Ben Nicholson
Biography of Abstract Relief Sculptor, Painter.

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Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)


Early Life and Training
Abstract Art
White Reliefs
St Ives School
Awards and Recognition

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A pioneer of modern art, Ben Nicholson was one of the best English painters, but made his reputation largely because of his contribution to modern British sculpture (1930-70). In particular, he was was one of England's most distinguished abstract sculptors in a variety of different media. Influenced initially by the still life painting of his father William Nicholson (1872-1949), and by Cubism, he achieved his creative peak early on in life, with his famous series of "White Reliefs" - low relief sculpture in painted wood, made between 1934 and 1937, after which he and his second wife Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) established the St Ives School in Cornwall. A member of Abstraction-Creation, Unit One and other avant-garde groups, he received considerable international exposure from British Council tours during the 1940s and 1950s, and from the critical support of Herbert Read - one of the top modernist art critics. As a result, Nicholson's abstract sculpture was ranked alongside that of Hepworth and Henry Moore (1898-1986), as the essence of British modernism. For other 20th century sculptors active in Britain at the time, see: Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and Jacob Epstein (1880–1959).

Early Life and Training

Nicholson was born in Buckinghamshire, England, into a family of artists. He trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1910–14), where he was a contemporary of the painters Paul Nash, Dora Carrington and Stanley Spencer, and spent time travelling in France, Italy, and Spain (1912-14). Exempt from military service during the Great War because of his asthma, he went to New York in 1917 for an operation on his tonsils, after which he toured America, before returning to Britain in 1918. He first exhibited his art in London, in 1919, at the Grosvenor Gallery and Grafton Galleries. In 1920, he married the artist Winifred Roberts, with whom he had three children. Nicholson's early work largely consisted of still lifes, landscape painting and some figure painting, inspired by Post-Impressionism. In 1922, he held his first solo show at London's Adelphi Gallery, and another in 1924 at the Twenty-One Gallery. Around 1922-3, however, mostly due to a visit to Paris in 1921, his still lifes began to be influenced by the Synthetic Cubism of Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Juan Gris (1887-1927), as well as Picasso (1881-1973).

In 1924, he became a member of the traditionalist Seven and Five Society, a group of seven painters and five sculptors created in 1919, and based in London. During the period 1926-1930, he began experimenting with a primitive style of painting inspired by the naive art of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) and by early English folk art, as well as his first visit to St Ives, Cornwall (1928), where he first encountered the heavily textured landscapes and marine works of Alfred Wallis (1855-1942).



Abstract Art

Although he had already produced a number of abstract paintings (mainly Cubist still lifes) during the 1920s, Nicholson turned increasingly towards abstract art during the early 30s. This was due to two factors: the influence of Barbara Hepworth, with whom he shared a studio from 1932; and his visits to Paris (1932-3), where he met a number of important modern artists including Jean Arp (1886-1966) and Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), both noted for their biomorphic abstraction, and the geometric artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), inventor of Neo-Plasticism. It was during the early 30s that the modernist trio of Nicholson, Hepworth and Moore transformed the traditionalist Seven and Five Society into an avant-garde art group, by expelling the non-modernist members. Later, they staged Britain's first exhibition of wholly abstract works.

The trio also became involved in abstract art groups on the Continent. In 1933, at the invitation of Jean Helion and Auguste Herbin, they joined Abstraction-Creation, a loose-knit group of artists formed in Paris in 1931 to counteract the Surrealism movement led by Andre Breton (1896-1966). Other leading members included Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) - the founder of the De Stijl group and Elementarism - the sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), and the Dada assemblage artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948).

Also in 1933, the trio joined the modernist Unit One, a group of British painters, sculptors and architects, founded by Paul Nash. Although only active from 1933 to 1935, and responsible for only one exhibition, which opened at the Mayor Gallery in Cork Street, London, before touring Britain and Northern Ireland, Unit One was highly influential in establishing the importance of London as a centre of abstract art and avant-garde architecture during the mid-1930s.

White Reliefs

Nicholson was based in London from 1932 to 1939. During the years 1933-7 he turned to a new form of non-objective art - abstract relief sculpture - which he refined into his signature style of geometrical "white reliefs" in painted wood, using only circles and straight lines. See, for instance, White Relief (1935, Tate Collection, London). He also produced paintings in a similar mould, but in colour to lessen their severity: see, for example, Painting (1937, Tate Collection).

In 1937, Nicholson, together with Naum Gabo and the British architect Leslie Martin edited Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, an influential monograph on constructivism which championed the introduction of mathematical elements, clean lines and minimalist ornamentation to public and private art. This confirmed Nicholson's position as one of Britain's most important abstract artists. His contemporary Paul Nash had written that there were two basic directions for the 20th century artist: the "pursuit of form" or the "pursuit of the soul". By 1937 Nicholson was an unequivocal seeker of form.

St Ives School

In 1938, Nicholson married the sculptor Barbara Hepworth - they had been together since 1931, and had triplets in 1934 - and the following year, as war clouds gathered, they and their family moved to St Ives in Cornwall, followed shortly by the Russian expatriate sculptor Naum Gabo. Later, about 1950, they were joined by a group of younger artists, including Peter Lanyon (1918-1964), Bryan Wynter (1915-1975), Terry Frost (1915-2003), and Patrick Heron (1920-1999). As a result, the 'St Ives School' became famous in the 50s and 60s for its concrete art, which had a significant influence on abstraction in Britain.

Nicholson himself resumed painting landscapes and introduced colour to his abstract reliefs. A number of British Council tours took place in the 1940s. He continued living and working in St Ives until 1958, although his marriage to Hepworth ended in divorce in 1951.

Awards and Recognition

In 1952 Nicholson won first prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh. In 1954 he was awarded a retrospective at the Venice Biennale, and the following year a retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London. He had a third at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1955. The next year he won the first Guggenheim International painting prize and, in 1957, the international prize for painting at the Sao Paulo Bienal. Also in 1957 he married his third wife, the German photographer, Felicitas Vogler, and in 1958 moved to Castagnola in Switzerland. He was awarded further retrospectives at the Berne Kunsthalle (1961), the Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas (1964), the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1978), and the Tate Gallery in 1993. In 1968, he was awarded the British Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1971 he separated from Vogler and returned to England. (They divorced in 1977.) Nicholson died in London in 1982, at the age of 88.

Nicholson's works are in the collections of several of the best art museums and sculpture galleries around the world, including the Tate Gallery, London, the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Hepworth Wakefield. In September 2012, Christie's, Paris set a new auction record for works by the artist, when his painting Fiddle and Spanish Guitar, executed in oil and gravel on masonite, was sold for €3,313,000.


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