We would like to thank Sir Alan Bowness for his contribution.
Balearic is part of a sequence of large, accomplished table-top still-lifes that Nicholson executed during the first half of the 1950s (fig. 1). This group of paintings represents the culmination of the artist's work in still-life, a genre that preoccupied him intermittently throughout his career, and as Steven Nash has written, "They remain the works for which he is best known" (Ben Nicholson: Fifty Years of His Art, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1978, p. 31). Compared with Nicholson's still-lifes from the 1940s, these mature paintings are more architectural in feeling and lack the expansive landscape background of the earlier examples, although the suggestion of a window typically remains. The approach to form is broader and more abstract, and the fragmented volumes are opened up even further; Nicholson is interested not so much in still-life per se as in the visual relationships that emerge as he improvises on the still-life theme, integrating it with the world of abstraction. During the 1950s, the scale of Nicholson's work also increased considerably, reflecting both the artist's move to a more spacious studio in 1949 (fig. 2) and his mounting confidence and authority of handling. Nash has written, "Nicholson now had almost forty years of experience behind him and was able to draw on his accumulated knowledge, freely joining elements of earlier styles in new combinations and working with great technical ease... Although the components of Nicholson's style were present in earlier works, they are now given a formulation at once more refined and more monumental" (ibid., pp. 29 and 31).
Dated September 1953, the present painting depicts a rectangular table set with a cluster of glasses and ceramics, which emerge from an intricate network of only semi-referential lines. A square goblet with a thick stem occupies the center of the composition; in the top left is an ornamental tureen with a distinctive finial on the lid, and at the right, the profile of a wineglass can be faintly discerned. The linear silhouettes of these vessels produce calculated balances of open and closed forms, sharp angles and slow-moving curves, and advancing and receding planes, which contrast with the broad structural planes of the table legs beneath. The still-life objects are rendered in a delicate, almost incorporeal line against a subtly modulated ground of white and sand-colored planes. Set into this nearly colorless composition are several patches of bright pigment: a deep blue rectangle representing a glimpse of sky through a window opening, yellow for light and black for shadow as a narrow sunbeam penetrates the interior, red where the light breaks into a prism against the whitewashed walls. Since 1939, Nicholson had been living at St. Ives in Cornwall, a small fishing village turned outpost of the British avant-garde, and his studio there (fig. 3) provided the evident inspiration for canvases such as the present one (the title of which, Balearic, refers to an archipelago off the eastern coast of Spain, which Nicholson is not known to have visited, although he did travel extensively in the Mediterranean during the 1950s). The architect David Lewis, Nicholson's friend and neighbor at St. Ives, recalled, "You couldn't see the ocean from his studio, but you could hear its ceaseless rhythms, even on calm days, and through the skylights came the reflected light of sea and sky. The studio was white inside, and its whiteness plus the light from the sea made sharp colors incredibly intense. Around the walls were stacked canvases; and on a shelf were the bottles and glass goblets which appear in so many of his paintings..." (quoted in ibid., pp. 31-33).
The theme of the still-life before an open window was one that Picasso, among others, had explored repeatedly during his Cubist years, often at coastal locales such as Saint-Raphäel (1919) and Juan-les-Pins (1920 and 1924; fig. 4). Picasso's work from this period was instrumental in Nicholson's own earliest forays into abstraction in the 1920s, as the British artist later recalled: "The real revelation came on a visit to Paris at the end of 1920 or spring 1921. I remember suddenly coming on a Cubist Picasso at the end of a small upstairs room in Paul Rosenberg's gallery... it was what seemed to me then completely abstract and in the center there was an absolutely miraculous green-- very deep, very potent, and absolutely real" (quoted in ibid., p. 9). The legacy of Synthetic Cubism continues to inform Nicholson's still-lifes of the 1950s, with their flat, generalized shapes, overlapping of planes, and inclusion of multiple perspectives. In 1955, just two years after he painted the present picture, Nicholson asserted, "Cubism once discovered could not be undiscovered, and so far from being that 'passing phase' so longed for by reactionaries it (and all that its discovery implied) has been absorbed into human experience as we know it today" (quoted in exh. cat., 1955, op. cit., n.p.). Nash has concluded, "It has been noted that Cubism is the most enduringly revolutionary of all twentieth century art movements, and Nicholson's still-lifes of the fifties testify to its long-term generative power. Developed out of a basically Cubist vocabulary, they manifest a synthesis of Cubism and Constructivism, of color and draftsmanship, of nature and the artifices of abstraction that mark them as both highly individual statements and meaningful extensions of the Cubist heritage" (op. cit., p. 29).
More than the work of any previous period, the Cubist-inspired still-lifes that Nicholson produced during the early fifties were responsible for bringing the artist widespread international recognition and commercial success. Along with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Nicholson was chosen by the British Council to represent the nation at the Venice Biennale in 1954. Two-thirds of the works that the Council selected for the exhibition--the present painting among them--had been executed since 1950. The Nicholson installation met with great critical acclaim and earned Nicholson the coveted Ulisse Award. The artist reported to his first wife Winifred Nicholson, "Enthusiasm among the Italians and French especially was terrific (much more than ever I'd expected) and Lilian Somerville had hung and presented the show so well (lovely rooms, perfect color, and miraculous Venetian light) that I was scarcely able to alter one thing" (quoted in Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1993, p. 80). Following the Biennale, the Nicholson exhibition traveled to major museums in Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, and Zurich, before being shown at the Tate Gallery in London in 1955; the present painting appeared in all these venues. In 1956, Nicholson went on to win the first prize in the International Guggenheim Painting competition, and the following year, he took the International Prize for Painting at the São Paulo Biennale. Norbert Lynton has concluded, "It was a period of success in the eyes of the world" (op. cit., p. 270).
Even before the Biennale opened in Venice in June 1954, the present canvas had been acquired by Cyril Reddihough, one of Nicholson's closest friends and most important patrons. The artist frequently visited Reddihough in Yorkshire during this period, and the two men traveled together to Italy in 1950 and again in 1955; when Nicholson married the German photographer Felicitas Vogler in 1957, they borrowed Reddihough's house for their honeymoon. Reddihough loaned the painting to several major exhibitions during the early 1960s and also gave permission for it to be featured in a well-illustrated and widely disseminated monograph on Nicholson's recent work that was published by Lund Humphries in 1956.
(fig. 1) Ben Nicholson, June 4-52 (tableform), 1952. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
(fig. 2) Nicholson at work, 1956.
(fig. 3) Nicholson's studio at St. Ives.
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Compotier et guitare, 1924. Sold, Christie's, London, 24 June 2008, lot 17.