28 July 2014

'Art and Life' at Dulwich

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 is now at Dulwich Picture Gallery after spells at Leeds Museums and Galleries and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Earlier posts here have covered shows at Compton Verney in 2011 which examined the impact on Ben Nicholson of encountering Alfred Wallis in 1928, and at the Courtauld in 2012 which examined Nicholson’s work in the 1930s after his encounter with Mondrian. The Dulwich show (Art and Life from now on) looks at an earlier period starting with Ben Nicholson’s marriage to Winifred in 1920, then the couple’s meeting Kit Wood in 1926, the three artists’ responses to Alfred Wallis in 1928 and ends with the Nicholson’s separation, de facto after 1931. Art and Life features more than 80 works, some 15 of which have been exhibited publicly for the first time and many are on loan from “Private Collection”. It includes items by the potter William Staite Murray who often exhibited with the Nicholsons. The show has been curated by the art historian Jovan Nicholson, Ben and Winifred’s grandson, who gave a very informative lecture, Art and Life: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival.

Art and Life can be regarded primarily as a portrait of an artists’ marriage – for the years it lasted. Ben and Winifred both came from upper class backgrounds, his father being the painter Sir William Nicholson and her family being north of England aristocrats with unusually artistic inclinations. The exhibition starts early in their married life when they were painting together at Lugano, producing work like his Cortivallo Lugano 1921 (below, top) and her Window Sill Lugano (below, lower) and Cyclamen and Primula (poster above), both 1923, the year of their first joint exhibition:

They would often produce works on the same theme, thoughtfully juxtaposed like many of the exhibits, for example the moorland scenery in 1920 at Tippacott (Devon, SW England), her Watercolour below top, his Pencil Drawing below, lower:

The consensus seems to be that at this stage of their artistic lives, his work is more concerned with form, hers with colour. This is, of course, with the benefit of retrospect from the 1930s when he is clearly far more interested in form than colour. In 1923 the Nicholsons began to spend time at Bankshead in Cumbria near Hadrian’s Wall and the exhibition includes further examples of the same landscape being pictured by both. What is apparent is how anodyne their work seems in comparison with that of avant garde artists like Malevich a decade earlier. Soon three works by Ben Nicholson indicate an interest in something more unconventional: 1924 (First Abstract Painting, Chelsea) (below, top left), Jamaique, circa 1925 (below, top right) and Still Life with Jug Mugs Cup and Goblet, 1925 (below, lower):

In 1926 Ben met Christopher Wood who later took a painter’s holiday with the Nicholsons in Cornwall (SW England), before the area’s revival of interest to artists. Wood’s Pill Creek Eock Cornwall, 1928 (below top) and Winifred Nicholson’s Summer, 1928 (below, lower) are among the three’s responses:

Soon they met Alfred Wallis in St Ives. Wallis was a retired mariner and prolific painter of self-taught sea studies like The Schooner the Beata, Penzance, Mount’s Bay, and Newlyn Harbour, undated (below, left) and St Ives Harbour, circa 1932-34 (below, right):

which made a lasting impression on all three artists, particularly Ben, Cornish Port, circa 1930, (below, top) and Wood, Le Phare, 1929 (below middle), perhaps less so Winifred, Seascape with Two Boats, circa 1932 (below, lowest):

although her Autumn Flowers on a Mantelpiece shows a small Wallis. Then came the climactic events of 1930: Ben Nicholson’s meeting Barbara Hepworth and Christopher Wood’s suicide at Salisbury station. Wood’s influence on Ben is apparent later that year in 1930 (Christmas night):

By the end of 1931, the year Winifred gave birth to their third child, Andrew, the Nicholson’s relationship had sundered. The saddest pictures in the exhibition are Wood’s The Fisherman’s Farewell, 1928 (below, top) and her Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight, 1931 (below, lower):

Art and Life provides a welcome opportunity to see several works by Wood, for example Blue Necklace, 1928 (his mistress, Frosca Munswer) and Zebra and Parachute, 1930. The final exhibits in the show go beyond its nominal dates, but are of considerable interest including Ben’s 1935 (White Relief) and an abstract by Winifred, White and Black Ellipse, Outwards, 1936. The Nicholsons did not divorce until 1938 when Ben married Barbara. The famous Hepworth triplets had been born in 1934.

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray*, 1920 – 1931 ends at Dulwich on 21 September 2014, nearly a year after it began at Leeds.

*Ben Nicholson 1894 - 1982
Winifred Nicholson 1893 - 1981
Christopher Wood 1901 - 1930
Alfred Wallis 1855 - 1942
William Staite Murray 1881 - 1962

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