A highlight of our 21 November sale of Modern & Post-War British Art, Ben Nicholson’s masterpiece Sept 58 (Iseo) captures an important interlude in the artist’s career, moving from St Ives to the continent, and beginning what was to be a very European-focus in his art.
BEN NICHOLSON’S HOUSE IN THE TICINO, SWITZERLAND, 1966 © THE ESTATE OF FELICITAS VOGLER
Ben Nicholson met and married the young photographer Felicitas Vogler in 1957, and it was at her suggestion that the new couple left St Ives for the continent. Moving to Switzerland in March 1958, Nicholson discovered in the mountains of the Ticino not only a new landscape but also fresh inspiration for his work. They settled by Lago Maggiore, with its epic, rugged scenery, and built a house just outside Brisssago with wonderful views looking east across the lake. Living now in the heart of Europe, he was not only removed from the sometimes fractious internal politics and rivalries of the British Art scene. He was able to travel, and the subsequent works from this period catalogue these travels, as well as the new, rich sense of light.
Sept 58 (Iseo) refers to Lake Iseo, another breathtaking expanse of water about 130 miles southeast of Brissago over the Italian border. Writing in 1959 about his new surroundings, Nicholson noted eloquently that: ‘The landscape is superb, especially in winter and when seen from the changing levels of the mountainside. The persistent sunlight, the bare trees seen against a translucent lake, the hard, rounded forms of the snow topped mountains, and perhaps with a late evening moon rising beyond in a pale, cerulean sky is entirely magical with the kind of poetry which I would like to find in my painting’ (Ben Nicholson, 1959, quoted in Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon Press, London, 1993, p.311).
Emerging at the start of this period of renewed creativity, Sept 58 (Iseo) is a work of masterful subtlety. Inspired by the light, colours and atmosphere he experienced by Iseo, the composition focuses on Nicholson’s most favourite subject – the traditional genre of the still life with everyday objects such as goblets and a jug laid out across the table-top.
The kind of painting I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is both musical and architectural where the architectural construction is used to express a “musical” relationship between form, tone, colour and whether this visual, “musical” relationship is slightly more or less abstract is for me beside the point.
Although painted in 1958, the present work is also highly reminiscent of Nicholson’s style that he developed in the 1920s when he had first married Winifred Nicholson and when they travelled together in Europe and experienced the French avant-garde at first hand. The interlocking shapes and stylised lines of the table top objects clearly allude to cubist influences and more specifically to Picasso and Braque’s Synthetic Cubism that they developed together in the first decade of the 20th Century.
BEN NICHOLSON WORKING IN HIS STUDIO, CASA ALL ROCCA, SWITZERLAND © THE ESTATE OF FELICITAS VOGLER
The distinctive surface of Sept 58 (Iseo) is also important. The underlying ground is clearly visible beneath the multi-layered paint surface and as such, draws attention to the physical nature of the board itself. Winifred later explained that it was Christopher Wood who introduced her and Ben to the technique of ‘painting on coverine. It dries fast, you can put it over old pics’ (Winifred Nicholson, Kit, unpublished memoir, Tate Gallery Archive 723.100, p.25). It created a firm painting ground which was visible beneath the painted image. In the present work, Nicholson has quite literally worked the surface, rubbing away at the paint to create a highly textured finish. This takes on a dynamic three-dimensional quality as varying layers of paint have been stripped back to reveal the board itself whilst the bold curvilinear forms set on the table top reverberate across the composition.
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