Picasso & Modern British Art, Picasso & Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson OM, ‘1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)’ c.1923–4
Ben Nicholson OM
1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea) c.1923–4
Tate
© Angela Verren Taunt 2017. All rights reserved, DACS

Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) first encountered Picasso’s work in Paris in the early 1920s. Later, he recalled ‘a cubist Picasso upstairs in Paul Rosenberg’s gallery,’ which he thought ‘completely abstract’. It was made around 1915 and had in the centre ‘an absolutely miraculous green – very deep, very potent and absolutely real.’ For a short period, Nicholson made abstract paintings of his own, based on still life arrangements but clearly influenced by the layered forms of late Cubism.

In the early 1930s Nicholson developed his distinctive version of Cubist composition. In 1932 he and sculptor Barbara Hepworth visited Picasso in Paris. Around this time Nicholson adopted late Cubist devices such as decorative patterning (multi-coloured spots, lines and diamond shapes), intersecting forms to create a flattened pictorial space, a flowing, incised line, and the addition of materials like sand to give his paint a more physical presence. All were techniques learned from Picasso and, importantly, his fellow-Cubist Georges Braque with whom Nicholson would develop a closer personal connection. Nicholson’s use of French objects and text in his compositions signalled his allegiance. In the later 1930s he developed a more purely non-representational art and gravitated towards international abstract painters including Piet Mondrian.