It will subsequently move to Falmouth Art Gallery
(24 June – 16 September 2017).
Winifred Nicholson was, for a time, at the centre of modernism in Britain. An active member of the Seven and Five exhibiting society, she worked closely with a group determined to re-think painting and sculpture. This exhibition shows that her strongest work was during this period of experimentation, when what it meant to be modern was still a matter of exploration.
The paintings of her early years, the 1920s and 30s, are delicate in colour, simple in form but revelatory. They shimmer and shine despite, or because of, their subdued palette. Some of these paintings have found their way into major collections – the Tate has a wonderful table top painting, Flower Table 1928-9, a companion of one here – but one of the joys of this exhibition is the number of privately owned paintings on display. The poster painting for the exhibition is one: Polyanthus and Cineraria 1923.
The simplification of form, the under drawing made obvious, the clear brush marks of the maker, particularly in the background – these things assert modernism. This, it tells the viewer, is a painting. There is no attempt to fool the eye, no pretense at reality. Still life painting was a site of experimentation for early modernists and here Winifred Nicholson explores light and colour, shape, and the flow and feel of the paint itself. Flower painting was avoided by many woman painters in the 20th Century because it had been labeled ‘woman’s art’ but she is not afraid.
It is interesting to see in these early paintings the features that hallmark her work with the Seven and Five, particularly the white ground and the simplicity of subject matter. She married Ben Nicholson in 1920 and they moved to the Villa Capriccio on Lake Lugano in Switzerland. Her father had bought them the villa as a wedding present. She also had an allowance from her father which enabled them both to live as artists and experiment rather than having to earn an immediate living from their art. Art, for both of them, was to be new; it had to be more than simply technical proficiency. The trajectory of their search for the new began in the past with the Italian ‘Primitives’ that Roger Fry lauded: Giotto, Uccello, Piero della Francesca, painting before the sophistication of the Renaissance. It is probably from these painters, seen on their honeymoon, that the idea of a white ground was taken. Later, Christopher Wood introduced them to ‘Ripolin’ a cheap household white paint they used as a ground.
Primitivism, was of course, all the rage; from Picasso to Fry artists wanted to get back to what they saw as a ‘timeless authenticity’. Technical sophistication was seen as a tool to establish monetary value rather than the emotional value that art should aim at producing. While at Lugano they began to collect photographs of Douanier Rousseau’s work; his naïve vision seemed to be akin to that which they admired in ‘primitive’ work. In an attempt to get the same immediacy Winifred started to paint ‘all in one go’ with little drawing and no preparatory sketches. This working practice she retained for the rest of her life. She valued the spontaneity and freshness it gave her work and in these early works you can see that direct vision freshly put on canvas – and it does shine. There is a luminosity that comes from the white ground and pale palette, particularly when the light catches the rough edges of the brush strokes. She often paints with quite a dry brush and there are gaps where the undercoat is quite clear; left as a sign of process, of the work of painting. This is particularly obvious in her Father and Son painted in 1928 of Ben and their first child Jake.
In 1923 they moved back to England, to the wilds of Cumbria. Primitivism wasn’t just about technique it was also about subject matter. What better place to find the edges of the civilized world than in a house a mile from Hadrian’s Wall! Like Cornwall, another popular painting site, Cumbria is seen as more elemental, more real. It is here that a deliberate faux naivety enters both Ben and Winifred Nicholson’s work. Ben Nicholson’s Foothills, Cumberland, 1928 with its deliberate ignoring of the rules of perspective is more obvious than anything Winifred is producing at this period but the naïve vision has captured them both. It is at this point that the famous meeting with Alfred Wallis takes place, the ‘discovery’ of an authentic English naïve artist. They are not alone in this endeavour. John Craske, another fisherman painter had been discovered by the poet Valentine Ackland in 1927; other members of the Seven and Five – Christopher Wood, Cedric Morris, Frances Hodgkins – were similarly experimenting with a faux naivety, trying to see, as Christopher Wood explained to his mother, ‘ through the eyes of the smallest child’. The Times review of the 1932 Seven and Five exhibition suggested that their general aim ‘seems to be to recover a state of artistic innocence’ and Winifred Nicholson’s paintings of this period exemplify this.
For Winifred Nicholson it seems that this naïve vision was never surpassed. Despite her brief period of experimentation with abstraction she remained committed to the particular truth that she found in refusing the sophisticated, the academic in art.
In the 1930s, after her separation from Ben, she lived for a period in Paris, again at the heart of the modernist world, friends with Modrian, Hélion and Cesar Domela. Domela gave her lessons in abstraction. She recalled later how he took one of her flower paintings and had her make a series of paintings from it, each one becoming less realistic and more simplified. One of these, White and Black Ellipse Outwards, 1936, is featured in the exhibition. This is sophisticated art and had she continued in this fashion she would no doubt be a more notable name in English Modernism. But it was not where her heart lay.
Her later experiments in colour and the use of prisms seem to be a retreat from the wider art world. She returns to the faux naivety of the late 1920s but now it seems a restrictive rather than a freeing vision. Occasionally a painting emerges that contains a similar freshness and sense of something seen beyond the physical. Easter Monday, 1950, works in this way.
The window sill/exterior world painting was popular among Seven and Five artists because of the way it used the ambiguity of near and far, the emphasis on the frame within a frame; the way it took the Renaissance window painting with its display of technical virtuosity and turned it on its head. But here, the modernist statements that seem so clear in her early work – the shallow picture space rather than renaissance perspective/depth; the attention to the surface, the marks of making; the simplified forms; the expression of the flower rather than the representation – are no longer the point somehow – and worse, I’m not sure what the point is anymore. I can’t help but feel that she lost her way somehow, was too entranced by the naïve vision and ended up trapped in it.
The major part of the exhibition is devoted to her earlier work and this is well worth seeing. Many of the paintings come from private collections and so are rarely seen. It is also worth seeing as a reminder that early modernism was an exploration that didn’t always rush to abstraction. A recent exhibition of Christopher Wood at Pallant House Gallery was an equally eloquent reminder that the naïve vision, one untrammelled by orthodoxy or reason, was seen as a revelatory vision and that to be revelatory was the business of art.
Jenny Vuglar was born in New Zealand but has lived in London since 1979. She is a poet, playwright and art historian with a special interest in 20th Century British Art. She teaches for the Open University and Morley College.