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Ben Nicholson

British Abstract and still-life painter

Ben Nicholson Photo
Movements and Styles: Surrealism, St Ives Group

Born: April 10, 1894 - Denham, Buckinghamshire, England

Died: February 6, 1982 - London, England

"I'm interested in locating the holy grail of the minimum means to express the most complex ideas."

Summary of Ben Nicholson

One single work by Ben Nicholson can, at best, encompass architectural, sculptural, and painterly qualities, all the while retaining a powerful overarching worldview fueled by innocence, romance, and simplicity. Nicholson's career was long and impressive and can be divided into many phases. Even though early works appear naïve and childlike, he always experimented with pioneering theoretical and formal ways of making a picture. He initially favored still life and landscape compositions painted in a poetic and naturalistic style. From the early 1930s onwards however, his work began to develop in a more modernist direction, and he embraced working under the influence of late Cubism and abstraction. Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Barbara Hepworth all in turn had profound impact on the vision and style of Ben Nicholson. Throughout his career, there is an undiminished sense of a humble task at hand: that of honoring the beauty of landscape and life lived within it using a harmonious combination of color, line, and shape.

Key Ideas

Nicholson is set apart from many of the fellow English painters of his generation because of his continuing interest in and understanding of Cubist painting. No other English painter exploited the technical aspects of Braque and Picasso's work to the extent that Nicholson did. Although always interested in Cubism (recording the moment of acute influence felt in 1921 when he saw his first Picasso), it was during the early 1930s - having spent time in the studios of Picasso, Braque, Hans Arp, and Constantin Brâncuşi - that the interest became Nicholson's commitment and main focus.
Despite starting his career during a time of war and social struggle, unlike some artists working prior to World War I, Nicholson did not focus on politics. His main focus was art and he reintroduced the shunned genres of still life and landscape painting back into the limelight. Even the artist's early work points towards the fact that the history of English painting in the twenties is a history of the further development of the technical autonomy of a painting. Indeed, Nicholson's tastes were always closer to those of Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury Group than they were to Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, calling quite simply for an "innocent" response to form and color.
Furthermore, unlike his friend and colleague, Paul Nash, who always retained a relatively traditional perspective and vanishing point when painting a landscape, Nicholson was more concerned with shape and surface. Indeed, he produced a sense of depth through his original use of analogy, tone, and color. As such, his style is more aligned to the work of Paul Cézanne and to other pioneers in France, therefore successfully setting the basis for abstract art in England during the 1930s.
Alongside Barbara Hepworth, Nicholson formed the nucleus of the St Ives School, a name that mistakenly makes a very international cohort of artists sound local. Incorporating also the work of exiles Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, and inspired by the likes of Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, and Arp, the group based their principles on the notion of freedom, freedom of letting art be made in any form (as a mobile or relief, not only a traditional sculpture) and also a freedom from political and social oppression.
Ben Nicholson Life and Legacy

Ben Nicholson’s legacy endures - even in his work as a schoolboy. So much so that family friend J.M Barrie based a poster for his famous play Peter Pan on a childhood drawing produced by the Nicholson (who was only 10 years old at the time the poster was printed).

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