We are grateful to Dr Lee Beard for his kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.
In 1957, Ben Nicholson 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 in Nicholson’s work, and specifically a return to the relief, with works such as March 63 (Locmariaquer 2). 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 wood 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, Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate, 1993, 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.
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. Travels across Europe introduced Nicholson to new sites ripe with beguiling mystery. Locmariaquer in Brittany holds two megalithic monuments, the ‘Er Grah de Locmariaquer’, a broken standing stone (menhir), and the ‘Table des Marchands’, the merchants’ table (dolmen). There was no clear link between a work and a place but rather the titles were bestowed once the work was complete: the reliefs become ‘memory-traces’ (Peter Khoroche, Ben Nicholson: Drawings and Painted Reliefs, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2002, p.84). He called the later reliefs 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).
In March 63 (Locmariaquer 2), Nicholson’s ambitions with the relief medium are synthesised into a work of restraint and delicacy, of tautly balanced composition and subtle colours. Nicholson deploys a sparse cast of formal elements, directing each line, recession, projection, angle and geometrical shape with precision in this condensed masterwork. Lines are surgically incised into the infinitely recessed layers of relief, subdividing the overall into various trapezoids. The architectonic internal structure is arranged with deliberation, each shape and shadow delineated with precision. A circle in the white rectangle to the lower left punctuates the relief, counterbalancing the perfectly ordered linearity. A restricted earthy palette of browns and white is absolutely united with the relief structure, the thinned oil permeates the board and form: ‘A late relief by Ben Nicholson…is a self-existent object whose colour, form and texture are to be appreciated as one, indivisible whole – a concrete reality in its own right.’ (Peter Khoroche, op. cit., p.84). March 63 (Locmariaquer 2) demands sustained contemplation: its austerity becomes mesmeric. As Nicholson explained in a letter to Geoffrey Gigson, the author of the introduction to his 1967 Marlborough Galleries exhibition, 'I think quietness is a miraculous & creative spirit' (Ben Nicholson, quoted in Peter Khoroche, op. cit., p.88).
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