In 1958, Ben Nicholson left St.Ives, the small Cornish coastal town that had been his home for two decades, and moved to a new life in the mountains of Switzerland. He had recently met, and married, the photographer Felicitas Vogler, and his work was achieving huge acclaim around the world. The move heralded an Indian summer for the artist, opening up the next chapter in a career already filled with achievement.
The son of painters William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde, Ben had, from the early 1920s, been at the forefront of the avant-garde in Britain, and into the 1930s his connections with the leading lights of European Modernism grew. By the outbreak of WWII, Nicholson’s standing was such that it was at his invitation that Mondrian had come to London, and alongside Henry Moore and Nicholson’s then wife Barbara Hepworth he was one of the leading artistic figures in Britain. After the war, his reputation spread across the Atlantic and his standing grew, with many of the most important private and institutional collections in America jostling to acquire his best work.
The move to Switzerland simultaneously gave Nicholson freedom in many aspects of his life. It removed him from the internal politics of the British art world and the rivalries that had emerged with his peers. It exposed him to a landscape he had known in his youth. It brought him a large new studio that allowed him to make large-scale paintings. It gave him a new expansiveness in his work that synthesised so much that had gone before it and created a magisterial style. Oct 61 (Mycenae-axe-blue) emerged from just this time.
Just how much of an impact the move to Switzerland made on Nicholson’s work can be seen if one compares a large-scale painting from the years immediately preceding his departure from St.Ives. August 1956 (Val d’Orcia) (Tate, London). In 1956 this celebrated painting won the first Guggenheim International Award and is a fine example of Nicholson’s style during a period when his international reputation was growing rapidly. Of relatively large size, it however remains very much a still life, the flattened table-top and the sinuous line of the objects spreading naturally across the composition. With its rubbed and textured surface, such a painting is a worthy successor to earlier paintings such as 1932-40 (still life) (Piers Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney). Yet almost immediately he arrived in Switzerland, Nicholson seemed to embark on what almost appears a purification of his imagery. The forms become larger and more monumental, even in physically small works. The palette becomes simpler, using a range of rich, natural feeling colours, thinly rubbed or painted over the worked surfaces, creating a rather timeless feel. Of course, as with so many elements of Nicholson’s work at this time, such techniques have earlier precedents, such as in Painted Relief, 1935 (Private Collection), but the combination of the colour, openness, low relief and overall space within these paintings does demonstrate a remarkable new departure for an artist already into his seventh decade.
How much was attributable to his new surroundings has been much debated by writers on Nicholson, but it is clear that even from soon after the new works began to be exhibited, there was recognition of a definite development from the past. In 1967, Geoffrey Grigson, who had known Nicholson since the 1930s and was thus very well-placed to see these reliefs in the context of his wider career, saw a very distinct relationship between ideas and tones suggested by the landscape and the forms and colours of the work. Nicholson confirmed this in a letter to Grigson in response, but felt that the sources were less derived from a particular landscape than being the manifestation of an idea that drew on all landscape experiences of the past. He particularly noted that certain colours are difficult to locate in a place where they both suggest and do not suggest their source, and whilst his statement is with reference to 1966 (Zennor Quoit 2) (The Phillips Collection, Washington DC), it could equally be applied to Oct 61 (Mycenae-axe-blue). Discussing the central blue area, which Grigson had seen as a form of ‘window’, Nicholson felt it came from ‘…something much more distant – more from one’s imagination than the blue window rectangle. I see it as something connected with the sea on Zennor side of W.Penwith but even that is too direct a statement. It must be mental & must not be directly sea or sky & that is why it’s a difficult colour to grapple with – it is always trying to become sea or sky?’ (Nicholson, private correspondence with Geoffrey Grigson, 21 April 1967, quoted in Peter Koroche, Ben Nicholson: Drawings and Painted Reliefs, Lund Humphries, London 2002, p.88).
It is perhaps Nicholson’s success in perfecting this balancing act with the net of ideas that make up both his and our own memories of such sources is what makes Oct 61 (Mycenae-axe-blue) such a powerful painting. The apparently simple combination of forms creates both harmony and disturbance, and should one wish to draw suggestions of sources, including landscape, there are opportunities. Yet one is very well aware that this is at heart also an abstract painting, an heir to the great essays in non-figurative abstraction of the inter-war period.
Oct 61 (Mycenae-axe-blue) has been essentially unknown to collectors and scholars for almost half a century. We are delighted that we are now able to bring this truly monumental work by one of the great modernist artists of the twentieth century back to their attention where it can only help enhance our understanding of his achievements.
An American industrialist, patron of modern architecture, key figure in the American civil rights movement and a leader in the Christian ecumenical movement, Joseph Irwin Miller (1909-2004) was a man that, as NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar said, ‘applied his faith to all areas of his life’. Miller was instrumental in the rise of the Cummins Corporation and giving his hometown of Columbus, Indiana international status with its breath-taking architecture by some of the leading figures of the day. After serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific in the Second World War, Miller helped to establish the National Council of Churches, later serving as its first lay president. He chaired the NCC’s Commission on Religion and Race, which coordinated organised religious support for strong civil rights legislation, and jointly sponsored the March on Washington in 1963. He led religious delegations that met with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to push for the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Miller was also a key figure in politics and industry, advising President John F. Kennedy and later South African president Nelson Mandela. Indeed when Esquire magazine ran his profile on their front cover in 1967, the headline read 'This man ought to be president of the United States'. Miller amassed an outstanding collection of British, European and North American art throughout his life, and it was with his typical generosity and benevolence that he gifted the present work in 1966 to the Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis.
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