‘The kind of painting which I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is both musical and architectural, where the architectural construction is used to express a “musical” relationship between form, tone and colour and whether this visual “musical” relationship is slightly more or slightly less abstract is for me beside the point’ (Nicholson quoted in H. Read (intro.), Ben Nicholson: Paintings, reliefs, drawings, London, 1948).
This interplay between the representational and the abstract is explored to wonderful effect in March 55 (amethyst). Here Nicholson plays with the notions of space and light, utilising a series of geometric forms and interlocking lines, both straight and curved, to create his unique abstract vision of a still-life. On close inspection the shapes of glasses and bottles are revealed, their forms intricately interlaced with one another, so that their forms become a myriad of shapes, which serve to create a pattern of unfolding planes, highlighting the tension between the different perspectives of vision. This method of employing juxtaposing planar forms reiterates Nicholson’s work of the 1940s, building on examples such as 1945 (still life with mugs) and continues to explore the work of the Cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who he greatly admired. Contrasting crisp, clean, thin lines with thicker, heavier counterparts, the artist creates a sense of depth in this relatively shallow space, through the suggestion of shadow. What was of utmost importance to Nicholson was the fusion and harmonisation of colour and form, which he manipulated to powerful effect. One of the strengths of the artist was his ability to imbue light through tone, which can be seen in the present work. Here a soft yellow hue radiates from the centre of the painting, emerging from his scumbled earthy, beige tones, to generate inner warmth to the work. By placing a flash of red to the upper right of the composition, Nicholson creates a sense of dynamism, balancing the warm and cool tones.
Although often considered an abstract artist Nicholson never abandoned representational art, believing that art should have a basis in nature. Despite being part of many modernist movements and groups, from Unit One to the Seven and Five Society, Nicholson never denounced the importance of the traditional models of art. Indeed, he stated that modern painting was the natural ‘unfoldment’ of all previous painting and looked to the work of masters Masaccio, Uccello, Cranach, Goya and Raphael, whose paintings he called ‘an active force in our lives’, as a source of inspiration (Nicholson, October 1941, quoted in Maurice de Sausmarez (ed.), Ben Nicholson a Studio International Special, Kent, 1969, p. 33). What was of utmost importance to Nicholson was that art should be a reflection of life. Therefore, within a changing age, he saw that the modes of painting should be updated so as to reflect the spirit of the time. He saw that an abstract aesthetic could greater incite a feeling or a quality of a place or emotion than a photorealist work could, for it allowed you to generate your own vision, created from your own imagination and experiences.
In the 1950s Nicholson began to integrate landscape and still-lifes within his work, moving away from his more intense modernist views on abstraction in the 1930s, which can be seen in 1936 (white relief). This alteration in style was influenced by his move to Cornwall in 1939, with his then wife, sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth. Living in the popular artist’s commune of St Ives, Nicholson was captivated by the wild beauty of the Cornish landscape and the purity of light that reflected off the swelling sea. Although not obviously apparent this reference to landscape is introduced through his use of colour, as seen here, where his organic stone tones are descriptive of the South West beaches, while the red highlight derives from sailboat colours. This is also seen in his organic forms, which echo the rolling hills and rocky monoliths, which punctuated the skyline outside his studio at Porthmeor Beach. This change of stance is reflected in Nicholson’s statement of 1957, when he testified, ‘My ‘still life’ paintings are closely identified with landscape, more closely than are my landscapes which relate perhaps more to ‘still life’ (Nicholson, October 1941, quoted in ibid., p. 40).
This newfound fusion of landscape and still-life in Nicholson’s work was recognised by Patrick Heron, who commented, ‘the still life paintings are impregnated with qualities of light, texture and colour which convey one at once to St Ives. The over-clean ‘washedness’ of the cool colours and the smooth neat textures are qualities very precisely related to that rain-washed Atlantic-blown town. And the multiplicity of pale greys, off-whites, pale blues, purples and yellows all have a valid basis in the white ocean-reflected light which almost bleaches things in its diffuse radiance’ (Heron quoted in J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1993, p. 85).
Painted in the mid 1950s March 1955 (amethyst) was conceived in one of the artist’s most prolific and successful periods. In 1951 Nicholson was invited to exhibit at the Festival of Britain, in 1954 at the XXVII Venice Biennale, where he was awarded the Ulisse prize, followed by a major retrospective of his work at the Tate Gallery in London and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. In 1956 Nicholson was awarded the Guggenheim International Painting prize for August 1956 (Val d’Orcia) and a year later won 1st prize for painting at the IV São Paulo Biennal. Nicholson also enjoyed a close relationship with the British Council, which under the leadership of Lady Somerville and Herbert Read helped promote his work both at home and abroad. His work was represented in 40 exhibitions the Council organised between 1947 and 1960, successfully establishing Nicholson as one of the greatest and most innovative 20th Century British artists.