Piano Nobile opens an exhibition devoted to Ben Nicholson's reliefs and drawings dating from 1955-1979

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Piano Nobile opens an exhibition devoted to Ben Nicholson's reliefs and drawings dating from 1955-1979
Ben Nicholson, 1965 (Kos - project for free-standing relief wall). Image courtesy Pallant House Gallery.

LONDON.- Piano Nobile is holding an exhibition devoted to Ben Nicholson’s reliefs and drawings dating from 1955-1979 with loans from the British Council, Pallant House and Southampton City Art Gallery, including Greystone, 1966. The exhibition is being co-curated with Dr Lee Beard, Director of the Ben Nicholson Catalogue Raisonné project.

Mid-20th century British artists who had genuinely international reputations can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of them was Ben Nicholson who, in 1958, having just represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, left England to work in Switzerland, where he exhibited with the internationally recognised Beyeler Gallery in Basel and at the Kunsthalle in Bern, which staged a retrospective for him. Shortly after that he was also taken up by the American contemporary art gallery owned by André Emmerich, that boasted representation of some of the leading American Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field painters such as Hans Hofmann and Helen Frankenthaler. Meanwhile in London, he was signed up by Marlborough Fine Art with its stable of international celebrity artists, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Mark Rothko among them.

At the same time his art underwent a slight change of direction. While continuing to draw architecturally themed subjects on paper, these drawings are set against washes of colour and reflect his interest in ancient, timeless sites in Greece and Italy. In his paintings, which he described in a letter to Herbert Read as ‘primitive’, the elements of figuration were pared down to subtle, elegantly spaced geometrical reliefs which anticipate the international trend toward minimalism that took the international art world by storm in the 1970s.

Nicholson, it has been said, displayed shifts in style, form and content when he changed partners. His first wife, Winifred, was replaced by Barbara Hepworth, and she, in the mid-’50s when this exhibition begins, by the German photographer, Felicitas Vogler, after a whirlwind romance.

As related in the catalogue essays for this exhibition, Switzerland provided Nicholson with new vistas and a new material – vast mountains and lakes and hard chipboard to carve his reliefs more precisely. Three-dimensional relief or object making became more his style at this time than painting on canvas. It also placed him in the ’international cool’ bracket – consciously occupying and reflecting space and spatial relationships in the way his friends, like Sir Leslie Martin, were doing in their architecture. As he wrote of his reliefs – ‘they become part of light and space in a room – a part of living.’

In the second half of his life, the period which this exhibition covers, Nicholson retained in his work an association with the avant-garde of his youth. He was always, as Chris Stephens writes ‘essentially a modernist.’ He never abandoned his debt to cubism for instance. His reliefs were a continuation from his first, monochromatic white reliefs of the 1930s, but with added colour and texture. This attention to surface texture and tonal subtlety was part of his evolving view of art as ‘visual poetry’.

While Nicholson is probably best known for the work he made in the first half of his career as a leading British painter who mastered both abstraction and semi-referential figuration, this exhibition provides a rare focus on the work he produced in the second half of his life, after he left Britain for Switzerland. It includes seven landscape and architectural drawings of Greek and Italian subjects made over areas of brushed colour, and ten carved and coloured reliefs.

Long before he died in 1982, Nicholson shared with Henry Moore the distinction of being the leading British modernist in the international art market. This Piano Nobile exhibition comes, therefore, at a time when his reputation, especially that of the second half of his career, is due for reassessment. To quote the art historian, Peter Koroche, in these decades, Nicholson’s work, as this exhibition confirms, reached ‘a new level, demonstrating qualities of wit and bravura as never before.’

An accompanying publication will include original essays by Dr Lee Beard, Peter Khoroche and Chris Stephens, Director Holburne Museum, Bath, as well as previously unpublished material relating to Nicholson and his Swiss period.

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