‘Art and life’ is currently in its third incarnation after stops in Leeds and Kettle’s Yard. When it closes after the Dulwich offering in late September it will have been on the road for nearly a year, an impressive feat for an exhibition that covers only eleven, albeit prolific, years of British art.
Ben Nicholson is the headline act. But this exhibition investigates the period before he became arguably British modernism’s MVP. Before Barbara Hepworth Nicholson’s first wife was Winifred Roberts. As husband and wife Winifred and Ben travelled to Lugano in Switzerland – via Paris and exposure to European modernist developments – where they spent three consecutive winters in the early 1920s. Here they produced works of vitality and atmospheric gravity. The tissue paper wrapped around Winifred’s flowers in Cyclamen and Primula becomes another mountain to match with their dramatic backdrop. The austere use of muted colour by Ben in 1921-c.25 (Cortivallo, Lugano) expertly displays a glimpse of a Swiss winter. They developed as artists together, their relationship reciprocal. Winifred’s colour comes out in Ben’s First abstract painting, Chelsea, and Ben’s quasi-cubist tonal blocks are referenced by Winifred in Castagnola (Red Earth) and King’s Road, Chelsea. The relationship clearly of equal importance to each.
In 1926 Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood became the third member of this cast of British post-war painters. Wood was a colourful figure who came to the Nicholson’s home in Cumberland ‘like a meteor’. He was the freest of the three, lacking the shackles of an artistic heritage such as Ben Nicholson’s, whose father had been highly respected painter, as well as being exposed to European modernist movements early in his practice, before adopting the sometimes staid English traditionalism present in Winifred’s work. All three were different, but happily worked alongside one another, each learning new ways of painting. This is beautifully shown in the exhibition by the handing of three views of Northrigg Hill, one by each: Winifred’s traditional, Wood’s gestural, Ben’s austere.
The fourth member of the group came in 1928 when Wood and Ben discovered the work of Alfred Wallis. Wallis became Wood and the Nicholson’s Douanier Rousseau. An untrained individual who as a result made paintings as real as real life. Wallis was championed, especially, by Ben in London, where he exhibited him in a 7 and 5 show, and it gave both Ben and Wood encouragement in their pursuit of imbuing their work with life. Examples of this abound in the exhibition, but highlights are Le phare, Porthmeor Beach and Boat on a Stormy Sea.
But nearly as soon as the quartet was formed was it finished. In 1930 Wood died in mysterious circumstances, the Nicholson’s marriage was dissolving and Wallis was becoming more and more paranoid as the success earned for him by his London friends began to affect how he was treated in St. Ives. Overall, Art and Life succeeds in showing the development and complementary relationships of this group of British painters that were sadly all too fleeting.
Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Art and Life is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 21st September 2014