BEN NICHOLSON, O.M. (1894-1982)
BEN NICHOLSON, O.M. (1894-1982)
BEN NICHOLSON, O.M. (1894-1982)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM THE DESCENDANTS OF NELLY VAN DOESBURG
BEN NICHOLSON, O.M. (1894-1982)

1939 (composition)

BEN NICHOLSON, O.M. (1894-1982)
1939 (composition)
signed and dated 'Ben Nicholson 1939' (on the reverse), signed again and inscribed 'NICHOLSON 7 MALL STUDIOS PARKHILL RD LONDON NW3' (on the reverse of the artist's frame)
oil and pencil on board, relief, in the artist's frame
14 ¼ x 13 7/8 in. (36.2 x 34.7 cm.)
Painted in 1939.
Nelly van Doesburg, Meudon, circa 1939, and by descent.
Possibly, London, Guggenheim Jeune Gallery, Abstract and Concrete Art, May 1939, no. 14, as 'Relief, 1939'.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Angus Granlund Director, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Never before exhibited nor seen in public since the year of its execution, 1939 (composition) is a rare relief by Ben Nicholson, which has remained in the collection of Nelly van Doesburg, and subsequently her family, since it was created. This relief is one of a radical series of works begun in 1933, which placed the artist at the forefront of the international avant-garde. Here, a number of rectangular planes interlock and coalesce to create this almost-exactly square composition, the circle acting as the centre of this refined work. Like The Museum of Modern Art’s large relief of the same year, in the present work, Nicholson has added three hues – deep vermillion, olive green and Naples yellow – which further the subtle sense of movement that pervades this relief, as if the variously carved, painted or penciled facets are receding and advancing in front of the viewer’s eyes.

Nelly van Doesburg was a patron of modern art, collecting, exhibiting and promoting the work both of her husband, Theo van Doesburg, as well as abstract art as a whole. Born in 1899 in The Hague, Nelly van Moorsel had trained as a pianist when, in 1920, she met van Doesburg. The founder of the periodical De Stijl, van Doesburg was also the leader of this radical artistic group, which included Piet Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo, and J.J.P. Oud, among others. The couple quickly became leading figures of the interwar avant-garde; they performed together on multiple occasions, Nelly playing the piano, and Theo lecturing on De Stijl, and she also played an active role in a number of Dada performances, becoming known as the ‘indispensable Dadaist musical instrument of Europe’ (D. Wintgens, Peggy Guggenheim and Nelly van Doesburg, Advocates of De Stijl, Rotterdam, 2017, p. 40).

In the mid-20s, the van Doesburgs moved to Paris, and were married in 1928. Throughout this time, Nelly supported her husband’s artistic mission, as well as championing the work of artists including Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters. She was the epitome of the ‘new woman’: sporting a short garçonne hair style that was in vogue at the time, and living a life free from the traditional social conventions of the past. As well as painting a number of her own works under the pseudonym Cupera, in the late 1920s, she began organising exhibitions of abstract art. The fact that she knew many of the artists personally – Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Gino Severini, Fernand Léger, and others – meant that she had direct access to these pioneering figures and their work.

These halcyon days of shared artistic endeavour and discovery were cut short when Theo van Doesburg tragically died in 1931. While this deeply affected Nelly, her loss only served to further galvanise her desire to expound the art and theories of her beloved husband. She organised a number of exhibitions, and sought to ensure that her husband’s work was included in leading museums and institutions, particularly those in America. The propagation of De Stijl became her life’s work and it was this quest that would take her across Europe and beyond.

Nelly was aware of Nicholson and his work throughout the mid-1930s. Indeed, an entry on Nicholson appears in one of Nelly’s notebooks from around 1935 (N. van Doesburg, Notebook, circa 1935, The Hague, RKD, Archive of Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, inv. no. 1491). In 1938, Nelly was asked by Willem Sandberg, the director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, to co-curate an exhibition Abstracte Kunst, which was held in April of this year. Already renowned as an expert on abstract art, and deeply aware of the range and breadth of artists working in this idiom across Europe, Nelly included the work of Hans Arp, Wassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian, among others, in this landmark show, as well as some of the leading British pioneers of this form of art: Barbara Hepworth, Marlow Moss, and Ben Nicholson.

At around the same time in London, Peggy Guggenheim, the famed heiress and art collector, opened her new gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, on Cork Street. Her second show was a Kandinsky retrospective, the first of its kind to be held in London. Nelly soon heard about this new gallery and arranged to travel to London in the spring of 1938. By this time, London had become one of the leading artistic hubs of Europe, a centre for abstract, modernist ideals in Europe. Together with Nicholson and Hepworth, who lived and worked at Mall Studios in Hampstead, Naum Gabo, László Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, and Herbert Read, were all living and working in the city, as well as Mondrian who moved from Paris in September 1938.

It was likely during this trip that Nelly and Peggy Guggenheim met, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship and a fruitful working relationship. Guggenheim would later recall: ‘Nellie [sic] was my newest friend … she had walked into my gallery and given me a long lecture on who her husband had been and who she was. I was not in the least impressed and thought she was funny. I allowed her little by little to force her way into my life … Her passion for abstract art was fanatical, which was why she had come to me’ (P. Guggenheim, quoted in D. Wintgens, Peggy Guggenheim and Nelly van Doesburg, Advocates of De Stijl, Rotterdam, 2017, p. 31).

Nelly quickly realised the influence of Guggenheim. With her inheritance, she wanted to amass one of the leading collections of modern art, and Nelly was the perfect person to advise her, leading her away from the predominantly surrealist work she had collected up to this point, towards the abstract work of her husband and others. By the end of 1939, Nelly had sold Peggy five works from her own collection, including van Doesburg, Giacomo Balla, and El Lissitzky (ibid., p. 51).

In May 1939, as the outbreak of war became ever more likely, Guggenheim Jeune held one of its final and most important exhibitions: Abstract and Concrete Art. The show consisted of forty-three works by artists from across Europe: Kandinsky, Gabo, Mondrian, Arp, Alexander Calder, Hepworth, and, thanks perhaps to Nelly, van Doesburg. Indeed, the influence of De Stijl was not solely felt by the inclusion of van Doesburg’s work, but also in the design of the catalogue. Printed in an issue of the London Bulletin, the catalogue included the strap line: ‘Paris, Bruxelles, Amsterdam, New York’, a playful reference to the list of cities that used to feature on covers of De Stijl (M. White, ‘Circulars and Squares: Abstraction and Internationalism Between the Wars’, in exhibition catalogue, Modern Art and St Ives: international exchanges, 1915-65, St Ives, Tate, 2014, p. 41).

Two works by Ben Nicholson were also included in this show. From the catalogue, which was printed in an issue of the London Bulletin, these works are listed as Relief, 1939 and Painting, 1938. It is possible that the present 1939 (composition) was indeed the work included in this show, and therefore perhaps it was at this point that Nelly acquired the present work.

We are very grateful to Rachel Smith and Lee Beard for their assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

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