‘All artists are unique and can only unite as complementaries not as similarities’, Winifred Nicholson

Cyclamen and Primula by Winifred Nicholson

Cyclamen and Primula by Winifred Nicholson

Art history is peppered with marriages, partnerships and liaisons – Kahlo and Rivera, Krasner and Pollock, Ernst and Tanning, Johns and Rauschenberg.

A new exhibition, Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Afred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 -1931, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, focuses on one couple at the forefront of the Modern British movement and explores the symbiotic effect of their relationship on the development of their art.

The year before she met Ben Nicholson, Winifred Roberts had visited India, a seminal moment in her career as it fuelled her fascination with light and colour. After their marriage in 1920, Ben and Winifred Nich

Cyclamen and Primula by Winifred Nicholson

olson began a geographical and conceptual journey together and this exhibition clearly identifies the influences, ideas and discoveries they shared.

Perhaps because it is curated by their grandson, art historian Jovan Nicholson, there is a great sense of warmth and intimacy in this exhibition. It traces the work they produced, often working side by side, through the places they travelled to and lived and the people they met and the friends they were close to, including Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood and Alfred Wallace.

Nicholson juxtaposes works by Ben and Winifred which are often of the same place – the King’s Road in Chelsea, Cornwall, Lugano in Switzerland and Cumberland – which highlights their different approaches and concerns. If Ben Nicholson’s work is focused on form, then Winifred is clearly concerned with colour. Landscapes figure largely, in Winifred’s case her often repeated motif of flowers on a window sill with a landscape behind, folds of tissue paper echoing the rolling hills beyond.

While Ben Nicholson displays something of a magpie nature as he explores and assimilates the work of the people around him, but it simmers for a long time. Having produced a geometric abstract in the early 20s, he returns to a more figurative approach and then amends the painting by adding a white square many years later.

Meanwhile, Winifred absorbs these influences, flirts and experiments, but always returns to her flowers and windowsill motif which seemingly provides the latitude for her unique and exquisite exploration of colour, and the potential for an emotive or spiritual narrative to emerge from these apparently domestic and modest compositions.

There are some absolutely beautiful paintings in this exhibition – 15 of them have not been displayed publicly before – and it has certainly made me look more closely at Winifred Nicholson’s work. After ten years, she and Ben separated and Winifred went to live in Paris where she met artists such as Mondrian, Gabo and Giacometti.

They remained in touch for some years and there is a lovely denouement at the end of the exhibition with a geometric painting by Winifred featuring two circles, placed next to one of Ben Nicholson’s most famous bas-reliefs. He credited her with introducing him ‘to the circle’ whilst he visited her in Paris, suggesting a great mutual affection and intellectual respect between them.

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Afred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 -1931 is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from 4 June to 21 September http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk


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