Like others pictures in the group 1940 (gouache) was painted during a period of great upheaval for Nicholson, during which time he was adjusting to dramatically changed circumstances brought about by the outbreak of war. In August 1939, as Britain stood on the brink of war, Adrian Stokes had invited Nicholson, Hepworth and their three young children to spend the summer with them in their Cornish home. When war broke out in September the family stayed on there, moving in the new year into another house nearby. In London, Nicholson was at the very heart of artistic developments - pioneering non-representational abstract art with Naum Gabo and Piet Mondrian. He now found himself separated from Hampstead and the vibrant avant-garde hub that existed there, far from his friends and patrons. He wrote, ‘Perhaps this is the blackest moment before the dawn – certainly it’s black alright – the whole thing is completely incredible & I keep on expecting to come to & find it’s all a bad dream, very much overdone’ (Ben Nicholson, quoted in Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon Press, London, 1993, p.173). Despite these difficult circumstances, Nicholson continued to paint and to promote his Constructivist ideas. Margaret Mellis, Stokes’s wife, wrote in her account of this time: ‘Ben never stopped working and if he wasn’t actually painting or making reliefs he was writing letters to people who were interested in the [Constructive] movement. They might show works, buy them or write about them. When he wasn’t doing that he was looking round St Ives for new people who might be interested…His aim was always to help people to do good work and get it shown and to stimulate a wider interest in modern art’ (Margaret Mellis, quoted in Lynton, ibid., p.177).
1940 (gouache) can be seen as a transitional work - a culmination of - and perhaps a valediction to - Nicholson's abstraction of the 1930s, and a prelude to his paintings of the later 1940s. The work is clearly a development of his 1937 abstract compositions. Through exact lines and geometric facets of unmodulated colour, Nicholson explores how different colour relationships can construct a sense of space in his compositions. These planes of colour appear to overlap, with the bright white advancing and the black receding, creating a compelling sense of compositional balance between the two hovering rectangles. But the banded back-ground, in three shades of grey blue, and the clear articulation of two distinct forms upon it was a new departure. This might well have been the result of the impact that the coastal landscape had had on the artist. Indeed, Lynton noted that the background of shimmering, horizontal bands of pale colour of 1940 (gouache) are akin to the sand, sea and sky of the Cornish landscape; the silvery blue and grey tones reminiscent of the soft, muted hues of the landscape (Lynton, ibid., p.181). Jeremy Lewison draws attention to the still-life quality of the two forms in this series, as if they were objects arranged on a table. We might combine these two readings and consider the painting in relation to the figurative still lifes that Nicholson produced from 1940 onwards, in which he typically depicted mugs and jugs arranged in front of a window that looked out over the Cornish landscape to the sea beyond.
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