Ben Nicholson OM

1937 (relief)


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Not on display
Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Oil paint on board
Unconfirmed: 230 x 267 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995


This small, brightly coloured relief in red, blue, black, grey and white is an intimate statement on a theme which Nicholson also explored on a larger scale. The artist produced his first reliefs in 1933. He said that his breakthrough into relief occurred accidentally, while working on a painting. He was following his usual practice of incising the surface but at the intersection of two lines he noticed that a chip fell out. He exploited the accident and found himself working in relief (ironically, since by this time he had almost abandoned the depiction of depth in his paintings). Nicholson began executing white reliefs in 1934, possibly resulting from a desire to concentrate on pure form at the expense of colour. Although he continued to produce white reliefs throughout the 1930s, he seems to have recognised their limitations and returned to making colourful paintings and reliefs in the closing years of the decade.

Further reading:
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1991, pp.12-19

Terry Riggs
October 1997

Display caption

Although many of Nicholson's reliefs were large, he also explored the possibilities of this type of work on a tiny scale. Because of their apparent austerity and relationship with modern architecture, Nicholson's reliefs have often been seen as cold and mechanistic, but on close inspection their handmade qualities come through in brush marks and surface irregularities.

Gallery label, April 2012

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