Against an organic, scraped back ground, an array of flattened forms and delicate, rhythmic lines are interspersed with accents of bold colour to form a dynamic array of objects in Ben Nicholson’s lyrical and serene 1933 (still life with jug and bottle). Painted in 1933, this work dates from a pivotal, watershed moment in the artist’s career: a year during which the artist was exposed to a dizzying array of different artistic styles from his travels to Paris with his new lover Barbara Hepworth. Experimenting with line, colour, space and form, Nicholson painted with a new freedom, pursuing a variety of different directions as he ventured ever further towards pictorial abstraction. It was at this time that Nicholson began to rise to prominence as one of the central figures of the British avant-garde and indeed, as a central proponent of international Modernism, forging essential links between the artistic centres of London and Paris. As he remembered to Helen Sutherland twenty years later, 1933 was ‘quite fantastic’ (Nicholson, quoted in S.J. Checkland, The Vicious Circles of his Life & Art, London, 2000, p. 120).
In 1931, two years before he painted the present work, Nicholson left his wife and mother of his 3 children, Winifred, and embarked on a new relationship with the sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, moving in to her Hampstead studio, No. 7 The Mall. Over the course of 1932 and 1933, Nicholson embarked on a number of trips to Paris, where together with Hepworth, he met many of the leading artists of the avant-garde. They met with sculptors Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder and Jacques Lipchitz, visited Pablo Picasso in his opulent Chateau Boisgeloup at Gisors, and were invited by Jean Hélion, to join the group, Abstraction-Création, which was dedicated to the promotion of abstract art and proved enormously influential to Nicholson’s own artistic beliefs and aims. Immersed in the vibrant art world of Paris, Nicholson found a group of like-minded people, and this creative innovation and shared endeavour was hugely stimulating as he absorbed and processed these varying strands of Modernism, contemplating his own artistic aims in relation to these parallel developments. Many years later he reflected on this inspirational time: ‘after the constipated literary approach to painting & sculpture in London this was all a most exciting adventure & one which was almost unknown in London at that time. Today the art link between Paris & London is so simple (& with New York & California!) that it’s difficult to visualise how remote it was in the early 1930s’ (Nicholson, quoted in J. Lewison, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993-94, p. 40).
There was one artist, however, whom Nicholson was particularly drawn to during this period of discovery: Georges Braque. Nicholson met the cubist artist for the first time at the beginning of 1933, the year he painted 1933 (still life with jug and bottle). ‘He is a dear person – a big & simple person whom one is very fond of – a most beautiful thought’, he wrote to Hepworth after their first meeting (Nicholson, quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 77). Nicholson had already seen the still-lifes of Braque and his cubist collaborator, Picasso in the 1920s. Nicholson remembered seeing two of Picasso’s Synthetic cubist paintings in the early 1920s – one of which was most likely The Three Musicians (both 1921: one version is in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the other in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia) – and was particularly inspired by the artist’s use of, in his own words, ‘an absolutely miraculous green – very deep, very potent and absolutely real’, the influence of which can be seen in the plane of deep green in 1933 (still life with jug and bottle).
The vertical format and layered and flattened forms, incised white lines and facets of colour in 1933 (still life with jug and bottle) are reminiscent of the large and symphonic still-lifes that Braque painted in the late 1920s. Like Braque, Nicholson has flattened pictorial space, as the still-life objects appear layered vertically, the tabletop appearing parallel to the picture plane. The scraped back surface of the rectangular canvas in 1933 (still life with jug and bottle) is layered with soft shades of blue and pale green, its rich, weathered texture appearing like the wood grain of a tabletop. Unlike his cubist contemporary, however, Nicholson has not deconstructed or fragmented the objects of his still-life and so has maintained a sense of lyrical fluidity as the gently meandering lines unify the near-abstract composition. He has created forms by defining their white outlines, creating and constructing objects and space with a deft economy of means that lends this painting such graceful vitality.
1933 (still life with jug and bottle) was once owned by Stanley Seeger, an avid and notoriously enigmatic American-born collector who amassed some of the greatest collections of modern art of the 20th Century. From Picasso to Bacon, Miró and Beckmann, Seeger assembled collections of the highest quality. Once he felt a collection was complete, he sold it entirely and began again. This constant dynamism made him one of the most compelling collectors of recent times. With his partner Christopher Cone, whom he met in 1979, Seeger began a love affair with British art, assembling a collection that spanned three centuries, from J.M.W. Turner to Graham Sutherland, Patrick Heron and Ben Nicholson.