Nicholson's work from the early 1930s is discussed by Steven Nash, 'He visited Paris in 1930 and made several other visits, generally in the company of Barbara Hepworth, in 1932, 1933 and 1934. There he met Braque, Picasso and visited the studios of Brancusi and Arp, and also made the acquaintance of Miró, Calder, Giacometti and Mondrian. [...] As Charles Harrison has observed (exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1969, p. 21), 'The rapidity and scope of his development in the years 1932-4 was perhaps due to his finding himself suddenly at home in a European context where modernism and modern art had a history: in England it had precious little'.
Nicholson enjoyed a good deal of contact with Braque, whose sensuous and lyrical derivations from the Synthetic Cubist style coincided with his own sensibilities. Cubism in various forms was still a vital force in French art, and Nicholson's own work shows an attempt to come to grips with it fully before progressing beyond. The motif itself - a horizontal tabletop still life playing off the clustered and curved shapes of the objects above, against the angularity of the table and legs below - can be seen as a direct descendant of such monumental still lifes as Braque's Le Jour of 1929 and Picasso's Still Life with a Cake of 1924. Further points of comparison may be made in his restrained palette, and the Cubist-derived device of incised or drawn figuration [clearly visible in the present work].
But while the lineage of Nicholson's composition is clear, so are its own individualistic features. Of primary note is the step it takes away from the tight scaffolding of Cubist structure. It is looser in composition than comparable works by Braque and Picasso and the forms have a less plastic quality: Nicholson prefers cross-sections to three-dimensional views and silhouettes to modelled forms. His delicately indicated shapes seem to float freely in a shallow, ambiguous space, given an atmospheric quality by the texturing of thin layers of paint. And while the sense of superimposed, transparent planes comes partly from the actual circumstances out of which the painting derives - Nicholson has written that he was struck one day as he gazed into a shop window in Dieppe by the superimposition of the reflections on the glass, the lettering of the shop's sign on the glass, and the view of the objects within, and that he based his painting on this impression - it is also a lasting characteristic of his approach to pictorial space.
Nash continues, 'Colour is restriced almost entirely to a sombre range of greys, browns and black, creating a moodiness unusual for Nicholson and perhaps inspired by the overtones of mystery in Miró's work. Nicholson's line, often incised through the paint layers into a white gesso ground, moves freely across the surface either in calligraphic motions or angular patterns that suggest the armature of a Calder construction or the body of some flattened, spider-like insect à la Miró' (see S. Nash, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson Fifty Years of his Art, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Gallery, 1978, pp. 14 - 18).
The significance of the two musical instruments facing each other may well draw associations with Ben, who began to share a studio with Barbara Hepworth in the spring of 1932. This was a highly exciting and emotional period for Nicholson as his life changed course after the estrangement from his first wife, Winifred.
The present work is one of a series of related musical still life compositions of this period. Other works include: 1932 (guitar), (private collection); 1932 (still life - violin), (private collection); 1933 (musical instruments), (Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge); 1933 (guitar), (Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge) and 1933 (guitar), (Tate, London). At Barbara and Ben's first joint exhibition, Carvings by Barbara Hepworth paintings by Ben Nicholson, November - December 1932 at Arthur Tooth & Sons Gallery in London, catalogue number 10 was titled Violin and Balalaika; it is not possible to confirm that catalogue number 10 is the present composition.
Helen Sutherland (1879-1964) the previous owner of the present composition was a very important patron of Ben Nicholson and a formidable collector of the avant-garde. She first met Nicholson on 5 November 1925 and went on to own a considerable number of his early works, including a drawing by Ben Nicholson of circa 1932, Nude (Tate, London), and a drawing by Henry Moore which is included as lot 158 in the same sale.