‘The kind of painting 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, colour and whether this visual, “musical” relationship is slightly more or less abstract is for me beside the point’ (Nicholson, quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 251).
‘The 1950s saw Ben Nicholson producing paintings of exceptional brilliance and subtlety, incorporating still-life motifs but in compositions blatantly governed by purely aesthetic considerations’ (N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 244).
Painted in 1957, Ben Nicholson’s April 57 (Arbia 2) is one of the last of an important series of large and symphonic still-life paintings that the artist created in the latter half of the 1950s. Including landmark works such as 1956 (boutique fantastique) (Private Collection), the award-winning August 1956 (Val d’Orcia), which now resides in the Tate Gallery, London and 1956, November (Pistoia) (Private Collection), this series saw Nicholson reach the pinnacle of his mature style. Effortlessly blending nature with abstraction, with these works Nicholson built upon his developments of the previous two decades, creating a unique abstract aesthetic that propelled him to international acclaim. Indeed, by the time he painted the present work, Nicholson was widely renowned as one of the pioneering figures of British Modernism, having been bestowed with a host of accolades that firmly cemented his position within the contemporary art world.
Against two bands of flat colour, a rhythmic arrangement of delicate organic and geometric lines and pale forms coalesce and intersect in the centre of this large composition. Regarded more closely, the fine, intricate lines reveal the forms of still-life objects: the undulating stems of glasses and the round spherical shapes of a vase or bowl. Rectangular planes of colour frame this cluster of objects, the dark brown facets perhaps evoking the effect of a wooden tabletop. Constructed with an almost sculptural sensibility, the composition hangs in a state of perfect equilibrium, infused with a sense of air and light that characterises the greatest of Nicholson’s still-lifes from the 1950s. Exhibited in Nicholson’s one-man show at Gimpel Fils, London, later in the summer of 1957, April 57 (Arbia 2) has remained in the same collection for the last fifty years, and has never before been seen at auction.
Behind the abstracted group of still-life objects, two horizontal planes of scrubbed soft blue and dark, velvety black evoke the sweeping horizon of a landscape stretching out beyond. Throughout the 1950s, Nicholson’s still-lifes were predominantly influenced by the Cornish landscape of his home in St Ives, or the mountainous, sun-scorched landscape of Italy. The year before he painted April 57 (Arbia 2), Nicholson wrote to one of his patrons, Helen Sutherland, ‘These still-lifes, so-called, always turn out to be landscapes for me – either Cornish or Tuscan…’ (Nicholson, quoted in P. Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: drawings and painted reliefs, London & Burlington, Vermont, 2002, p. 70). Nicholson made numerous visits to Tuscany, Umbria and Siena in the mid-50s, falling under the spell of the grandeur of the rolling Italian hills and the ancient hilltop villages adorned with their soaring Cathedral towers. Indeed, the artist had travelled to Tuscany in April 1957, just before he painted the present work. Looking back on his numerous trips to Italy and later to Greece, Nicholson recalled his attachment to Italy and the importance of his European travels to his artistic production, ‘Both sides of the work benefitted. I have favourite places – Patmos, Santorini, Mycenae, Pisa and Siena, for instance – and I feel that in a previous life I must have laid two or three of the stones in Siena Cathedral...’ (Nicholson, quoted in J. Russell, Ben Nicholson: drawings, paintings and reliefs 1911-1968, London, 1969, p. 33).
These Italian trips had a major influence on Nicholson’s art. In contrast to his Cornish-inspired works in which the bright light and vivid blue, grey and green tones of the coastal landscape dominate, in the present work, the warm palette can be seen to evoke a distinctly Italianate atmosphere. The rich, warm tones of terracotta, burnt sienna and umber facets, and the pale forms immediately conjure the landscape and ancient edifices of Italy. Likewise, the flatness of the interlocking planes and their scrubbed surfaces could also be seen to evoke the appearance of Italian frescoes. Indeed, this time worn quality was something that had been directly inspired by the sun scorched landscapes of Italy; as the artist wrote to Winifred Nicholson following a return trip he had made from Venice to England in 1954, ‘I thought the S of France & Italy looked wonderful from the air – I liked the worked, scored surface – centuries of time & man – just the quality I’d like to get into a ptg’ (Nicholson, quoted in J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, London, 1993, p. 89). The textured, almost weathered effect can be seen in a number of other still-lifes from this prolific period, including 1956 (boutique fantastique) and August 1956 (Val d’Orcia).
The title of the work itself – April 57 (Arbia 2) – could also be seen to contribute to this Italian atmosphere. Arbia is a small town near Siena, one of Nicholson’s favourite Italian cities. However, Nicholson himself stated that his titles should be regarded as nothing more than identifying labels for the works. As he wrote to Adrian Stokes in 1962, ‘The title for me is the date but I need something further to enable me to recall which ptg it is – hence the subtitle – really a kind of label to identify luggage. Sometimes it comes from a reminder of a place, or even a person, or an experience, sometimes from some gramophone record or radio I’ve had on while working…’ (Nicholson, quoted in J. Lewison, ibid., p. 230). Yet, in many cases, the appendage undoubtedly evokes an atmosphere, creating as in the present work, a sense of ambience.
April 57 (Arbia 2) encapsulates the new interaction between the landscape and still-life that characterised Nicholson’s work of the late 1950s. Since the early 1940s, when the artist moved to Cornwall to escape wartime London, the landscape had become a dominant feature within his art. Having created painted reliefs and constructivist abstract paintings, Nicholson began to reintroduce nature into his art, setting still-life groupings in front of a window with a landscape beyond. Yet, in the 1950s, the distinction between the landscape and the still-life groups gradually became less clear as the two began to merge. The landscape infused Nicholson’s still-life compositions with a sense of vitality and vigour, the two subjects becoming inseparable from one another. ‘All the “still-lifes” are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me’ (Nicholson to Heron, 9th February, 1954, quoted in J. Lewison, ibid., p. 86), Nicholson wrote to Patrick Heron in 1954, and indeed, as the present work demonstrates, the subject has gone beyond the distinctions of landscape and still-life to become an abstract fusion of interlocking, flattened forms. The sense of illusionistic compositional space has gone, replaced by elegantly overlapping forms, planes of colours, and intricately interlacing lines that combine in one perfect, harmonious and masterful union. This was for Nicholson, the inherent aim of his art, as he explained, ‘The kind of painting 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, colour and whether this visual, “musical” relationship is slightly more or less abstract is for me beside the point’ (Nicholson, quoted in N. Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 251).
April 57 (Arbia 2) dates from a pivotal year in Nicholson’s life. Having divorced from his second wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth in 1951, it was in 1957 that Nicholson met and married the German photographer, Felicitas Vogler. In May, at the suggestion of a friend, Vogler had travelled to St Ives, visiting many of the artists who were living there, including Nicholson. The pair quickly fell in love and were married in July. A year later, in 1958, the couple left St Ives and moved to Ticino in Switzerland, where Nicholson would remain for the next thirteen years. The 1950s saw Nicholson receive widespread critical acclaim and international renown. In 1954, he represented Britain, along with Francis Bacon, at the Venice Biennale, after which he was praised by one critic as the ‘J. S. Bach of abstract painting’ (S. J. Checkland, Ben Nicholson: the Vicious Circles of his Life & Art, London, 2000, p. 294). A year later, his first retrospective was held at the Tate Gallery, as well as at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris – an accolade that only one other British artist, Graham Sutherland, received in 1952. In 1956, he won the prestigious first prize in the International Guggenheim Painting Competition. Surges in sales reflected the artist’s growing stature: the Tate started to acquire his paintings, as well as the legendary collector, Peggy Guggenheim.