Article by James Rawlin
Whenever we look over a particular period of an historical artist's work, it is impossible to do this without the benefit of hindsight. We know what comes next, we know where they head, which paths they will explore but abandon. Often it seems clear how these developments will occur, the clues sitting there to help us as we leaf through the neat chronology of a catalogue or monograph. However, spotting the point at which these later achievements begin is a much harder task. Like a junction in railway tracks, the initial departure is only tiny, hardly perceptible. But once it begins, it cannot be undone.
Thus with Ben Nicholson. His career spans over six decades of painting, and during it he achieved a level of international recognition that saw his work included in virtually every major museum collection across the globe. His position as one of the pre-eminent figures in the modern movement in Britain in the decades either side of World War II is fixed into the canon of art history, and his work has been the subject of many exhibitions, monographs and wider writings. His influence on the younger generation of abstract painters in Britain after WWII, both in London and Cornwall is also well-documented. Surely then, it is hard to look back down the well-worn path of Nicholson scholarship and writing and see something new?
The late 1920s was a period of change for Nicholson. Early in the decade he had married a fellow artist, Winifred Dacre, had a family, and begun to find a position for himself within the tiny avant-garde art world of Britain.
The limited opportunities for a British artist to engage with the mainstream of European modernism were lessened for Nicholson and Winifred by their relatively affluent backgrounds, and in the early 1920s they had travelled in Europe, especially in Italy, and spent the winters until 1924 in a house on the shores of Lake Lugano.
In his painting from those years, there is a strong sense that he is aiming to simplify his work, to distill the images to give them a clarity and directness. John Summerson mentions a 1922 scrapbook by Nicholson that gives us a taste of the sources that he employed to achieve this aim: 'Giotto, Uccello, Cezanne, the Douanier, Matisse, Derain, Braque, Picasso.'.
There are periodic attempts at abstraction throughout the decade, but Nicholson is, at this stage, definitely not an abstract painter.
Like a junction in railway tracks, the initial departure is only tiny, hardly perceptible.
But once it begins, it cannot be undone.
By the later part of the decade, Nicholson's work was largely exploring the still-life and landscape genres, and his works of this period are much concerned with the sense of the painting as an object in its own right and the subject pared down to reveal its essential qualities. These wonderful paintings, their surfaces scrubbed and worn and the mugs and jugs conjured up from simple but evocative line, have a distinct presence and give a clear indication of the way in which Nicholson's art could have developed. Nicholson could easily have carried on as he was, a step or two ahead of public taste and, as so many of his generation did, settled into a mild form of modernism.
His meeting with Christopher Wood in 1926, a slightly younger artist who had already been working in Paris and who knew many of the major players on the European scene, helped Nicholson find a new poetry in his work towards the end of the decade, and their joint 'discovery' of the unlettered septuagenarian former sailor Alfred Wallis on a chance trip to St.Ives in August 1928 added a further element of truthfulness to both artists' work. Yet in the images of St.Ives, and those painted back at the Nicholson's home in Cumbria, there is still a sense of a limitation on his vision. To become the international painter that we know to be just around the corner, there needs to be a change.
Two diamonds, Ben Nicholson, C.1929
This change was fermenting in Nicholson throughout the later 1920s, but rarely did it ever break through. We know that as a man he was determined, ambitious and dedicated. His occasional tentative essays in abstraction, such as 1924 (trout) or 1924 (first abstract painting - Andrew) (both Private Collection) contain elements which we are able to know will reappear, but to Nicholson in 1929 these must have seemed like false starts. The landscapes, freely painted and lyrical, but still for all their modernism connected to the English landscape tradition, run alongside a more interesting development.
In 1928 and 1929, Nicholson began to produce a group of relatively small but quite radical still life paintings. Painted on roughly textured surfaces, often using a commercial housepaint as a ground which could be rubbed and scraped, the subjects were simple and the pictorial space severely limited and flattened. 1929 (pomegranate) and 1929 (still life with jug) (both Private Collection) are fine examples of this strain of his work, the objects rendered purely as compositional motifs, any patterns extracted to function alone as elements of the picture.
But these are still very different paintings from Diamond. Dated to 1929, this small painting seems to have been very little exhibited and is rather unknown to scholars. It shares some similarities with some other small-scale works of 1929 – two of which are illustrated below, but it is a far more complicated image than those. The use of a form of shadow to lift the composition away from the ground is also familiar from his still life paintings, but the overall sense of a fully abstract image, a fully non-representational image, is very strong and new. Does this raise the intriguing possibility that this painting is one of Nicholson's earliest mature abstract works, painted just at the point when he was embarking on a phase of his career that would bring him international recognition?
The sources for a painting such as this lie in his interest in Picasso, Braque and Synthetic Cubism. We know that on his early trips to Paris in the early 1920s Nicholson had encountered Picasso, and indeed he later recalled one particular incident that he felt was of particular importance.
Does this raise the intriguing possibility that this is one of Nicholson's earliest mature abstract works, painted just at the point when he was embarking on a phase of his career that would bring him international recognition?
Diamond C.1929. Private Collection
'I remember suddenly coming on a cubist Picasso at the end of a small upstairs room at Paul Rosenberg's gallery. It must have been a 1915 painting - it was what seemed to me then completely abstract. And in the centre there was an absolutely miraculous green - very deep, very potent and absolutely real. In fact, none of the actual events in one's life have been more real than that, and it remains a standard by which I judge any reality in my own work...'
This statement, even allowing for the slight hint of a well-polished anecdote, is pretty unequivocal, and indeed if we look at Picasso's paintings of around 1915-16 it is clear that that phase of his work, with its complex compositions and overlaying forms, can easily be cited as an influence on some of Ben's later work, especially the sort of work he was producing around the time he wrote the recollection.
However, Diamond shows a rather different influence from Picasso, and one which would not have been particularly familiar to a British audience around 1929. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1920, Picasso had produced a number of works which explored an abstracted version of his guitar/objects on a table by a window compositions of 1919.
These 1920 works always retained a sense of the original composition, but one of the few identifiable forms which remained constant was the circular sound hole of the guitar. If we consider a work such as Composition Based on a Chair (formerly in the Artist's Estate), we can see how Nicholson has assimilated the forms and palette used by Picasso, especially the blue/grey/ochre/red tones, and reconstructed them as an entirely non-representational image.
Using the shadowing technique we find in his own earlier paintings he lifts the composition and ensures that we read it as a single object to be investigated, and the addition of apparently unconnected patterns further shifts the composition into abstraction.
Such referencing of Picasso does however raise two important questions. Firstly how do we know that Nicholson was aware of such work, and secondly, would his audience have recognised his sources and what would they have understood by their use? Clearly the first question is largely answered by what we know of his travels in the early 1920s and his own quotation above. It is less certain exactly what pieces he could or would have seen, and of course once one returned from Paris, any exposure was very much limited to the small number of examples that were held in British private collections.
The second question is also in part answered by consideration of the first. Used as we are now to an enormous and instant reference source via the Internet, it is perhaps difficult to shift our mindset back to a period when colour reproductions were poor and infrequent, modern artists like Picasso were shunned by the establishment and one's only chance of seeing such work at first hand depended on access to a very limited circle of collectors. Even the commercial galleries in London found Picasso hard work, with such exhibitions as took place in the 1920s being routinely loss-making ventures. Therefore in choosing to appropriate from the work of Picasso, himself a great 'borrower', in Diamond Nicholson was doing several things.
Primarily he was establishing himself as a bona-fide member of the avant-garde. After all, Picasso's reputation as the leading figure of modernism was, warranted or not, already current, and thus to demonstrate an intimate knowledge of Picasso's works would give Nicholson a very distinct advantage over some of his British contemporaries, especially in the eyes of the modernist collectors and critics who, after all would be both his audience and potential market. Indeed Nicholson's assimilation of Picasso-esque subjects and motifs would become quite a common feature of his work in the 1932-33 period. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly in the light of what we know comes next, he is flexing his abstract muscles. Within three years Nicholson would be producing fully abstract and non-representational works, by 1934 the first of his white relief paintings would appear and the rest would be history. This small painting is in fact a rather important work. It belongs absolutely to a period in which Nicholson came to realise that the modernist path he had pursued through the second half of the 1920s needed a further push. It needed honing, refining and rebuilding, it needed continental credibility and it needed making new and different. In the white reliefs Nicholson would make a genuinely important statement for the path of modernist art in Europe, but in Diamond we have his initial steps towards that point.
In the white reliefs Nicholson would make a genuinely important statement for the path of modernist art in Europe, but in Diamond we have his initial steps towards that point.
 John Summerson, Ben Nicholson, Penguin Books, West Drayton 1948, p.7
 The quartered diamond form appears in other paintings of that year such as 1929 (two diamonds - spotted version) and 1929 (diamond) (both Private Collection).
 BN, private correspondence to John Summerson, January 3, 1944, quoted in John Summerson, Ben Nicholson, Penguin Books, West Drayton 1948, p.7