Ben Nicholson OM

1934 project for Massine for Beethoven 7th Symphony Ballet


Not on display

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Oil paint and graphite on board
Support: 155 × 200 × 6 mm
frame: 172 × 212 × 19 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995


Nicholson had first met Léonide Massine, the Russian choreographer and dancer, in London in 1927 during a tour of the Ballets Russes. Six years later, again in London, he twice saw Massine's Jeux d'Enfants with sets by Joan Miró. Finally, in the summer of 1934, with the encouragement of Adrian Stokes, the art and ballet critic, Massine asked Nicholson to design the set for a ballet based on Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. This design for a backdrop is one of three known studies Nicholson made for the ballet.

Nicholson wrote to his estranged wife, Winifred, that Massine 'had made straight for exactly this business of clarté that you talk of. I have done it all except the costumes. There are 4 movements it is to Beethoven's 7th symphony & I have 4 white reliefs & there is an abstract drop curtain. I find Beethoven's thought very fine…I like working with him' (quoted in Lewison 1993, p.219). Describing the reliefs, Nicholson wrote, 'They are white & should appear like a Greek temple; a slight distance out from the back of the stage - there are to be no wings but a pale grey curtain (as like "space" as possible) all round.' The inscription in the lower half indicating the stage is unique among the known pieces Nicholson produced for the project.

The freehand geometric shapes and rough carving of the board are reminiscent of Nicholson's carved reliefs of 1933-34. The rectangles and circles are arranged to create a complex spatial play between planes. For example, the large central trapezium appears to lie on top of another geometric form, the edge of which is visible along the right side of the trapezium. Beneath this is another plane seemingly overlaid by all the upper elements. However, where the circle penetrating the trapezium sits in relation to these various planes is unclear.

The linking of different forms of art within the project was in keeping with Nicholson's commitment as a founding member of Unit One, a small group of artists established in 1933, to interdisciplinary collaboration between the arts. In this context it is significant that in his letter to Winifred, Nicholson considered himself to be working as much with Beethoven and the medium of classical music as Massine and avant-garde ballet.

In the end, Massine rejected Nicholson's designs on the grounds that the sketches meant nothing to him. Four years later in Monte Carlo the ballet's world premiere was given before heavily classicising sets designed by Christian Bérard.

The work formerly belonged to Sir John Summerson, the architectural historian and the author of the first monograph on Ben Nicholson, published by Penguin Books in 1948. Summerson was married to Elizabeth Hepworth, sister of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was Nicholson's second wife. Other works from the Massine Project include 1934 (first scheme for Massine ballet) (Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, reproduced Ben Nicholson 1993, p.147 and 219, in colour) and 1934 (act-drop curtain for Beethoven 7th symphony ballet) (private collection, reproduced Lewison 1993, p.146 and 219, in colour).

Further reading:
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, pp.218-219, reproduced p.218,
Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1993, pp.142-147
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1991, p.17

Toby Treves
8 June 2000

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Display caption

This is one of three known studies that Nicholson made as designs for a ballet to be produced by Leonide Massine, the Russian choreographer. Nicholson first met Massine in London in 1927 and had attended the productions of the Russian Ballet. Massine asked Nicholson to design a ballet for him in the summer of 1934, and Nicholson produced four small white reliefs as designs for backdrops and an abstract drop curtain. This is one of those reliefs. He made them on a small scale so that he could send them to Massine in Paris by post. Massine ultimately rejected the designs and used the French artist Christian Bérard instead.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

Ben Nicholson’s 1934 project for Massine for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony Ballet is reasonably simple in design . It consists of a shaped piece of 3mm card that has been painted white and then adhered to a grey mounting board at the rear. The baseboard was then elaborated with pencil work. The relief form was carved to provide four planes, with the forward-most planes being 'excavated' to give three recessed disc shapes. The painting is still in its original grey painted grey and glazed frame.

The white and grey paints are both assumed to be oil-based and may be housepaints. Nicholson is known to have used such housepaints on other works at this time, 1935 (white relief) for example. Housepaints are often characterised by their ability to flow after application to produce a flat surface and few brushstrokes are visible in this piece. Both colours appear matt and opaque.

The painting is signed and dated on the back. Its full title and the inscription 'scale 1 inch to 8 ft' are also written in the same hand.

The painting is still in a reasonable condition despite its fragile state. The edges of the baseboard are rather worn and the frame is very weak. However, providing the painting is kept in stable environment and handled correctly it should not deteriorate further.

Peter Booth and Tom Learner
August 2000

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