Unseen in public since it was exhibited by the British Council in Japan in 1952, Two Fishes marks a pivotal period of development for Ben Nicholson when he was on the cusp of turning to the pure abstraction of his first white reliefs created only a year later in 1933. Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth had travelled extensively to Paris and Northern Europe in 1932 and had visited the studios of Mondrian, Brancusi and Arp as well as Picasso and Braque, whose cubist lessons in transforming three dimensional form into the two dimensional space of analytical then synthetic cubism Nicholson readily absorbed into his own visual language. Indeed, it was an extremely inspirational summer for Nicholson and the present work, together with 1932 (Le Quotidien) (Tate, London, T00743) and 1932 (Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise) (Tate, London, T00944), all reference in the composition dates in the first week of August that year. The roughly textured surface and flattened pictorial plane emphasized by the introduction of textual elements connect Two Fishes and both Tate works with the leading French Modernists, but also to the Russian avant-garde as represented by artists such as Alexandra Exter and Natalia Goncharova who had emigrated to Paris in the wake of the Revolution.
The textual references in Two Fishes are apt: Nicholson was a devoted follower of tennis, which at that time enjoyed great celebrity, and he could often be found bouncing a ball along the streets of St Ives. Henri Cochet was one of the leading French players of the period. One of the ‘Four Musketeers,’ he won Wimbledon in 1927 and 1929 and was ranked world number one from 1928 to 1931. 1932 was an inauspicious year for Cochet, for despite having won both the singles and the doubles at the French Open and been runner up at the US Nationals, he was a surprise early knock out at Wimbledon and his greatest blow came at the Stade Roland Garros, Paris in the final days of July when he lost to his greatest rival, the American Ellsworth Vines, while competing for the Davis Cup. It is most likely this event, which signalled the beginning of the end for Cochet’s stellar career as an amateur tennis player, being reported in the copy of Le Journal we see depicted in the present work. He went on to open a sporting goods store, although Fred Perry and René Lacoste, both of whom he had played, seem to have had greater success in this market.
The poetic and lyrical understanding of the still life which Nicholson had inherited from his father William Nicholson, a leading figure whose loose handling of paint was on the brink of Modernism, is evidenced in this work in the sparse and pared back composition. Ground breaking painters such as Braque, Picasso and Cézanne turned to the still life as a genre which provided a neutral base for formal experiment. In line with Modernist tradition, Two Fishes renders the figures objective and inanimate, but also provides an intimate insight into the artist – his fascination with sport, his close connection to the coast and the sea, the connections he had with other artists such as his father, Georges Braque and Barbara Hepworth, and his creative summer of 1932.
It is significant that the first owner of Two Fishes was the artist Edward Wadsworth. His collection at the Dairy House in Maresfield included, alongside the present lot, paintings and drawings by Wyndham Lewis, a Roberts drawing of a boxing match, sculptures by Henry Moore, a small nude by André Lhote, a George Grosz bought in Berlin in 1931, a Willi Baumeister, two Lègers and, fittingly, a small Picasso still life from 1922 titled: Still Life with Fishes. It is uncertain which work in Picasso's oeuvre this refers to, although there is a Poissons sur Journal, held in a Private Collection, England which, as many of Picasso’s works from that date do, depicts two fish resting on a copy of Le Journal.
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