Ben Nicholson OM

Jan 27 1933


Not on display

Ben Nicholson OM 1894–1982
Oil paint, graphite, paper doily and printed paper on canvas
Support: 891 × 683 × 29 mm
frame: 1113 × 908 × 63 mm
Purchased with assistance from Mrs John Chandris and a group of donors 2000


Jan 27 1933 is one of a small number of painted collages that Ben Nicholson made in London in the first months of 1933. It also belongs to a group of works that drew upon the artist's visit to Dieppe in northern France in August 1932. These demonstrate his interest in a Cubist depiction of space, the use of collage developing his fascination with the inter-penetration of successive spatial planes that would lead to the production of carved reliefs later in 1933. Specifically, this spatial investigation, and the use of decorative elements combined with sombre colouring, reflect the artist's interest in the work of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Although already familiar with the Frenchman's painting, Nicholson befriended him following their meeting in Paris in the month this work was made. Nicholson's Dieppe works are characterised by the inclusion of fragmented French words, which refer stylistically to the Cubist collages of Braque and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), while investing the works with a certain continental exoticism. A 1933 photograph of Nicholson's studio shows 27 Jan 1933 next to reproductions of paintings by Braque (reproduced Bowness, p.48).

This collage is, ostensibly, a still-life. Sections of newsprint represent a plate with two fish on the left and a mug on the right, while a cake doily playfully defines a second plate above. It is also an exercise in the simultaneous suggestion and negation of pictorial space that was a characteristic of much modernist painting. While the layering of paper and of painted forms creates the illusion of spatial recession, the materiality of the collage, the spotty decorative patterning and the incised lines that reveal the white ground emphasise the flatness of the painting's surface. The pencil-drawn shadow around the lower fish demonstrates Nicholson's willingness to play wittily with such technical concerns. Conversely, the strong incisions across the composition may be read as a schematic torso, with the two lower collage elements thus becoming breasts and genitalia. In numerous works made during 1932 and 1933 Nicholson celebrated his new relationship with Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) through such sensuous references.

The playfulness of Nicholson's use of collage has led Jan 27 1933 to be described as 'a comic version' (Bowness, p.46) of the earlier painting 1932 (Au Chat Botté) 1932 (Manchester City Art Galleries), named after a shoe shop in Dieppe called Au Chat Botté (Puss in Boots). The painted lettering in that painting derived from the printed paper that is in the top left-hand corner of Jan 27 1933, just as the title and contents of the piece from Le Quotidien towards the top had appeared in 1932 (Le Quotidien) 1932 (Tate T00743). The papers were collected during the artist's stay in Dieppe from 5 to 9 August 1932. The newspapers' contents are dominated by two issues which were probably on his mind: the increasingly tense world political situation and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In France, the summer of 1932 had seen the assassination of the president, Paul Doumer, which was followed by a series of short-lived governments. In Germany, a fortnight before Nicholson's visit to Dieppe, Hitler's National Socialists had become the largest parliamentary political party. In the collage, the issue of Le Journal that forms the lower plate includes a reference to Marshal Pétain, who would later lead the collaborationist French government during the German occupation (1940-4). The fragment of Le Quotidien towards the top refers to Bolivia, which was then at war with Paraguay. Another fragment nearby refers to Nazi outrages or attacks (attentats). In contrast to these ominous political messages, the small piece of the Sunday 7 August edition of Le Journal reports the American athlete William Carr's victory in the men's 400m race at Los Angeles.

While the contents of the collage elements may be considered in the interpretation of the work, Nicholson's partial covering of them with further applications of paint undermines their ability to communicate coherently. The early photograph of the work indicates that the newspaper fragments were much whiter, being closer in tone to the doily, which has not discoloured to the same degree. As a consequence, the lettering - particularly the red of Le Quotidien - would have stood out more, enhancing its formal function.

Further Reading:

Sophie Bowness, 'Ben Nicholson and Georges Braque: Dieppe and Varengevilles in the 1930s', The Dieppe Connection: The Town and its Artists from Turner to Braque, exhibition catalogue, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton 1992, pp.44-52 (reproduced pp.46 and 48)
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993
Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, London 1993 (reproduced p.94)
Sarah Jane Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, London 2000

Chris Stephens
June 2001

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Display caption

In this work, Nicholson combines collage and painting to investigate different methods of pictorial representation. Sections of newspaper are used to represent a plate with two fish on the left, and a mug on the right. Another piece of newspaper, marked with the title Le Quotidien, appears to straightforwardly represent a newspaper on a table. More ambiguously, the paper doily may represent a second plate, or simply a paper doily. By creating these playful illusions, Nicholson presents everyday perception as fluid and uncertain.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The support for Jan 27, 1933 is a single piece of linen canvas stretched over a wooden panel. The one centimetre thick wooden panel is supported by a fixed, commercial strainer. The reverse of the panel is coated with a layer of paint wash and has a newspaper article and numerous labels attached to it with white glue. The canvas is attached to the panel with iron tacks on the outer edge of the strainer bars. The fabric is weak and embrittled. There is a hole on the front, bottom edge in the centre of the painting that appears to have original paint covering its edges. The surface has undulating deformation related to the varying thicknesses and materials on the surface.

The artist applied a white ground layer to the front face of the canvas. It has inclusions and bumps which contribute to the surface texture. The top reverse edge of the canvas is just visible and has a thin layer of grey paint, which may be a re-used canvas.

The materials used to create the image on the front face include black, browns, sienna, yellow ochre, white and grey oil paints, graphite, paper collage, white paper doily and black and red printing inks on printed newspaper.

Black, brown, grey and sienna paint was applied to the surface using a brush. The paint is flat and matte in appearance and appears to have been applied in thin layers. A fine and a thicker rounded, pointed tool were used to incise and abrade the surface. This exposed the white gesso and canvas below the paint. The pressure applied was hard enough to penetrate and abrade the canvas in some areas.

Paper collage was added and painted over. A white paper doily was applied and “Made in England” can be seen impressed on it in raking light. Its exposed lacework is discontinuously covered in white paint. Pieces of printed newspaper were also attached. The adhesive(s) used are undetermined but they have soaked the paper in areas making it hard and brittle. The top left collage element was painted over with a matte off-white paint to imitate the paper and the lettering reworked. Simple fish designs were drawn in graphite on plain paper, cut out and glued to the surface. A handle was drawn in graphite on another piece of newsprint to create a mug.

The upper paint layers are also generally flat and matte in appearance. On the left side the artist painted a grey strip onto which he daubed black and sienna paint. The daubs of paint are slightly thicker and hold the brush texture. Elsewhere, the texture of the canvas and the inclusions in the ground layer are visible.

The paint is in generally good condition. It is cohesive and well bound to the surface. There are a few areas with small flaky losses, particularly in the layered sections. There is some abrasion and wear with a few scratches and rubs.

The collage elements are more fragile and there are many areas where the newspaper is raised and appears insecure or has been torn, due to contracting adhesive in some cases. In the areas with a blistered appearance the paper is stiff and secure. There is some fragile delamination in areas of the doily.

The newspaper has discoloured and darkened due to adhesive stain and oxidation. The red inks on the newspaper are still visible but faded.

This painting is generally stable, however it will continue to be fragile due to the nature of its component materials and how they were put together. It will be kept in a glazed frame, in low light conditions for its continuing protection.

Patricia Smithen
July 2001

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