In 1932 Ben Nicholson moved into Barbara Hepworth’s studio in Hampstead, the beginning of a fruitful personal and artistic collaboration and a partnership that changed the course of the avant-garde in Britain. Together they travelled to Europe and forged lasting relationships with European Modernists, who became collaborators and friends, including Mondrian, Gabo, Hélion, Miró, Calder, Moholy-Nagy, and Braque. Throughout the 1930s, they were founding members of pioneering avant-garde groups at home – Unit One, the Seven and Five Society – and abroad – Circle, Abstraction-Création. Barbara Hepworth’s absolute commitment to direct carving stimulated Ben Nicholson to embark upon his first carved and painted reliefs in 1933, and the white reliefs he subsequently produced propelled him to international stardom. Their artistic concerns in the 1930s were still preoccupations in the 1950s and 1960s when, though no longer together, they had both achieved immense critical and popular success, with Hepworth returning to direct carving in stone, as seen in her mesmeric alabaster Spiral, 1959 (see lot 19), whilst Nicholson returned to the relief at the end of the 1950s.
Accolades and prizes were lavished on Nicholson throughout the 1950s and into the following decade, including First Prize at the 39th Pittsburg International Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in 1952, the Ulisse Prize at the Venice Biennale of 1954, the Guggenheim International Painting Prize in 1956, the International Prize for Painting at the 1957 São Paulo Bienal, Tate retrospectives in 1955 and 1969, and the Order of Merit in 1969. Personal happiness was also forthcoming. In 1957 he met and married the young German photographer Felicitas Vogler and the following year they moved to Brissago in Switzerland overlooking Lake Maggiore. The marriage and move proved a catalyst for a renewed sense of purpose and productivity resulting in a series of ambitious large-scale reliefs, including 1966 (Ios), many of which now reside in international public collections including Feb 1960 (ice-off-blue), Tate, and 1966 (Zennor Quoit 2), The Phillips Collection, Washington. The scale and academic substance of these reliefs signified a conscious effort to produce works that would cement his legacy. Works like 1966 (Ios) would become Nicholson’s artistic heritage, the reliefs by which history would judge him. In 1966 (Ios) Nicholson deployed a sparse cast of formal elements across a monumental stage, directing each line, recession, projection, angle and geometrical shape with precision to realise a total taut performance.
The landscape of Switzerland precipitated Nicholson’s transition from predominantly still-lifes, as seen in July 1960 (green and black) (see lot 20), to abstract reliefs bestowed with subtitles naming Italian and Grecian locations. These subtitles – the date was the title proper – did not correspond exactly but rather indicated a certain atmosphere or experience associated with a place that Nicholson identified as appearing in a work. Nicholson first visited Greece and the Aegean in April 1959, returning for three further trips during the 1960s. He wrote of Paros, ‘the light, the architecture white & almost sculpture & whiteness everywhere even underfoot...’ (Ben Nicholson quoted, ibid, p.91). In St Ives, Cornwall, where Nicholson and Hepworth had moved just before the outbreak of World War II, Nicholson was fascinated by local prehistoric sites where history, legend, religion and folklore intermingled imbuing the area with an indefinable charge. Ancient Greek sites were similarly ripe with beguiling mystery. He called the later reliefs, like 1966 (Ios) his ‘primitive reliefs’ – they spoke to the primeval, to landscapes that bore the traces of millennia of human existence. He wrote to his first wife, Winifred Nicholson, summarising the experience of flying home from the Venice Biennale in 1954: ‘I thought the S of France & Italy looked wonderful from the air – I liked the worked, scored surface – centuries of time & man – just the quality I’d like to get into a ptg.’ (Ben Nicholson quoted in Jeremy Lewison, op. cit., p.89).
Due to their scale, Nicholson worked on the reliefs on the floor of his studio and was thus during the process, at times, physically within the relief – he later commented ‘You can find out a lot about a relief if you crawl over it intelligently’ (Ben Nicholson quoted in Norbert Lynton, Ben Nicholson, Phaidon, London, 1993, p.313). Creating reliefs like 1966 (Ios) was immensely physically demanding, not just due to their size but due to the very materials which he was manipulating. Carving into hardboard required significant exertion. Writing to critic Adrian Stokes in 1967, Nicholson described the process: ‘The new material is a universal building material which comes from Sweden & Finland – it is very hard & unless reinforced is brittle. It is not pleasant to carve like word bec. ‘it’s’ a ‘dead’ material but one becomes so keen on one’s idea that the dead material quickly becomes alive…’ (Ben Nicholson quoted in Jeremy Lewison, op. cit., p.92). Nicholson often turned to the chisel and even razor blades to score the surface of the reliefs. After carving and texturing the hardboard, Nicholson laid thinned oil into its surface, rubbing in and scrapping back layers, and then reapplying until medium and support become one. The palette is earthy – there is no disguising the stimulus of the landscape. Brown paint layers are coated with white so that the entire surface is aerated and enlivened. Lines are surgically incised into the relief, thus subdividing the central raised rectangle into various trapezoids. The architectonic internal structure is arranged with deliberation, each shape and shadow delineated with precision. A recessed circle in the white rectangle to the lower left punctuates the relief, counterbalancing the perfectly ordered linearity. Immense and yet subtle, textured on the surface yet deep in tone and colour, architectural yet poetically whimsical, steeped in the past and yet explicitly modern, 1966 (Ios) is a masterpiece amongst Nicholson’s monumental reliefs.
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