Illustrated companion

Ben Nicholson was the only English painter to develop a pure abstract art of international quality between the two World Wars. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, England became very cut off from the continental avant-garde: Nicholson recalls visiting Paris as a young artist in 1921 and seeing his first Cubist painting: 'I remember suddenly coming on a Cubist Picasso at the end of a small upstairs room at Paul Rosenberg's gallery ... it was what seemed to me then completely abstract'. Over the next ten years, influenced by Cubism, Nicholson developed a personal art notable for its beauty of line, colour and surface texture. In the early 1930s he began to make completely abstract work and his extraordinarily refined aesthetic sensiblity found its most extreme expression in a series of pure white reliefs [including Tate Gallery T00049] and, a little later, in a group of pure abstract paintings of which this is the most serene and majestic. It is to some extent based on Mondrian's principle of using only rectangular form and primary colour and non-colour (black and white). But Nicholson does not use a grid of vertical and horizontal lines to contain his colours, which therefore float free, and he furthermore permits himself several different, delicately modulated, tones of blue. The result is both monumental and poetic. Nicholson underlined the poetic nature of his work in his Notes on Abstract Art published in 1941. 'The problems dealt with in "abstract" art relate 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.'

As has often been pointed out, there is a particular emphasis on light in this and other abstract works by Nicholson that ultimately has its source in a response to the natural world. It has also been suggested that the structure of 'Painting 1937' has its source in earlier paintings of still-life subjects of simple objects on a rectangular table-top.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.147