The early 1920s were a highly prolific and experimental period for Ben Nicholson. It was during those years that he broke away from the sophisticated naturalism of the preceding decade and developed an interest in modern French and early Italian painting. 1921-circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano) is one of the few surviving works from that time.
Between1920 and 1922 Nicholson, with his wife, Winifred, spent the winters in a villa overlooking Lake Lugano, Switzerland. Cortivallo, the subject of this painting, was one of the nearby villages. The picture was probably painted indoors from an outdoor sketch of the motif.
In its appearance and much of its technique the picture is indebted to Paul Cézanne's landscape paintings of the 1880s and 1890s, in particular those of Mont Ste Victoire. The cubistic rendering of buildings, rough modelling of forms and unfinished brushwork are all reminiscent of Cézanne's style. It has also been suggested that the restrained use of clear, delicate colour and simplified forms may have been a response to the work of early Renaissance artists, for example Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello. Nicholson's admiration for these painters is well documented.
The scale of the two centrally located trees relative to the landscape behind them and the winding path create an illusion of sharp spatial recession within the painting. Variations of tone and colour serve to distinguish the buildings and establish a sense of space between them. Coexisting with this attention to spatial depth is an interest in the actual materiality of the paint and canvas. For example, the use of deep incisions into the paint to render the central trees gives the trees a very physical appearance while simultaneously advertising the paint as an autonomous physical substance. Elsewhere, the scraping away of paint in the lower half to reveal underpainting and the display of rough brushmarks in the upper half, highlight the artifice of naturalism by drawing attention to the materials of painting. This may be seen as an extension into the realm of painting of the truth to materials aesthetic practised at this time by Henry Moore and other avant-garde sculptors.
The deliberate shunning of received notions of good technique may be seen in the wider context of a general post-war quest for the 'authentic' and 'natural'. These were concepts which Nicholson continued to pursue in his landscape paintings throughout the twenties.
Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1993, reproduced p.25, pl.18 (colour)
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, reproduced p.103, pl.3 (colour)
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1991, reproduced p.32, pl.6 (colour)
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Technique and condition
The painting is in artists' oil colours and graphite pencil on a stretched commercially oil primed, linen canvas. The back of the canvas has been obliterated with white paint while it was on the stretcher.
There are three distinct layers of painting. The first layer is a dull pink application of brushmarked paint which apparently covers all the stretched face of the canvas and the tacking edges. Over this are the remnants of a painting which has been scraped down and coated with an unpigmented layer of painting medium or varnish before painting the final image in oil paint of relatively stiff consistency incised with pencil drawing. The canvas has been restretched during or after painting.
The red, umber and blue paints have developed fine, contraction cracks in the troughs of the brush marks which do not penetrate into the earlier layers. The overall condition of the painting is good with only a few minor surface blemishes. It is structurally fragile due to the weak adhesion between the paint layers which has led to some minor losses of paint from around the edges and the development of brittle cracks. Abraded areas of paint and distortions in the canvas are the result of Nicholson's reworking of the paint surface and the uneven contraction of the paint films as they aged.
The painting is not varnished and is in its original glazed frame, designed by Ben Nicholson and repainted to its original colour by Winifred Nicholson in c.1961 (c.f. inscriptions by W Nicholson on frame back). The grey, decorator's gloss paint applied by Winifred Nicholson covers a damaged layer of darker grey paint.
The painting was surface cleaned and the fitting in the frame improved on acquisition.