‘It is, you might say, simply a lavatory artform, a clean antiseptic bathroom art which extracts from their functions the splash-board and the lavatory basin and sets them sleeping and dreaming together in a world whose objects are forbidden to have associations.’ Gordon Porteus, 1935 [1]

The words of critic Gordon Porteus, writing in New English Weekly in 1935, sum up with elegant sewage-laden aplomb something of the battle between the new forms of Modern Art that were percolating across the Channel and its reception in Britain. For Porteus, Nicholson was headed towards the ‘abyss of the absolute’ and an outlook disinfected of human trace. [2] Nicholson was a prominent member of Unit One, a group of painters, sculptors and architects initially headed by Paul Nash. Nash discerned that there were two streams of thinking for the contemporary artist: the ‘pursuit of form’ and the ‘pursuit of the soul’. [3] This delineation captures something of the divide that existed between artists such as Nicholson who sought the ‘Constructive’, and those of a Surrealist persuasion. It is possible to see this division in terms of an Apollonian and Dionysian opposition seething within the orbit of Hampstead, where many of these artists lived.

Another contemporary concern that Porteus’s words highlight is that of the possibilities of health and societal nourishment within the new Modern architecture. Around this time, many of the leading pioneers of Modern architecture, including Erich Mendelsohn, Berthold Lubetkin and later Walter Gropius, were coming to Britain, seeking refuge from totalitarian developments abroad. Their buildings, including Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre (1938), sought to promote the nourishing social qualities of clean white spaces and plenty of natural light and air, at a time when urban living for much of the population consisted of slum-based deprivation. The Constructive artists similarly sought to create forms that were imbued with the same spirit of utopian purity through abstraction.

In this light, the ‘White Reliefs’ (all produced between 1934 and 1937) were Nicholson’s zenith. They represented a move away from canvas to board, and from subject to object, where the object becomes the embodiment of an idea of perfection. Each one is a tabula rasa, a microcosm of the infinite, which ‘should be seen as something like a new world’, as Paul Nash put it. [4] The white has a purity and a metaphysical dimension, beyond place and temporality, a sense of the pregnant void that owes a debt to Malevich. On one level, this gesture might seem out of touch with the realities that were bearing down on world events, given the economic depression, national rearmament and the rise of Fascism in Europe. And yet it is possible to see these works as icons of hope and clarity: moments of a glimpsed cohesion, hermetically sealed within its frame, set amidst the general confusion of the era. As Nicholson himself put it, ‘As I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing, and what we are all searching for is the understanding and realisation of infinity – an ideal which is complete, with no beginning, no end and therefore giving to all things for all time.’ [5]

© Richard Parry 2009

1 Porteus quoted in Jeremy Lewison (ed.), Ben Nicholson: The Years of Experiment 1919–39, exh. cat. (Cambridge: Kettle’s Yard Gallery, 1983), 28.

2 Ibid., 33.

3 Nash quoted in Lewison (ed.), 24.

4 Ibid., 33.

5 Nicholson quoted in Lewison (ed.), 33


  • Title: 1935 (white relief)
  • Creator: Ben Nicholson
  • Creator Lifespan: 1894/1982
  • Creator Nationality: British
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Birth Place: Denham, UK
  • Date Created: .
  • Physical Dimensions: w800 x h545 cm
  • Type: Painting, relief
  • Rights: © Angela Verren Taunt 2011. All rights reserved, DACS., © Angela Verren Taunt 2011. All rights reserved, DACS.
  • External Link: http://collection.britishcouncil.org/collection/search/9/0/object/43125/0
  • Medium: Oil, carved and built up wood
  • Passport: 1948 Belgium, Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles Federal Republic of Gemany, Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlungen Der Stadt 1949 Federal Republic of Gemany, Hamburg, Kunsthalle Netherlands, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum Luxembourg, Musée de l’État 1951 Brazil, São Paulo, Museo de Arte Moderna 1952 Japan, Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Gallery Japan, Osaka, Juuge Gallery Japan, Nagoya, Matsuzakaya Gallery Japan, Fukuoka, Itwataya Gallery Japan, Kyoto, Metropolitan Art Gallery Japan, Sapporo, Marui Gallery 1953 Sweden, Göteborg Konsthall Sweden, Stockholm, Bildande Konst 1956 Denmark, Copenhagen, Kunstforeningen Norway, Oslo, Kunstnernes Hus 1961 Switzerland, Berne, Kunsthalle 1962 Portugal, Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian Portugal, Coimbra Portugal, Porto 1963 Iceland, Reykjavik, National Museum Canada, Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario 1964 Canada, Ontario, London, Public Library Canada, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Canada, Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada Canada, Winnipeg Art Gallery Canada, Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, University of Regina Canada, Edmonton Art Gallery Denmark, Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art 1968 England, London, British Council 1974 Scotland, Edinburgh, Scottish Arts Council 1977 France, Les Sables-D'olonne, Musée de l'abbaye Sainte-Croix France, Montbéliard, Musée du Château France, Rouen, Musée des Beaux-arts France, Calais, Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle France, Bordeaux, Galerie des Beaux-Arts 1978 France, Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts France, Chartres, Musée des Beaux-Arts USA, Buffalo, Albright Knox Art Gallery USA, Washington, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden 1979 USA, The Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum 1979 England, London, Hayward Gallery 1982 England, Cambridge, Kettle's Yard 1987 Spain, Madrid, Fundación Juan March Portugal, Lisbon, , Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian 1987/8 Federal Republic of Germany, Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlungen Nordrhein-Westfalen 1990 USSR, Kiev, Ukrainian Museum of Fine Art 1991 Luxembourg, Musée National d'Histoire et d'Art Bulgaria, Sofia, Cyril Methodius Foundation Argentina, Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes 1993 England, Wakefield, Wakefield Art Gallery 1994 France, Paris, British Council 1996 France, Paris, Jeu de Paume 1997 England, London, British Council 1998 England, Cambridge, Kettle's Yard England, Bexhill-On-Sea, De La Warr Pavilion 1998 France, Tourcoing, Musée des Beaux-Arts 2007 Spain, Pamplona, Fundación Museo Jorge Oteiza 2008 England, Kendal, Abbot Hall Art Gallery England, Bexhill-On-Sea, De La Warr Pavilion 2009 England, Tate St Ives
  • Acquisition: British Council Collection

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