Ben Nicholson OM

1933 (milk and plain chocolate)


In Tate Britain

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Oil paint and gesso on hardboard
Unconfirmed: 1350 × 820 mm
Lent from a private collection 2016
On long term loan


1933 (milk and plain chocolate) is a large portrait-format painting in which circles, triangles and other forms float in the non-perspectival space of the two-tone brown ground which gives the work its subtitle. A sense of movement is created by the contrasting use of bright blue and red dots and the scored white lines which join the different elements in the composition. Unlike some of Nicholson’s other paintings from the same year (see, for example, 1933 [guitar] [Tate N05125] and Jan 27 1933 [Tate T07595]) which show the influence of Georges Braque (1882–1963) and follow the palette of early cubism, 1933 (milk and plain chocolate) reflected Nicholson’s more recent experiences in Paris where, as noted by the art historian Charles Harrison, ‘the work of [Alexander] Calder, [Jean] Arp and particularly [Joan] Miró provided a stimulus unlike any he had previously encountered’ (Harrison 1969, p.26). Harrison also related the circle forms in such works as 1933 (milk and plain chocolate) to Nicholson’s ‘aptitude and enthusiasm for ball games’ (ibid.). Along with comparable works made in the same year, such as 1933 (hibiscus) and 1933 (painting) which feature a similar palette and the scored lines, 1933 (milk and plain chocolate) precedes the artist’s relief works such as 1933 (6 circles) as well as later, more geometric compositions such as 1945 (composition) and 1945 (two circles). In 1932 Nicholson had begun sharing a studio with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) and the years 1932–4, and the works both artists produced during this time, are characterised by their close working and personal relationship. Shared motifs or techniques include the use of dots or circles (Lewison 1993, p.214); while for Nicholson Hepworth’s influence is visible in the lines etched into the gesso of works such as 1933 (milk and plain chocolate) that would develop into the three-dimensional, sculptural approach taken in his white relief series of paintings, such as 1934 (relief) 1934 [Tate T02314].

1933 (milk and plain chocolate) was exhibited in the inaugural Unit One exhibition at the Mayor Gallery in London in 1934, which was organised by the artist Paul Nash and subsequently toured. This exhibition was the first showing of paintings and sculpture by a group of British artists explicitly dedicated to the modernist principles of abstraction or surrealism and works such as this provided the first glimpse of this type of modernist painting for many in Britain. The reception was often critical, however; writing about the exhibition Jan Gordon of the Observer, for instance, stated, ‘I cannot explain the title of this group of artists, sculptors and architects, for there appears to be little obvious unity or oneness about them’ and, of Nicholson’s work specifically, ‘imagination seems to have become little more than an unexciting ingenuity’ (The Observer, 15 April 1934, p.16). Nevertheless, the exhibition has subsequently been recognised as a pivotal moment for the development of modern art in Britain, in which the works exhibited essentially introduced the way in which British artists were assimilating the varying styles, techniques and theories of continental painting and sculpture. Re-stagings of this group of works in 1978 at Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery and in 1984 at the Mayor Gallery, London both included 1933 (milk and plain chocolate).

Further reading
Charles Harrison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1969.
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993.

Inga Fraser
July 2016

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Display caption

Here Nicholson floats circles, triangles and other shapes on a dark and milk chocolate coloured background. He creates a sense of rhythm and movement through the use of contrasting blue and red dots and straight and arcing scored white lines. These lines were produced by scratching through paint to reveal a white layer beneath. For Nicholson, this technique emphasised the painting’s materials and its status as an object in its own right. In 1934, he described his process as a way of creating ‘a living thing as nice as a poodle with two shining black eyes.’

Gallery label, October 2020

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