The relief works that Nicholson produced from the 1950s, and into the ‘60s and ‘70s form some of the artist’s most dramatic, sculptural work. Using a traditionally earthy palette, the artist scraped and worked the surface, intending form and colour to become one. Yet what makes the present work such a striking example is the artist’s bold use of red towards the centre of the composition. This bright dash of colour takes on added significance when considering the title of the work – dec 63 (Xmas relief). Throughout the course of his career Nicholson referenced Christmas in the title of many of his works – either in relation to the time of year that the paintings or collages were created, or relating to their being gifts from the artist to friends and patrons. One of his most celebrated examples 1930 (Christmas night) (Kettles’s Yard, Cambridge) captures the atmosphere of the festive night, including many of the traditional symbols of the Christmas period. Yet what is most interesting is the relationship between this painting and the present work, created over thirty years apart. In the earlier work the artist uses different spatial planes to construct the scene, planes that by the early 1960s and the execution of the present work become integral elements of the composition. They show that the artist, whilst continuing to explore new methods of pictorial representation in his work, never fully divorced himself from the earlier figurative style that set him on the path to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists.
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