Ben Nicholson, international magpie

Ben Nicholson was a pragmatic artist. He looked hard life-long, and he borrowed like a magpie. Never a man to confine himself geographically, nor to believe that he was anything other than a European, if not an internationalist, he travelled widely and looked into many artists’ studios, in England and elsewhere.

Two Fishes (1932)

This month a new book of his writings and ideas, edited by Lee Beard, is published by Lund Humphries, and an exhibition of some of his finest works go on display at Crane Kalman, the gallery in Knighstbridge with which he had long associations. (He and Andras Kalman both played tennis to a professional level). In the extracts from the new book you can read below, we catch him staring in delight and bemusement at a Calder he has hung from a ceiling in Paris; visiting Mondrian and Picasso in Paris; and finding Alfred Wallis behind an open door in St Ives, Cornwall. The artworks which accompany these texts will be on display at Crane Kalman from 11 April to 11 May.

1931-36 (composition)

On a mobile by Alexander Calder

In a recent number of Horizon Grahame Greene, in an article on [Herbert] Read, mentions ‘a decoration of wires with little balls attached dangling from the ceiling’ and suggests, I think, that this is some strange kind of new fashion with no bearing on art.

The first time I saw a Calder (such as this) was in Paris some years ago when I borrowed one and hung it from the centre of the ceiling of a white room overlooking the Seine, and at night, with the river glistening outside, the mobile object turned slowly in the breeze in the light of an electric bulb hung near its centre – a large black, six white and one scarlet ball on their wires turned slowly in and out, around, above and below each other, with their shadows chasing round the white walls in an exciting interchanging movement, suddenly hastening as they turned the corners and disappearing, as they crossed the window, into the night – it was alive like the hum of the city, like the passing river and the smell of Paris in early spring, but it was not a work of art as so many people think of a work of art – imprisoned in a gold frame or stone-dead on a pedestal in one of our marble-pillared mausoleums. But it was ‘alive’ and that, after all, is not a bad qualification for a work of art.

‘Notes on Abstract Art’, Horizon, vol.4, no.22, October 1941

Nicholson (stone relief – Valle Verzaska)

On Visiting Mondrian

Mondrian was in v. good form, looked very well & lots of new work – even one quite large for him & this way up [sketch of Lozenge Composition with Eight Lines and Red/Picture no. 111, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Basel] [. . .] very good scale – a v. good project – also some new ones where the black lines traverse the colours.

I was surprised that technically some of his work looks positively hand-done compared to my last lot – he has made a progress – some extra purpose & tension – also my work seemed v. like his pt of view when I was in London but really it is very different – almost closer to Jean’s than mine, particularly in colour.

Letter to Barbara Hepworth, Sun 29 [December 1935]

His studio wasn’t white. It was an astonishing room: very high and narrow [. . .] with a thin partition between it and a dancing school and with a window on the third floor looking down on to thousands of railway lines emerging from and converging into Gare Montparnasse [. . .] & he’d stuck up on the walls different sized squares painted with primary red, blue and yellow – & white and pale grey – they’d been built up during those 25 years. The paintings were entirely new to me and I did not understand them on this first visit (& indeed only partially understood them on my second visit a year later) they were merely, for me, a part of the very lovely feeling generated in the room.

Letter to John Summerson, Chy an Kerris / Jan 3 [1944]

Painted Relief (1941)

The Surprise of Picasso

The thing that most surprised me about Picasso is the absolutely endless good nature & busting good health he has – his eyes smile, laugh really all the time with the deepest enjoyment I have ever seen in anybody. He is an immensely living affair. His flat where he lives is v. uninteresting in its shapes & colours – & his studio – a small apartment the flight higher – is the most incredible litter, 1,000s & 1,000s of things newspaper & old papers old paint, brushes lying in the paint, canvasses [sic] boards etchings drawings old cigarette boxes (in which he mixes his paints) tubs & wire, & masks & tin & framed ptgs & little ptgs & immense ptgs all in a room about 2ice the size of the gallery at the Mall! & the whole under 6 layers of dust & rooms opening off – all dark, full of canvases stacked, & more dust – & all as uncomfortable a shape as you can think of.

The difference between Braque’s place & his is quite staggering. His production obviously quite terrific – all the different processes & at it all the time – works a great deal at night – one feels if he was left alone for a moment anywhere the most astonishing new discoveries would occur immediately – there was a series of eight small sheets of paper with three constructions on each, side by side – each one, say 24, a completely new & exciting discovery – & obviously the whole bag of tricks conceived & executed in an hour or 2 hours at most, they were like carvings but he said it would take too long to ‘carve’ them & if he were to use that medium he’d want an army of men & a corporal to whom he could give instructions & even then it would take too long.

He talked & asked a lot about Kit Wood.

Letter to Barbara Hepworth, March 16 [Paris, 1933]

St Ives (1947-52)

Finding Alfred Wallis behind a door

In August 1928 I went over for the day to St Ives with Kit Wood: this was an exciting day, for not only was it the first time I saw St Ives, but on the way back from Porthmeor Beach we passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall, with particularly large nails through the smallest ones. We knocked on the door and inside found Wallis, and the paintings we got from him then were the first he made. In a recent Horizon there was a description of how Klee brought the warp and woof of the canvas to life; in much the same way Wallis did this for an old piece of cardboard: he would cut out the top and bottom of an old cardboard box, and sometimes the four sides, into irregular shapes, using each shape as the key to the movement in a painting, and using the colour and the texture of the board as a key to the colour and the texture. When the painting was completed, what remained of the original board, a brown, a grey, a white or a green board, sometimes in the sky sometimes in the sea, or perhaps in a field or a lighthouse, would be as deeply experienced as the remainder of the painting.

‘Alfred Wallis’, Horizon, vol.7, no.37, January 1943, pp 50–54

I found Wallis’ [sic] door still open & got 2 or 3 of his paintings to cheer him up as he has not done much lately – & got some of his shag & biscuits & a tin of meat for him at that grocers next to Kit. The grocer is a nice chap & evidently keeps an eye on him – says he never has anything the matter with him – & requires very little – & that when he got a cheque from any of us he came in as proud as anything to cash it. He is pretty deaf & I mean to take a paper & pencil next time I go!

Letter to Winfred Nicholson [early September 1939]

May 1950 (early morning from San Gemignano)

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