Monday, 1 August 2011

Research Point - Ben Nicholson

Find out about Ben Nicholson. Why does he simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape? Write notes in your learning log.

I started my research by looking up Ben Nicholson on Google and at first I wasn't overly keen on his work. I've begun to appreciate them more now however, if not fall in love with them. I found that the information about his life particularly the dates, varied greatly from one site to the other so I've concentrated on some information I had in books.

Ben Nicholson was born in Denham, Buckinghamshire in 1894 and died in 1982. His parents were both artists, Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde and he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art where he was a contemporary of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, before travelling in Europe and the United States. He sebsequently became one of the most influential British artists of the 20th Century and was the first winner of the Guggenheim award.

He married 3 times, first to the artist Winifred Roberts in 1920, then to Barbara Hepworth in 1938 and to Felicitas Vogler, a German photographer in 1957.

His style was geometrically inspired and heavily influenced by Cubism and Mondrian and De Stijl. Nicholson’s early works were mainly still lifes, showing the influence of his father. While travelling in the 1920s however he encountered Post Impressionism and Cubism which inspired him to paint figurative and abstract works. His first one-man show was at the Adelphi Gallery in 1921.

On an early visit to Cornwall, Nicholson met Alfred Wallis, a retired fisherman who had taken up painting at the age of 70. Wallis’s painting style did not obey the convetional rules of perspective and he was known to paint on any surface that came to hand. Nicholson was greatly inspired by this and bought several of his paintings.
Following the breakdown of his first marriage he travelled to Paris with Barbara Hepworth in 1932 where he  met Picasso and Braque. On later trips to Paris he would also meet  Mondrian. He lived in Corwall with Barbara Hepworth from 1939. During the war Nicholson and Hepworth struggled to make money painting abstracts so Nicholson abandoned his white reliefs of the 1930s started painting more traditional landscapes again which he was advised to do for their popularity with buyers. He created a series of works in which still life paintings were intertwined with landscapes, often by placing a group of objects near a window overlooking harbours or rooftops. The outline of the still life objects were superimposed on these landscapes. An example of this is 1944 (Higher Carnstabba Farm) below...

1944 (Higher Carnstabba Farm) 55.9 x 55.9 cm

1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) 40.6 x 50.2 cm
1943-5 (St Ives, Cornwall) is another example from this period. In these paintings he  included the table top or window sill that the objects were sitting on but subsequently he became more abstract and removed this and the objects were drawn in outline as flat overlapping shapes left suspended in mid air. 

November 11-47 (Mousehole) 46.5 X 58.5 cm 

In November 11-47 (Mousehole), at first glance the overlapping foreground shapes in the paintings look like they are part of the landscape, especially since the colours are usually muted and earthy over the whole painting. The painting features the tiny harbour town of  Mousehole (pronounced 'Mowzel') on the coast of Cornwall. The still life objects and the landscape are bound together using colour and texture. The browns greys, and golds of the landscape are used in the still life elements while there are areas of paint that appear to have been scrubbed away in both areas.

In 1949 he moved to a bigger studio in St Ives which allowed him to make larger more ambitious works. The still life elements became increasingly complex in their spatial arangement. These cubist style still lifes combined with the cornish landscapes gave him a new reputation in the post-war period. The series culminated in the 1950s with such monumental works as August 1956 (boutique fantasque) below. 

August 1956 (boutique fantasque) 122 x 213.5 cm
This painting includes the table top and is clearly a still life but the landscape has now become more abstract and is only indicated at by the colours.

Talking about his earlier painting "Au Chat Botte" he wrote:
"About space construction: I can explain one aspect of this by an early painting I made of a shop window in Dieppe...The name of the shop was "Au Chat Botte"....the words themselves had also an abstract quality - but what was important was that this name was printed in very lovely red lettering on the glass window - giving one plane - and in this window were reflections of what was behind me as I looked in - giving a second plane - while through the window objects on a table were performing a kind of ballet and forming the "eye" or life-point of the painting - giving a third plane."

Au Chat Botte 1932  92.3 x 122 cm
I found this very interesting when trying to answer the question above. Looking at his paintings of the Cornish landscape with the still life forms superimposed on them, makes me wonder he was trying to create planes, mimicing how the eye sees and processes all of the planes in front of them at the same time. Usually landscape paintings would take out these "extraneous" objects but Nicholson has made them part of the picture just as the human eye would. Thus when he is looking through a window at a view he is also seeing the table top in front of the window and he has possibly tried to show this as layers in his paintings.  
He is also quoted as saying "All the still lifes are in fact land-sea-scapes to me" which indicates that he didn't see the still life objects as the normal everyday objects with their known uses, rather as forms that followed the lines and curves of the lansdscape he was surrounded by. Nicholson was able to take the simple, everyday objects and extract the essence of their forms and transcribe this onto the landscapes. In this way, the objects are almost like superimposed buildings on the landscapes in the same way that the Cubists used the still life objects as a metaphor for the human body. 1954, July 30 (Rome) and Oct. 55 (Torre del Grillo, Rome) are examples of this where the architectural skyline and the still life elements are mixed.

Oct. 55 (Torre del Grillo, Rome)  1955 28 x 49.1 cm
So, the question was: why did Nicholson simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape? I haven't been able to find a clear answer in any of the books I've read so I can only speculate. It appears that he was playing with spacial planes and superimposing one plane on top of others. Looking at his work through this period it is possible to see how this idea has evolved. In "Au Chat Botte" in 1932 he seems to have had an idea which didn't take off until he was painting the Cornish landscape during the war. He seemed to start by including the window sill or the table situated in front of the window and this idea then evolved to the suspension of the still life on top of the landscape. The objects became simple overlapping shapes and lines which often mimiced the shapes of the landscape and harked back to his reliefs from an earlier period. He later would use this technique with architectural landscapes which indicates he was thinking of the objects as architectural elements.

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