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Art and Life: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Dulwich Picture Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Art and Life: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Art and Life: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Intense personal relationships fuelled the creativity at the heart of British modernism

Ben Nicholson, c 1930 (Cornish Port), 1928Courtesy Kettle’s Yard/© Angela V erren - Taunt 2013

At the risk of sounding crass, I can’t help feeling that had Winifred Nicholson painted fewer flowers she might be better represented in the annals of art history. Of course, being a woman hasn’t helped, but as a woman flower painter she was ever destined for the footnotes. As is often the way with female artists, Winifred was highly regarded in her lifetime, and at the outset of her career she outsold her husband Ben Nicholson, whose reputation, posthumously, has almost entirely eclipsed her own.

Next to the white reliefs and austere abstract paintings that have secured her husband's reputation in the vanguard of British modernism, Winifred’s paintings are, superficially at least, steadfastly domestic, the motif of potted flowers persisting through her experiments with abstraction.

Far from following a trajectory of simplification, Ben’s exploration of colour intensified

After their marriage in 1920 the Nicholsons lived together for a decade or so, and it is this fertile period at the start of their careers that the exhibition explores. The painters Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, and the potter William Staite Murray, who also feature, were firm friends with the Nicholsons, and examples of their work show the extent to which they too were engaged in mutually rewarding creative relationships.

Christopher Wood, Anemones in a Cornish Window , 1930 © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art LibraryThe Nicholsons often worked from the same subjects, and included here are several instances of landscapes painted from the same viewpoint. A cross fertilization of ideas extended far beyond sharing a view or a prop, however, and the pairing of Ben Nicholson’s 1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea) with Winifred’s King’s Road, Chelsea, 1925, is an example of the subtle but complex nature of their exchanges. The two paintings share a distinctive colour range, and the “magenta pink” favoured by Winifred throughout her career dominates her husband's overlapping blocks of colour, the delicate blues and greys of Winifred’s receding cityscape and the brown of the brickwork further echoing Ben’s palette. Winifred’s view from their studio window, built from simple blocks of colour, nods to the construction of her husband’s painting, while his picture seems equally indebted to hers, elevating colour over other concerns.

The platitude that Ben was concerned with form and Winifred with colour is put under considerable strain by such insightful comparisons, and the exhibition mounts several challenges to our perceptions of these artists. Pictures from the Nicholsons’ time in Cumberland, and subsequently in St Ives, Cornwall, show that far from following a trajectory of simplification, culminating in the wholesale abandonment of colour in his white reliefs, Ben’s exploration of colour intensified in the period around 1930. In c. 1930 (Birch Craig Summer), he swapped his customary subdued palette for bright, light greens and blues that evoke the warmth and stillness of the scene, invoking Winifred’s use of colour at this time.

For both Ben and Winifred, and indeed Wood, the experience of visiting St Ives had an enormous impact, with Ben Nicholson’s c.1930 (Cornish port) (main picture) and Winifred’s Summer, 1928, introducing entirely new colour ranges that reflect the almost exotic contrast between this southerly location and their Cumberland home. Of the three painters, Winifred’s response is the most assured and sophisticated; the influence of her expressive brushwork and approach to colour can be seen in the work of all those around her, and in Anemones in a Cornish Window, 1930, (pictured above right) Wood pays homage to one of Winifred’s most enduring themes.

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats, 1926 Courtesy of Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge ©Trustees of Winifred NicholsonIt was while staying in Cornwall that the Nicholsons met the marine painter Alfred Wallis, beginning a friendship that would have a radical effect on all parties. Completely self-taught, Wallis seemed to embody an approach “as unselfconscious, as genuine, as direct and vital as we find in most primitive art” and Ben emulated his simple, almost childlike style. Winifred in particular responded to Wallis’s instinctive capacity to convey movement, which seems to have chimed with her own talent for imbuing her paintings with energy and vigour. To Winifred, Wallis “painted with the imagination of a poet and the restraint of colour and sense of movement of a master,” and these qualities are evident in her raw, elemental paintings, such as Seascape with Two Boats, c.1932 (pictured above left). For Wallis, the meeting with the Nicholsons was particularly fortuitous, as he found himself suddenly in demand, with art dealers clamouring to buy his work.

As a piece of curation, this exhibition is bold and exciting, the thoughtful hang allowing genuinely original insights about the nature of the Nicholsons’ creative partnership, but also raising questions about the very nature of creative endeavour. The brilliance of Winifred's output is quite subtly brought to the fore, while the focus on such a short but formative period invites us to reflect on the later work of Ben, in particular, with fresh eyes and perhaps even a new perspective on his legacy.

As a piece of curation, this exhibition is bold and exciting, the thoughtful hang allowing genuinely original insights

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