Friday, 23 May 2014

The Nicholsons come to Dulwich

Winifred Nicholson, Tippacott, w/c, 1920, private collection

Eighteen months ago I wrote a post about Winifred Nicholson, whose work was being shown in a small exhibition at Kettle's Yard. At the time she seemed rather a forgotten figure, a woman artist sidelined from the the all-male saga of Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood's fruitful artistic relationship with Alfred Wallis, but her grandson Jovan assured me that this was about to change.

Now I can see why he was so confident. His beautiful exhibition, 'Art and Life 1920-1931', brings together work by all four artists, along with the ceramicist William Staite Murray, allowing us to see the fascinating inter-relationships between them. I saw the show at Kettle's Yard last month, and am looking forward to seeing it again at Dulwich Picture Gallery in June.

Ben Nicholson, Tippacott, pencil, 1920, private collection
Few exhibitions offer such a rich weave of personality and influence. When Winifred Roberts met Ben Nicholson in 1920, the couple embarked on an intense creative relationship that outlasted their decade-long marriage. The son of a fine painter, William Nicholson, Ben suffered asthma and so avoided military service; he spent much of the Great War in America and, on returning to England, immediately began looking to Europe for inspiration.

Winifred's family were wealthy and artistic. She and Ben had both the inclination and the opportunity to travel, and a European tour in the early 1920s alerted them to the brilliance of Picasso and other moderns.

Winifred Nicholson, Polyanthus and Cineraria, oil, 1921, private collection
The earliest pictures in the exhibition suggest that Winifred's vision formed early. She saw a world not only full of colour, but made of colour. From the start she painted flowers with an apparent effortlessness that belied the intense preparations she made before launching into the picture; critics and collectors fell for her early on, and not simply because her work was pleasing to look at. Winifred's use of colour was profound, and she had surprising and original things to say about painting, landscape and the people around her.

Ben Nicholson 1930 (Cumberland Farm), oil, Brighton & Hove Museums
Ben, by contrast, was a rather slow learner, and admirers of his heroically austere 1930s reliefs may scratch their heads at the naive Cumberland landscapes shown here. Where Winifred saw colour, Ben saw form and line. Looking at these early landscapes we may notice first the clumsily drawn horses, trees and buildings, yet look beyond these details and the emerging vision is there in the simplified forms of the landscape and the pared-down palette. At a time when landscape painters with modernist pretensions looked to Cezanne for inspiration, Ben painted northern visions on heavily textured grounds the colour of British weather.

Christopher Wood, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928, oil, Kettle's Yard
When the couple met Christopher Wood in 1926 there was an immediate and powerful connection based in part on their mutual love of Picasso. There were similarities in their work too: a desire to paint directly, in a deliberately naive, expressive manner, and a shared interest in landscape and still life. Boyish, enthusiastic and unstable, Wood inspired his friends to paint boldly; in turn he learned from Ben the art of selection, and from Winifred the power of colour. Yet Wood was different again from the colourist and the draughtsman. His was a poetic vision.

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, c1926, oil, private collection
The three artists were painting in Cornwall in 1928 when they encountered Alfred Wallis, who was to affect their lives so profoundly. Winifred had perhaps the least to learn from him, although a couple of paintings in the exhibition show his influence on her. For her husband, however, Wallis was a tremendous catalyst, not in terms of subject - Ben painted only a few nautical paintings - but but because of his unique approach to his craft.

Directness and sincerity had long interested him more than convention, and Wallis was an unconventional, self-taught painter who worked with the utmost directness. Setting aside traditional ideas of perspective, the old sailor composed pictures that didn't describe external reality but expressed the ideas in his mind. Boats, lighthouses and other motifs were arranged to create the most effective composition; maps in Jovan Nicholson's admirable exhibition catalogue show the liberties he took with the topography of St Ives.

Alfred Wallis, St Ives Harbour... c1932-4, oil on card, private collection
A Wallis painting was not a representation of reality but something self-contained, and this was true not just in his compositions but in the way he went about painting. Famously he would paint on anything suitable that was within reach when the urge to paint possessed him - pieces of wood, furniture, cardboard, the nearest wall... If offered a piece of wood he would paint all over it, on the back too, making an artwork of the whole three-dimensional object.
Ben Nicholson 1929 (Fireworks), oil on board, Pier Arts Centre, Orkney
So while Ben only painted Wallis-style boats on a few occasions, he began painting on pieces of board, then cutting into the board, making the reliefs that made his international reputation. And while there is little obvious relation between his arrangements of geometrical forms and Wallis's compositions, the Cornish painter's example perhaps encouraged him on his journey away from surface reality into the essence of things.

Ben Nicholson, 1935 (White Relief), oil on carved board, Scottish Nat Gall of Modern Art
For Kit Wood meanwhile, Wallis offered a way into a world of myth and symbol. In St Ives and, even more so, on the coast of Brittany, he immersed himself in the culture, religion and everyday life of the fishing port, producing in this charged, superstitious environment a series of similarly charged paintings. As Jovan Nicholson points out, most of Wood's best work was created in the company of his Russian lover Frosca Munster, but how she influenced him we don't know, and probably never will.

Christopher Wood, The Fisherman's Farewell, 1928, oil, Tate
'Art and Life' opens at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 4 June 2014. If for some reason you can't go, then I would thoroughly recommend Jovan Nicholson's catalogue, which is lively, informative and beautifully illustrated.

Copyright for Ben Nicholson images rests with Angela Verren-Taunt/DACS, and for Winifred Nicholson with The Trustees of Winifred Nicholson.


2 comments:

acornmoon said...

Another interesting exhibition to visit. We did manage to see the Gordon Cullen Mural and the open day but only had time for a very quick look. Thanks for telling us about it, I wonder if all the Ravilious prints sold?

James Russell said...

Thanks - glad you got to see the Cullen mural. Not sure about Ravilious prints but will see what I can find out.

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