‘The kind of painting which I find exciting is not necessarily representation 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’ (B. Nicholson, quoted in Ben Nicholson: Paintings, reliefs, drawings, London 1948, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/ [accessed 1 June 2015]).
‘Try it if you like as a game – forget your preconceived ideas of what a painting ought to be – regard it, if you like, as not a “painting” but as the particular artist’s idea or thought expressed and experienced in paint […]. Forget all idea of physical, photographic representation because the modern artist is not working in these terms, but in a new language which anyone can learn’(B. Nicholson, quoted in ‘Typescript by Ben Nicholson for an article published in the “Daily Mail”, 7 August 1951, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/ [accessed 1 June 2015]).
‘One does not live on a single plane & so there is no reality in a single plane in a painting’ (B. Nicholson, quoted in J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1993, p. 75).
With a sense of complete compositional harmony, Nov. 51 (Silver and Black) is a still life from one of Ben Nicholson’s most experimental series of works, completed between the mid-1940s and into the 1950s. Nicholson, a leading figure of British modernism and a pioneer of abstract art, painted the present work in the midst of a defining decade in his artistic career: in 1952, the artist won first prize at the prestigious Carnegie International, Pittsburgh; in 1954, along with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Nicholson represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, and a year later, the Tate held a large retrospective of his work. With its curved black planes and accent of vivid red, Nov. 51 (Silver and Black), which was exhibited in a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Tate in 1993-4, encapsulates Nicholson’s characteristic palette of strong and sharp tonalities, rhythmic and delicate line against weathered, organic scrubbed planes. Emphatic black slender verticals suggest shadow whilst precise, assured pencil lines interlock to create a dynamic visual assembly of cups, jugs and decanters. Like the cubist master, Georges Braque, whom the artist greatly admired, in the present work, Nicholson masters a delicate equilibrium between the stillness of the placed vessels and the fleeting nature of the moment captured. Breaking away from the notion of representation with a youthful desire to subvert the rigidity of the older painterly tradition, Nicholson found abstraction a more effective way of conveying the world, whereby all stand points are considered.
A symphony of carefully arranged colour illuminates the abstract composition of Nov. 51 (Silver and Black), imbuing the elegant play of geometric lines with an organic vitality. In 1939, Nicholson and his wife, the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, had relocated to Cornwall. The expansive, wind-hewn landscape of St. Ives – the brilliant light, verdant greens of the undulating landscape and silver blue of the constantly roiling sea – had a definitive impact on the artist, and colour began to play a more significant role in his work. In his studio, Nicholson was energized by the Cornish light that poured through a skylight, illuminating the sparkling white walls and casting shadows over his meticulously placed jugs, cups and vessels. In the present work, the organic and stone tones inspired by the rocky beaches accentuate the pronounced black forms, suggesting light and shade. Nicholson also ensured his chromatic palette was diverse and impulsive, allowing what he called his ’colour urge’ to develop unfettered (B. Nicholson, quoted in C. Neve, Ben Nicholson. Modern British Masters Volume VIII, London 1993, p. 9). The small red highlight at the centre of the composition, taken from the sailboats in the nearby harbour, intensifies the black horizontal line and the viewer cannot help explore their relationship to one another. Through his intuitive yet delicate line, myriad colour tones and splintered viewpoint Nicholson conveys the transitory nature of sublimity and harnesses the perpetual universal energy, which flows through life in abstract beauty.