his own visual language. By turning to the simple jugs and mugs in his studio, he could interpret them over and over again, using their forms and patterns to create works that moved between straightforward representation and abstraction. He embraced both the spirit of the avant-garde (as embodied by Cézanne, Picasso and the cubist painters), and the naïve expressionism of Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis.
In the work above left, Nicholson has again painted a striped jug, but this time we can see how his ideas are developing away from straightforward representation, with the jug’s form simplified and flattened. To its right you can see the mochaware jug it was based on – one of the many jugs that Nicholson kept in his studios.
In the 1930s, Nicholson developed his ideas further. In this painting there is still a suggestion of a table top and the plate and jug are still representational, albeit somewhat flattened. Nicholson’s interest in Picasso and Braque are alluded to by his use of French wording and playing cards. The cards also alludes to the work of Nicholson’s fellow artist and friend Christopher Wood.
By the end of the 1930s, Nicholson had started an artistic and romantic relationship with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The two became leading figures in British modernism. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, they moved to Carbis Bay, Cornwall. The clear light and captivating Cornish landscape was soon reflected in Nicholson’s still-life work, creating what he called his still life-landscapes.
In this work, 1946 (still life – cerulean), Nicholson reduces the forms of his studio objects even further and compresses the pictorial space. The goblets and cups are clearly defined in flat planes of bold colours. There is also a suggestion on the left side of a curtain, which both frames the objects as well as creating a division in space, between inside and outside.
During the 1950s, Nicholson’s still-life paintings like 1950 March (still life – Castagnola) (pictured above) often seem to exist in their own time. His titles allude to places he visited in the past – in this case, an area of Switzerland where Ben and Winifred Nicholson had lived together thirty years before. His intention was not to create a direct observation of a specific location but rather capture the experience of the place.
In his final years, Nicholson returned to England and the familiar still life objects that had been part of his vocabulary since his earliest days. In these works, his line found a new expressive force. Thanks to decades of practice, Nicholson’s drawings exhibit a graceful confidence.
In the catalogue for Nicholson’s 1978 exhibition ‘recent paintings on paper’, Christopher Neve reflects on the artist’s lifetime commitment to the objects that remained at the core of his work: “In his London studio – a small room with more the contemplative atmosphere of a study than of a studio – he has continued to experiment with permutations of the objects he has accumulated. They have moved about with him … They are integral parts of Nicholson’s language and background.”
Ben Nicholson’s artistic career saw him travel the world and constantly experiment with new visual languages and ideas. His work depicts simple objects time and again, each time fashioning them into something new and proving that still-life paintings can be as fresh and exciting as any other artistic genre.
The central mystery of the recent work is that in it, mostly using the time-honoured basis of a few objects on a table, he should have been able to reconcile so many facets of his long career with such apparent simplicity – and through them to say so much about the world beyond the studio.