In Ben Nicholson’s 1940 (two forms; project), two rectangular forms float with a crisp clarity and emphatic flatness against horizontal bands of silvery grey and pale blue tones. These forms are composed of smaller geometric facets of intense colour: bold shades of red, yellow and blue, which interact and juxtapose with muted shades of brown and grey. This painting is one of a series of nine works that shares this geometric composition, each of varying sizes, colours and arrangements. Painted in 1940, 1940 (two forms; project) was created at the beginning of the Second World War, a year after the artist had left London with Barbara Hepworth and their three children for the safety of Cornwall. By the time he painted 1940 (two forms; project), Nicholson was a pioneering figure in the development of non-representational, abstract art. He was at the very heart of artistic developments in London, having founded the periodical, Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art with Naum Gabo and the architect, Leslie Martin, who was an important supporter of the artist and also the first owner of this painting. Painted at a time of great change in the artist’s life, this work, along with the rest of the series, is a culmination of the artist’s form of minimal, ‘constructive’ abstraction that he had practiced throughout the latter part of the 1930s, a summation of his aims before he began to experiment more directly with nature and the visual world once more.
1940 (two forms; project) was painted when the artist was living in Carbis Bay in St. Ives in the west of Cornwall. In August 1939, as Britain stood on the brink of war, Adrian Stokes had invited Nicholson, Hepworth and their three young children to spend the summer with them in their Cornish home. When war broke out in September, the family stayed on there, moving in the new year into another house nearby called Dunluce. Separated from Hampstead, The Mall, and the vibrant avant-garde hub that existed there, far from his friends and patrons, and living under the constant threat of bombardment, this was a time of great change for Nicholson. He wrote, ‘Perhaps this is the blackest moment before the dawn – certainly it’s black alright – the whole thing is completely incredible & I keep on expecting to come to & find it’s all a bad dream, very much overdone’ (Nicholson, quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 173).
In the midst of this period of upheaval, however, Nicholson continued to paint and to promote his Constructivist ideas. Margaret Mellis, Stokes’s wife, wrote in her account of this time: ‘Ben never stopped working and if he wasn’t actually painting or making reliefs he was writing letters to people who were interested in the [Constructive] movement. They might show works, buy them or write about them. When he wasn’t doing that he was looking round St Ives for new people who might be interested…His aim was always to help people to do good work and get it shown and to stimulate a wider interest in modern art’ (M. Mellis, quoted in Lynton, ibid., p. 177). That the artist created eight other works alongside 1940 (two forms; project) serves as a testament to this indefatigable artistic zeal as he continued to explore his distinctive form of abstraction.
1940 (two forms; project) developed out of a series of abstract works that the artist had painted a few years earlier, in 1937. With their exact lines and geometric facets of unmodulated colour, these works are reminiscent to that of Piet Mondrian, to whom Nicholson had grown very close to by this time. Having first met him in Paris in 1934, the pair forged a strong artistic and personal friendship and it was Nicholson who aided the Dutch artist in relocating to London in 1937 when the threat of war in Paris became too much to bear.
In these paintings, such as June 1937 (painting) (Tate Gallery, London) and 1937 (painting) (Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh), Nicholson was, as in the present work, exploring different variations of interlocking coloured facets, examining their relationships with each other and the effect their pairings had on the composition as a whole. These planes of colour appear to overlap, with the bright white advancing and the black receding, creating a compelling sense of compositional balance between these two hovering rectangles. It was with these relationships of colour that Nicholson was able to construct a sense of space in his compositions. Indeed, it has been suggested that these two forms have a sculptural presence, reflecting the concurrent explorations that Hepworth and Henry Moore were making at this time into the spatial relationship between two objects.
The Tate painting, June 1937 (painting) was one of the works that Adrian Stokes arranged to have evacuated from Nicholson’s studio in London and brought down to safety in Cornwall. One of Nicholson’s largest works to date, this painting was housed in the garage of Stokes’ home. Able to look at and consider this work, which the artist regarded as one of the most major of his career, Nicholson was perhaps inspired to return to this type of geometric abstraction once more in the form of 1940 (two forms; project) and the other versions of this series.
The Cornish landscape had an immediate effect on the artist’s work. The colours and the light of the vast grey skies, sandy beaches and sea entered his palette, and alongside his abstract, constructive works, he also began to return increasingly to nature. As Norbert Lynton has written, ‘with every day Ben Nicholson’s sense of light, colour and space – and probably also of movement – was refreshed by his experience of sky, land and sea, so that there were always new things to attempt as well as tried ideas and methods to develop further’ (Lynton, op. cit., pp. 187-88). Indeed, Lynton noted that the background of shimmering, horizontal bands of pale colour of 1940 (two forms; project) and the varying works are akin to the sand, sea and sky of the Cornish landscape, the silvery blue and grey tones reminiscent of the soft, muted hues of the British coast (Lynton, ibid., p. 181).