Ben Nicholson OM

1936 (white relief sculpture - version 1)


Not on display

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Plaster on wooden base
Object: 230 × 255 × 158 mm
Purchased 1997


Around 1936, while sharing a studio with Barbara Hepworth, Nicholson produced the only two known sculptures of his career, of which this is one. The main differences between this work and c.1936 (sculpture) (Tate T04119) lie in the materials and composition. While c.1936 (sculpture) was carved from mahogany and painted white, 1936 (white relief sculpture - version 1) was carved from white plaster. The continuation from earlier carved reliefs of the circle and rectangle motif in the plaster sculpture is not evident among the interlocking cubes of c.1936 (sculpture).

The piece consists of two elements: a block of wood painted grey which forms the base and a white block of plaster above. In places the paint on the base has peeled or been rubbed down to reveal the wood's grain. The surface of the carved plaster is slightly pitted and fine filing marks are visible all over. The edges are very faintly rounded and a little jagged. The cream white of the plaster is mottled. Looking at the object face on, the carving suggests several overlapping layers of irregular geometric shapes. The front plane is L shaped, the vertical element of which narrows towards the top and is fractionally oblique to the horizontal element. The next plane is recessed a few millimetres, the only visible section of which is the small rectangle to the left of the horizontal element of the front plane. Next, much more deeply recessed, is a large rectangle framed on both bottom and right-hand edge by the two previous planes. Into this is carved a circular dish shape. The circle is placed off centre in the rectangle. Moving clockwise around the sculpture, the side on view presents an L shaped front plane. The next plane, recessed a few centimetres, is only seen as a small rectangle, The back of the block is unmodified except for the artist's name and date incised in the lower right corner. It is evident from this angle that the whole block is slightly lopsided. The last side is a plain, irregular rectangle.

Many critics drew comparisons between Nicholson's three-dimensional works and modern architecture. The predominance of white, a hallmark of such architecture, and the arrangement of geometric forms in dynamic relation to one another supported such readings. Indeed the Modern Paintings for Modern Rooms exhibition at the Duncan Miller Showrooms in 1936 presented this work as a complimentary ornament to modern architecture. As a member of Unit One Nicholson had actively sought a rapprochement between architecture, painting and sculpture.

However, in his statements for Unit One 1934 and Circle 1937 Nicholson, a Christian Scientist, linked painting with religion. The intuitive perception of spiritual reality was central to his beliefs. The white reliefs may have been an attempt to realise this reality. The rough finish and eccentric arrangement of irregular geometric shapes of 1936 (white relief sculpture - version 1) may be evidence of a similar, intuitive exercise.

Further reading:
Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1993, p.138
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, reproduced p.152, pl.68 (colour)
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford 1991, reproduced p.83, pl.82 (colour)

Toby Treves
May 2000

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Display caption

This work, in carved plaster, is one of only two known surviving sculptures by Nicholson. Both are in the Tate collection. The second is a painted hardwood carving, 'c.1936 (sculpture)', displayed nearby. Nicholson's practice of carving reliefs led him naturally to explore the possibility of making sculpture, which he was encouraged to do while sharing a studio with Barbara Hepworth. This piece was shown at the Duncan Miller Showrooms, London, in 1936, in an exhibition called 'Modern Painting for Modern Rooms', which was intended to demonstrate the integration of contemporary art with the contemporary habitat. Nicholson reported that he made four sculptures in March 1936, two in wood and two in plaster.

Gallery label, September 2004

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