Painted in 1945, the present work is from a series of important still lives that Ben Nicholson executed in St Ives during the last year of the Second World War. The interlocking geometric shapes, punctuated with simple silhouetted objects, create a dichotomy between abstraction and realism, as primary colors are juxtaposed with earthier, more naturalistic tones. In 1945 (still life) Nicholson explores the realms of abstraction secure in the physical surroundings of his Cornish Studio.
On moving to Cornwall in the summer of 1939 with Barbara Hepworth and their children, Nicholson left behind a burgeoning community of contemporary artists, architects and writers in London. This “nest of gentle artists” (H. Read, Apollo, vol. LXXVII, no. 7, September 1962, pp. 536-542) included Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian and Herbert Read. As Fascism swept through Europe, many artists fled to England and for a period in the 1930s, Hampstead in North London became the center for abstract, modernist ideals in Europe. This resulted in a number of seminal exhibitions and radical periodicals printed at this time. Myfanwy Evans published Axis in 1935. Nicolette Gray curated Abstract & Concrete in 1936, the same year that Leslie Martin, Nicholson and Gabo edited Circle and the firm of Duncan Miller held Modern Pictures in Modern Rooms, introducing the work of many abstract artists including Mondrian, Alexander Calder, John Piper, Nicholson, Alberto Giacometti and Barbara Hepworth to a wider audience.
The growing threat of war forced the art market throughout Europe to retrench. However even before this, with a very small group of contemporary collectors actively buying, many avant-garde artists led a hand-to-mouth existence finding it difficult to secure galleries and patrons to financially support them. Myfanwy Evans remembers, “Ben Nicholson getting down to his last shilling, and telephoning in triumph to say that he had managed to get one of his faithful collectors to buy a picture for fifty pounds or so, enough to get him and Barbara through the next two or three months” (M. Evans, ‘Back in the Thirties’, Art and Literature 7, Winter, 1965, p. 146). Nicholson was therefore used to surviving on a meager and erratic income, but the move to Cornwall with his young family brought extra responsibilities and with his father cutting the allowance that he had given him when the triplets were born he needed to explore ways of broadening his artistic appeal.
Although, on arriving in Cornwall, he continued to champion Modernist ideals to those who were still open to this utopia, Nicholson simultaneously returned to the more nostalgic subject matter of landscape. Reminiscent of his work from the 1920s when he discovered, with Christopher Wood, the primitivism of Alfred Wallis, these landscapes proved to be more saleable at a time when Britain looked introspectively for strength and identity. Referring to these works Nicholson wrote that, “I have some pleasure in doing them on the side—the dealers now write to me for them & it seems almost my only way to make sales but above all it is an excuse to go off with a thermos & sandwiches for the day into the country & make drawings” (Nicholson, letter to E.H. Ramsden, 17 January 1940, TGA, 9310). Certainly, Nicholson did not seem to view the artistic process behind these works with any great gravity and he continued to try and persuade his fellow artists from Hampstead to join him in Cornwall. Naum Gabo did move for the duration of the war but Mondrian was not to be dissuaded from his original desire to go to New York.
The dichotomy in Nicholson’s work between the landscape and a concrete abstraction continued during the war as he fervently championed the Modernist principals while creating paintings of still lives and landscapes with strains of Wallis and dilutions of Cubism. As an artist that had always been influenced by the physical world around him, it was inevitable that the Cornish landscape, that he so loved, would in some way infuse his intellectual constructs. This can be evidenced in the softer hues and color tones that he started to apply to his abstract works, moving away from the flat primary colors of Mondrian to a more naturalist palette that inevitably created a depth within the once flat picture plain. As Norbert Lynton writes, “with every day Ben Nicholson’s sense of light, color 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” (N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, pp. 187-188).
While maintaining the same minimal mode of construction of his earlier works, 1945 (still life) exemplifies this shift. Geometric lozenges of deep reds and blues are juxtaposed with tonal variants and earthier greens and browns. The textured, scraped back paint on the left contrasts these flat blocks of color and draws our attention to the picture surface which in turn is subverted by the illusion of a shadow running horizontally along the lower and right edges, giving the work a three dimensional, constructed appearance.
1945 (still life) is a distillation of the last twenty years of Nicholson’s work. At a time when the end of the war was in sight and a safer future more certain, the present work can be seen as a celebration of all things that were artistically important to Nicholson up to that date as well as a relaxation of the rigidly formal Modernist constructs. To experience and celebrate the physical, the everyday and fly “the nest of gentle artists” was best summed up by Nicholson himself when he said, “I could not be bothered to read Mondrian’s theories. What I got from him—and it was a great deal—I got direct from the experience of his paintings. The impact was very powerful, but writers on art cannot understand that you can have a vital life without being able to read or write” (Nicholson, ‘The Life and opinions of a English “Modern”’, The Sunday Times, 28 April 1963, p. 28).