Ben Nicholson, O.M. (1894-1982)
1935 (painting)
signed and dated twice 'Ben Nicholson 1935' (on the backboard and on the canvas overlap), signed and dated again and inscribed 'Ben Nicholson/Painting 1935/price £100' (on the backboard), signed and inscribed again 'Ben Nicholson/7 The Mall/Parkhill Road/Hampstead/London/N.W.3.' (on the backboard)
oil on canvas
40 x 41½ in. (101.6 x 105.4 cm.)
To be sold in the artist's original frame.
Winifred Nicholson, and by descent to the present owner.
Axis 4, 1935, p. 20, illustrated.
H. Read (intro.), Ben Nicholson paintings reliefs, drawings, volume I, London, 1955, pl. 90, as 'painting, 1935'.
Exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1969, pp. 36, 68, no. 54, illustrated.
C. Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900 - 1939, London, 1981, p. 288, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson: the years of experiment 1919-1939, Cambridge, Kettle's Yard, 1983, p. 75, no. 47, illustrated.
J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford, 1991, no. 78, illustrated.
N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 92, no. 68, illustrated. Exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1993, p. 150, no. 65, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, Hayama, The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, pp. 88, 89, no. 35, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson in England, Kendall, Abbot Hall, 2008, p. 51, no. 28, illustrated.
London, Lefevre Gallery, Ben Nicholson: Carved Reliefs and Paintings, September 1935.
Cardiff, Arts Council of Great Britain, National Museum of Wales, British Art and the Modern Movement 1930-40, October - November 1962, no. 116, as 'Painting 1935'.
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Art in Britain 1930-40 Centred Around Axis, Circle and Unit One, March - April 1965, no. 125, as 'Painting 1935'.
London, Tate Gallery, Ben Nicholson, June - July 1969, no. 54.
Cambridge, Kettle's Yard Gallery, Ben Nicholson: the years of experiment, 1919-1939, July - August 1983, no. 47, as 'Painting 1935': this exhibition travelled to Bradford, Cartwright Hall, September - October 1983; Canterbury, Royal Museum, October - November 1983; and Plymouth, City Museum and Art Gallery, December 1983 - January 1984.
Madrid, Fundacion Juan March, Ben Nicholson, 1987, no. 29: this exhibition travelled to Lisbon, Fudacion Calouste Gulbenkian, no. 14.
London, Tate Gallery, Ben Nicholson, October 1993 - January 1994, no. 65: this exhibition travelled to St Etienne, Musée d'Art Moderne, February - May 1994.
Valencia, IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez, Ben Nicholson, April - July 2002.
Hayama, The Museum of Modern Art, Ben Nicholson, February - March 2004, no. 37: this exhibition travelled to Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, April - May 2004; and Tokyo, Tokyo Station Gallery, May - July 2004.
Kendall, Abbot Hall, Ben Nicholson, July - September 2008, no. 28: this exhibition travelled to Bexhill, De La Warr Pavilion, October 2008 - January 2009; and St Ives, Tate, January - May 2009.
Sale room notice
Please note that the present work is also signed and dated 'Ben Nicholson 1935' on the reverse.

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Lot Essay

Ben Nicholson travelled a considerable distance in his exploratory stylistic journey before he achieved the purity and ethereal quality of his 1935 paintings and reliefs; generally thought to be his most important contribution to international modernism. He had chosen, quite determinedly not to follow in the footsteps of his father, William Nicholson (1892-1949), the famous painter of portraits, still lifes and landscapes: rather, he had half resolved to be a writer, however, his 'fundamental aptitude' was strong enough to make up his mind for him and he went to the Slade School of Art, if only very briefly in 1910-11. In 1920 he married the painter Winifred (née Roberts) and they lived an integrated European life where Nicholson spoke French and Italian moving between London, Switzerland and Cumberland (Winifred's birthplace). The innocent, lively colourful paintings from this period contain a metaphysical thread which runs through to his geometrical paintings. Nicholson's revelation was seeing the work of the Cubists, (Picasso in particular) and it was this level of abstraction that triggered Nicholson into a manner which was to stay with him through his career as a painter.

The early years of the 1930s saw an unprecedented emergence of a move towards pure abstraction in avant-garde artists across Western Europe, and Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were at the forefront of this movement in Britain. Alongside Henry Moore, Nicholson and Hepworth keenly explored sources of inspiration both domestically and internationally. Nicholson's marriage to his first wife, Winifred, had broken down in 1931 although he would continue to remain in contact with her, and from 1932 he shared a studio with Hepworth.

In 1932-33 Nicholson saw a Miró which as he said was 'the first free painting that I saw and it made a deep impression - as I remember it, a lovely rough circular white cloud on a deep blue background, with an electric black line somewhere'. In the Spring of 1933 Nicholson and Hepworth visited the studios of Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi in Paris, and whilst on their return, they visited Pablo Picasso at Château Boisgeloup, Gisors, which Picasso had bought in 1930. Over the summer of 1933 they met Georges Braque in Dieppe and Alexander Calder, Diego Giacometti and Joan Miró in Paris. The following summer, Nicholson was introduced to Piet Mondrian which was perhaps the most important association by László Moholy-Nagy.

In the autumn of 1933, by a process of crafting and carving and the removal of paint from a painted surface, Nicholson produced his first reliefs, and after a visit to Mondrian's studio in April 1934 his reliefs are white. Nicholson wrote of this visit, 'the thing I remembered most was the feeling of light in his room and the pauses and silences during and after he'd been talking. The feeling in his studio must have been not unlike the feeling in one of those hermits' caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws' (see P. Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: drawings and painted reliefs, Aldershot, 2002, p. 39). Mondrian's paintings must have had powerful effect on the Nicholsons as Winifred acquired an oil which was to hang at her house in Cumberland (fig. 1). It is also fair to connect the religious nature of Mondrian with Nicholson's own; Mondrian exuded a confidence in his own beliefs that were aligned with theosophy - a belief that the world consisted of 'universal planes', while Nicholson's sense of the infinite was fed through his and his wife Winifred's following of Christian Science (to which Winifred remained faithful until the end of her life). The association between Mondrian and Nicholson continued with the April 1936 London exhibition, Abstract and Concrete at the Lefevre Gallery (fig. 2).

The working routine and hardship of Nicholson and Hepworth at this time produced some remarkable works and inspired a number of key patrons and collectors such as Margaret Gardiner and Helen Sutherland. Amongst these were J.R. Marcus Brumwell who acquired works by Nicholson, as well as Hepworth's carved white marble signature piece from 1935, the now-famous Three Forms (fig. 3, Tate, London). Brumwell also acquired a work by Nicholson, including 1935 (white relief) which was exhibited at the 7 & 5 Society exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in October 1935 and the Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936. Compositionally, the closest Nicholson relief to the present work is the 21 x 25 in. 1935 (white relief), (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) which has a cut-out square in the lower left corner of the central area and a hovering circle towards the top right corner.

Nicholson also accepted that the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich had been a 'considerable force' behind the development of his art during this period, however, there is also a deep fascination for the mystical connotations of shapes and forms. In a statement accompanying the 1934 Unit One exhibition Nicholson wrote, 'As I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing, and what we are all searching for is the understanding and realisation of infinity - an idea which is complete, with no beginning, no end, and therefore giving to all things for all time ... Painting and carving is one means of searching after this reality, and this moment has reached what is so far its most profound point. During the last epoch a vital contribution has been made by Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, and more recently by Arp, Miró, Calder, Hepworth, and Giacometti. These artists have the quality of true vision which makes them a part of life itself' (see M. de Sausmarez, 'Ben Nicholson', Studio International, 1969, p. 31).

Wherever we should turn to for clues as to influence, it is equally important to appreciate these astonishing, modern pictures for their powerful presence: John Summerson, an early biographer of Nicholson comments on the geometrical paintings of the mid-1930s, 'Think of them, for the moment, not as "pictures" but as "objects" - objects possessing a certain kind of life, objects absorbing and giving back life. If you start hanging a few abstract Nicholsons in a room you will soon find how powerful this life is. You will not be satisfied merely to hang the paintings at the salient points in the room: they will suggest their own positions, and wherever you place them they will have their influence on the room. They become parts of the space you live in. The "identity between canvas and idea" has become absolute: painting crosses the conventional boundary between "art" and "life"' (see J. Summerson, Ben Nicholson, London, 1948, p. 10).

Chris Stephens has commented that the common element in Ben's paintings, both on canvas and carved reliefs, was 'his concern with the surface of the work of art' (see C. Stephens, exhibition catalogue, op. cit., 2008, p. 42). The present work has most certainly been crafted with extremely careful application of paint in order to create something of an illusory effect, indeed each area of the composition has been tackled in a seemingly different manner of paint application. In the 1983 exhibition catalogue, Jeremy Lewison describes the present painting as 'Generally austere in tone, the 'frayed' edge of the white areas and the use of a delicate grey soften the painting and give it a rather dreamy stillness. The illusion of relief is created by the imposition of the grey circle (top right) which appears to be in the same plane as the grey ground. The illusion is further enhanced by the painted shadow down the left-hand edge of the painting' (J. Lewison, 1983, loc. cit.).

The present work, which has been widely exhibited and reproduced, has until now remained in the artist's family, passing by descent through the family of Ben's wife Winifred, and has only been offered for sale once before (see the price £100 inscribed by Nicholson onto the original backboard). Family history has it that Ben placed a high price on this work in an early exhibition (probably the 1935 show) as he felt that it was an important painting and was one which he did not really wish to sell.

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