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Exhibition The alluring appeal of the quintessential British modernist

Ben Nicholson: From the Studio
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex

WHEN Ivan Turgenev wrote in 1861 that “the drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over 10 pages in a book,” he pointed to the separateness of the two experiences.

The work of British painter Ben Nicholson has the rare quality of being formally sophisticated and at the same time visually direct and approachable — devoid of mystique, it “speaks” for itself — hence requiring few, if any, words to describe it and certainly none to unravel its “meaning.”

Nicholson himself observed once in reference to his own work: “The kind of painting which I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is musical and architectural,” adding that “whether this visual relationship is slightly more or slightly less abstract is, for me, beside the point.”

When in Paris in 1930s he spent time with Georges Braque, Hans Arp, Constantin Brancusi and Piet Mondrian, and the conversations had assisted significantly the way he formally structured his paintings from then on. He was achieving a synthesis of observed visual information and linear abstraction.

The Pallant House exhibition, which also includes assorted paraphernalia gathered by the artist at the studio, demonstrates the importance of still life in Nicholson’s career which spanned six decades — he used it as a vehicle for formal experimentation with composition, colour and shapes and revitalised this oldest of genres, losing nothing in translation into the idiom of modernist art.

Although diligent in the execution there is, simultaneously, a lighthearted sense playfulness echoing through the work as seen in the record of a trip to France with two fish served on a dish, a bottle and cup.

There is an evident life-affirming force present here and one that is as compelling as it is edifying. A revitalising tonic for these troubled times of ours.

In 1952 Nicholson won first prize at the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh. He was awarded the first Guggenheim International painting prize in 1956, and the international prize for painting at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1957. He accepted the (Commonwealth) Order of Merit in 1968, and received the Rembrandt Prize from the Goethe Foundation, Basel, in 1974. He died aged 87 in 1982, in London.

Ends October 24, 2021, pallant.org.uk.

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