Jan 27 1933 is one of a small number of painted collages that Ben Nicholson made in London in the first months of 1933. It also belongs to a group of works that drew upon the artist's visit to Dieppe in northern France in August 1932. These demonstrate his interest in a Cubist depiction of space, the use of collage developing his fascination with the inter-penetration of successive spatial planes that would lead to the production of carved reliefs later in 1933. Specifically, this spatial investigation, and the use of decorative elements combined with sombre colouring, reflect the artist's interest in the work of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Although already familiar with the Frenchman's painting, Nicholson befriended him following their meeting in Paris in the month this work was made. Nicholson's Dieppe works are characterised by the inclusion of fragmented French words, which refer stylistically to the Cubist collages of Braque and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), while investing the works with a certain continental exoticism. A 1933 photograph of Nicholson's studio shows 27 Jan 1933 next to reproductions of paintings by Braque (reproduced Bowness, p.48).

This collage is, ostensibly, a still-life. Sections of newsprint represent a plate with two fish on the left and a mug on the right, while a cake doily playfully defines a second plate above. It is also an exercise in the simultaneous suggestion and negation of pictorial space that was a characteristic of much modernist painting. While the layering of paper and of painted forms creates the illusion of spatial recession, the materiality of the collage, the spotty decorative patterning and the incised lines that reveal the white ground emphasise the flatness of the painting's surface. The pencil-drawn shadow around the lower fish demonstrates Nicholson's willingness to play wittily with such technical concerns. Conversely, the strong incisions across the composition may be read as a schematic torso, with the two lower collage elements thus becoming breasts and genitalia. In numerous works made during 1932 and 1933 Nicholson celebrated his new relationship with Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) through such sensuous references.

The playfulness of Nicholson's use of collage has led Jan 27 1933 to be described as 'a comic version' (Bowness, p.46) of the earlier painting 1932 (Au Chat Botté) 1932 (Manchester City Art Galleries), named after a shoe shop in Dieppe called Au Chat Botté (Puss in Boots). The painted lettering in that painting derived from the printed paper that is in the top left-hand corner of Jan 27 1933, just as the title and contents of the piece from Le Quotidien towards the top had appeared in 1932 (Le Quotidien) 1932 (Tate T00743). The papers were collected during the artist's stay in Dieppe from 5 to 9 August 1932. The newspapers' contents are dominated by two issues which were probably on his mind: the increasingly tense world political situation and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In France, the summer of 1932 had seen the assassination of the president, Paul Doumer, which was followed by a series of short-lived governments. In Germany, a fortnight before Nicholson's visit to Dieppe, Hitler's National Socialists had become the largest parliamentary political party. In the collage, the issue of Le Journal that forms the lower plate includes a reference to Marshal Pétain, who would later lead the collaborationist French government during the German occupation (1940-4). The fragment of Le Quotidien towards the top refers to Bolivia, which was then at war with Paraguay. Another fragment nearby refers to Nazi outrages or attacks (attentats). In contrast to these ominous political messages, the small piece of the Sunday 7 August edition of Le Journal reports the American athlete William Carr's victory in the men's 400m race at Los Angeles.

While the contents of the collage elements may be considered in the interpretation of the work, Nicholson's partial covering of them with further applications of paint undermines their ability to communicate coherently. The early photograph of the work indicates that the newspaper fragments were much whiter, being closer in tone to the doily, which has not discoloured to the same degree. As a consequence, the lettering - particularly the red of Le Quotidien - would have stood out more, enhancing its formal function.

Further Reading:

Sophie Bowness, 'Ben Nicholson and Georges Braque: Dieppe and Varengevilles in the 1930s', The Dieppe Connection: The Town and its Artists from Turner to Braque, exhibition catalogue, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton 1992, pp.44-52 (reproduced pp.46 and 48)
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993
Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London 1993 (reproduced p.94)
Sarah Jane Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, London 2000

Chris Stephens
June 2001