If you have not been before at the Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, this is a perfect opportunity! It is not only the house that surely will inspire you to change your own decoration but the gallery hosts beautiful exhibitions like this one about Art and Life, Friendship and Love, Form and Color. Something like the “Fast and the Furious” for art lovers… The exhibition focuses on the creative partnership between Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson, and around them, painters such as Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and potter William Staite Murray.
Before and throughout their married life Ben and Winifred Nicholson enjoyed of a mutual inspiring creative friendship. Both of them experimenting with colours (Winifred) and form (Ben), inspired by the mighty alpine landscape in Lugano, visiting museums in Italy, absorbing the modernist art in Paris (Picasso, Braque and fauvists Derain and Matisse) and digesting it all through the bucolic spirit of the British islands. Their art concerns a very particular interpretation of color, form and it points at what meant to be an artist in the Twentieth Century. Their perambulation through different types of landscapes: from Cumbria to Cornwall, passing through London and Devon, enrich them with images, conversations and a variety of moods that would be transformed into art.
Home at Cornwall. Prussia Cove.
Original Painting. Acrylic on Board. Beatriz Acevedo
In this exhibition, for example, it is possible to see the dialogue between Ben and Winifred, as both took on painting similar subjects. As a couple they enjoyed of a privileged situation, painting side by side, breathing and living in and for their art. The results soon started to yield: for Winifred, the development of a particular language around her attraction to flowers and color. From her first attempts at painting the pure nature of colour in windowsills in Lugano, the mighty Alps as the counterpart of the delicacy of the flowers.Her work will evolve in finding a fresher way of applying colour, like music… creating visual harmonies, jazz with hues, and dances with compositions! Her still lives, bunches of flowers, pots in windowsills are all magical, present, ethereal, like a sound that softly penetrates your senses.
Cyclamen Botanical Illustration. By Beatriz Acevedo.
Apart of the beautiful flowers, it is possible to find landscapes (side by side to those painted by Ben), whimsical portraits, where the brush stroke simulates the light touching the surfaces. Her motifs are the wonderful world around homes and family life, the old couple holding hands, or the kids eating an ice cream… This particular portrait evokes a simplicity and yet a pervasive impact on the viewer eyes, it is ice cream, it is Sunday in the beach, it is dream and it is home. This simplicity and masterly use of colour makes the whole world of Winifred own pictorial language. As commented by Jovan Nicholson (grandson of the famous couple) in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition:
“Among her most accomplished works are Mughetti and Cyclamen and Primula, which she painted during the winter of 1922-23 and belong in a series she described as “sunlight in white paper”. The pot of flowers wrapped in tissue paper and set on a windowsill was the ideal format to bring totehter some of Winifred’s favorite themes: the study of luscious colour, the exploration of the relationship between interior and exterior, foreground and background, still life and landscape, and through these the layering and breaking down of the image.”
For Ben, this search was longer… his approach to form start to take place inspired by Picasso and Braque, but it actually came to life through the chance encounter with naive painter Alfred Wallis in Cornwell. the story goes that one evening in St Ives, after some drinks with fellow artist Christopher Wood, they found the flickering light of a candle in a middle of the night, and there he was: this diminute man frantically painting on discarded wood, old card-boards and any surface he could get his hands on. After the decease of his wife, this former fisherman dedicated his life to recreating the seascapes of his trade: boats and ships, rugged coasts, shipwrecks, furious skies and the turquoise light of the bay of St Ives. This encounter was definitive for Ben Nicholson, who promptly championed Alfred Wallis’ work with galleries and friends in London. Alfred Wallis naive paintings represented a purity of art that was what Ben was looking for. His art grew more confident in the search for a simplest form, a structured and straight language, hence, giving birth to a type of modernist art, where the simplification of elements allow a closer relationship with subjects, emotions and sensations.
Seascape and boats. Sketchbook B.Acevedo. October 2013
This exhibition is all about love and friendships mediated through art. Ben and Winifred built a relationship based on their approach to art and painting, that survived the eventual divorce and separation when Ben met the formidable Barbara Hepworth, fell in love and consequently abandoned Winifred (!!). But even after this “betrayal”, their relationship as artists (above all) not only survived but it became a crucial link for their lives!
Their passion for art and painting is shared by friends like Christopher Wood who often went to paint with them in holidays and long visits to their house in Cumbria. Christopher Wood, who at the time was in the heights of his romance with Frosca Munster, also experienced the inebriating effects of love, as he writes to his lover:
“You have shown me the beauty of life,
you have taught me the worth of so many things
and you have taught me to paint and what is good taste.”
These friendships and relationships will create a whole movement that will carry the beacon of hope throughout the darkest moments of the Second World War, and will concentrate a major influx of artists from the continent, like the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo, the dutchman Piet Mondrian, and the above mentioned Christopher Wood, Barbara Hepworth, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, in this area of Cornwall.
[Mad] Artist in Cornwall. 2012
All of this made me think on the exhilarating effects of “painting together” side by side with fellow artists. Last week for example I enjoyed the creative company and advice of Lesley Longworth, and the days spent in her studio working on my new project, were absolutely fantastic! It is through friendship and sharing that artists (like me) can grow. It is not only sharing tips, or commenting in each other’s work, which is super constructive, but it is to fly together in the sensations and emotions produced in the creative process.
Following Winifred Nicholson’s approach to light and colour, it is also possible to understand her own way of living a beautiful life. As commented by Jim Ede (who worked at the time at the Tate and was the actual owner and creator of the Kettle’s Yard), Winifred was ‘a leader -not only in a transformed style of painting- but life itself.” And he commented on the intrinsic relationship between Art and Life:
“Winifred Nicholson taught me much about the fusing of art and daily living, and Ben Nicholson that traffic in Piccadilly had the rhythm of a ballet and a game of tennis the perfection of an old master.”
Apart of the beautiful exhibition, the catalog offers a glimpse in the evolution of these friendships. Letters, notes, interviews and notes, supply an intimate view of the motifs, challenges, views and uncertainties of the artists when approaching the creative process. And this is also something that somehow I’ve been developing mainly with my friend and pen pal Donna Ladkin. Now she is completely enthralled with the Zentangles and throughout the letters we are sharing not only the daily pass of time with its minor and major pictures, but most importantly witnessing each others’ evolution when approaching the Art of Life.
Nicholson, Jovan. Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson. Art and Life 1920-1931. Dulwich Picture Gallery. London.