Ben Nicholson OM

1935 (white relief)


On display at Tate Britain

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Painted wood
Object: 1016 x 1664 mm
frame: 1076 x 1717 x 85 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Contemporary Art Society 1955

Display caption

Ben Nicholson was, with his second wife Barbara Hepworth, a leading figure in the international modern movement in Britain. With artists in continental Europe and North America such as Mondrian, Moholy-Nagy and Calder they worked together to achieve and promote an art that was abstract, synthesised with architecture and design. In defiance of the increasingly antagonistic nationalism engulfing Europe, position was explicitly internationalist and utopian. The compositional quietude of Nicholson’s white reliefs provided an aesthetic model for a possible social harmony.

Gallery label, September 2016

Catalogue entry

T00049 WHITE RELIEF 1935

Inscr. ‘Ben Nicholson 1935’ on reverse.
Carved out of mahogany mounted on plywood and painted white, 40×65 1/2 (101·5×166).
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) with the assistance of the Contemporary Art Society 1955.
Exh: Lefevre Gallery, September–October 1935 (one of Nos.8–19; repr.); Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939 (Decorative Arts, 779); Tate Gallery, June–July 1955 (21).
Lit: Herbert Read, ‘Ben Nicholson's Recent Work’, and Jan Tschichold, ‘On Ben Nicholson's Reliefs’, in Axis, II, April 1935, pp.15–18, repr. p.15; Paul Nash, ‘Ben Nicholson's Carved Reliefs’ in Architectural Review, LXXVIII, 1935, p.143; J. M. Richards, ‘Ben Nicholson at the Lefevre’ in Axis, IV, November 1935, pp.21–4; John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Lewis to Moore, 1956, p.280, repr. pl.27.
Repr: Read, I, 1948, pl.91; Summerson, 1948, pl.20.

Repainted in 1955. Ben Nicholson's first abstract relief was executed in December 1933, his first strictly geometrical ‘white reliefs’ in 1934, e.g. Read, I, 1948, pl.69. Of T00049 the artist has written: ‘This relief contains one circle drawn by hand and one by compass and therefore represents the transition between the more freely drawn and more “mathematical” relief’ (letter of 13 September 1958).

The interest aroused by this new development was reflected in the articles listed above. The artist has described his approach to non-representational art in ‘Notes on Abstract Art’, Horizon, IV, 1941, pp.272–6 (reprinted in Art of this Century, New York, 1942, pp.93, 143–6, and revised version, in Read, I, 1948, pp.23–7; extracts in exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1955): ‘... The problems dealt with in “abstract” art are related to the interplay of forces ...the geometrical forms often used by abstract artists do not indicate, as has been thought, a conscious and intellectual, mathematical approach - a square and a circle in art are nothing in themselves and are alive only in the instinctive and inspirational use an artist can make of them in expressing a poetic idea.... You can create a most exciting tension between these forces...’; in reliefs, ‘you can take a rectangular surface and cut a section of it one plane lower and then in the higher plane cut a circle deeper than, but without touching, the lower plane. One is immediately conscious that this circle has pierced the lower plane without having touched it ... and this creates space. The awareness of this is felt subconsciously and it is useless to approach it intellectually as this, so far from helping, only acts as a barrier.’

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II