This week I drove up to Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal to see 'A Continuous Line - Ben Nicholson in England'. Do try to catch this exhibition if you can - it is going to Bexhill next, followed by a stint at Tate St Ives until next May.
I loved - as always - his wonderful drawings, full of detail and intimacy but observed with such clarity and restraint. Many of the drawings and paintings were from his time spent in Cumbria with his first wife Winifred, and often feature a single, naively drawn horse, sometimes appearing as if they were chalk horses, embedded into the landscape. His skilful juxtaposition of real-life perspective and plan view is something I've always loved and often tried to incorporate into my own work with varying degrees of success.
There is so much to say about Ben Nicholson's work that you could probably devote a whole blog to it - I could certainly go on interminably about its appeal and inspiration to me. The way his drawings are so different to his paintings, and both of those in a completely different language to his reliefs - yet all of them so obviously his work. As one who is drawn to many different media and techniques daily if not hourly, this is definitely something for me to think about.
But this time, perhaps the most important thing I came away with was an excitement about his use of texture. Paint applied onto more paint, allowed to dry and rubbed away again and again, creating worlds of complexity and depth in a single square inch. I particularly loved what the exhibition notes had to say about this:
"In a period of turmoil his art proposed a new way of thinking about the world. Part of that was a re-engagement with nature and tradition. The gently worked textures of his pictures' surfaces that represent a tradition of craftwork..."
Chris Stephens in the exhibition catalogue explains how although Nicholson's own father was a significant painter, he was inspired as much by watching his mother at work in the kitchen: "He set out to show that the making of art was ordinary and domestic, as essential as housework".
This idea is summed up for me in this picture of Barbara Hepworth, with whom he fell in love in 1931:
The actual picture is large, around 3'x4', but even from my feeble snap you can see how he achieves a wonderful layering effect, so reminiscent of patchwork and applique. It's all paint and pencil, no collage, and conveys a gentle homeliness and a sense of great dignity, both at the same time. Perhaps that's how he felt about Barbara?
So, a brilliant day out for me, and I've come back positively throbbing with ideas and inspiration. Oddly though, one of my best ideas came to me through a conversation I overheard between two ladies in the tearoom...
Note: the images of Ben Nicholson's work are photographed by me from the catalogue for the sole purpose of sharing my impressions with you, but they are of course copyright of his estate and shouldn't be reproduced or used for anything important.