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Ben Nicholson: The Pioneer of British Abstract Art

By Mabel Pryde (died 1918) - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 5553

Distilling the visual information into pared-down geometric shapes and melding the British sensibility with European modernism, the English artist, Benjamin Lauder Nicholson, is acclaimed as the pioneer of abstract art in England, whose austere geometric paintings and reliefs were among the most influential abstract works in British art.

Best-known for his Cubist-influenced works, Nicholson was born on April 10, 1894, in Denham, Buckinghamshire, England to the painters Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde. He briefly attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1910-11, but he was largely self-taught. Between 1911 and 1914, he extensively traveled in Europe, and in 1917 he visited California, keeping a detailed record in sketches of architecture and landscape.

About 1920, Nicholson began to paint seriously, creating still lifes and landscapes in a conventionally realistic style. His first solo show was held at the Adelphi Gallery in London in 1922. During a trip to Paris in 1921, Nicholson saw Cubist works, which influenced his first semiabstract still lifes. In 1924, he executed his first completely abstract painting which was influenced by Synthetic Cubism.

By 1927, Nicholson had initiated a primitive style inspired by Henri Rousseau and early English folk art. During the 1920s, along with the sculptors Barbara Hepworth (who became his second wife) and Henry Moore, Nicholson was instrumental in introducing Continental Modernism into English art. In 1932, he and Hepworth visited Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso. Jean Helion and Auguste Herbin encouraged them to join Abstraction-Creation.

In 1933, Nicholson and Hepworth joined the Paris-based Abstraction-Creation group, an artists’ association that advocated purely abstract art. The following year he met the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, under whose influence Nicholson’s work took on a greatly simplified geometry; typical of this period are his low reliefs of whitewashed circles and rectangles, such as “White Relief” (1937-38). He was co-editor with the artist Naum Gabo and the architect Sir Leslie Martin of “Circle”, a manifesto published in 1937 to promote Constructivism and other modern art styles in England.

After moving to Cornwall in 1939, Nicholson resumed painting landscapes and added color to his abstract reliefs. In 1945-46, he turned from reliefs to linear, abstract paintings. In 1952, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Time-Life Building in London. He was given retrospectives at the Venice Biennale in 1954, and at the Tate Gallery, London, and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1955.

In 1958, Nicholson moved to Castagnola, Ticino canton, Switzerland and began to concentrate once more on painted reliefs. In 1964, he made a concrete wall relief for the Documenta III exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and in 1968 was awarded the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, organized a retrospective of his work in 1978.

Ben Nicholson died on February 6, 1982, in London.


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