Illustrated companion

Ben Nicholson's enthusiasm for the Cornish primitive, Alfred Wallis, led him to publish an article on his work (in Horizon, January 1943) in which, among other things, he noted the way in which Wallis deliberately cut irregular cardboard shapes from old boxes and composed his pictures to fit these shapes, often also exploiting the colour of the board itself as part of the painting. This gave Wallis's works a strong 'object quality', a vitality and life of their own, especially when simply hung on a nail, or propped on a shelf. Contemporary photographs of Nicholson's studio show 'Guitar' displayed on a mantlepiece in this way. Treating the work as an object in its own right like this strongly reinforces the independence from simply imitative or illusionistic representation which is so important to modern art. Perhaps it should be added that this particular effect is somewhat reduced in the case of both Wallis and Nicholson when their works of this type are seen framed and glazed in museum conditions.

In 'Guitar' the sense of life comes also from the texture of the surface, prepared with a layer of special plaster painted on while wet, from the physical bite of the incised lines, and perhaps above all from the nervous, bounding, calligraphic quality of the line itself which makes such a vivid presence of the guitar. Nicholson plays a Cubist game with the relationship between the material, wood, of which guitars are made, the fact that the picture is evidently on a wooden panel, and the fact that the wood colour and surface that we see is not natural but beautifully created by the artist. The fluently incised wavy line at the top of the panel serves a decorative compositional function but also describes a distant hilly horizon suggesting that Nicholson has imagined the guitar placed in front of a window. The red-striped white form might be a pottery jug, although its stripes also echo the frets of the guitar. Evidence of the influence of Surrealism on Nicholson at this time, is his description of this work as 'the scratched Surrealist guitar'.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.175