– A discussion of Summer by Winifred Nicholson and The Pulpit by Roger Fry.
The artist Winifred Nicholson once wrote of Piet Mondrian’s work that it offered ‘more of truth than nature could ever oblige one to follow.’ To her one-time husband Ben Nicholson she wrote (c.1953) ‘Yes, I’d like to get my work more abstract, but I seek the abstract of colour, which is to be found looking into the picture.’
A painting by Winifred Nicholson is currently hanging on the walls of the Leamington Art Gallery. It is called Summer. Painted in 1928, the work depicts a landscape on a modest scale, a harbour scene with an ambiance of sunlit familiarity and immediacy. A turquoise-coloured waterway arcs across the central third of the painting, splitting the image into three roughly equal bands. It is a landscape in which colour and movement fill the whole frame. The view across the harbour is interrupted (and interwoven) with a blossoming flowerbed positioned in the foreground. One of Nicholson’s favourite compositional techniques was to combine domestic objects with a landscape, and to this end she would often place flower arrangements on a windowsill or a shelf in front of a landscape setting. A variation on this motif is clearly evident in Summer. The painter’s methods result in a mingling of foreground and background, thereby flattening the representational surface and giving the work its intimacy; this does not however nullify the feeling of spatial depth in the painting, which is created by compositional elements rather than representational techniques. The angular movement of brushstrokes and the inclined bands of various browns that make up the banks of the harbour lead us into the work. This effect is emphasised by the prominent portions of turquoise. This colour seems to have been used as a base on which the other pigments have been applied. Large areas of turquoise have been left intact however, most evident in the area of the flowerbed, which links with the turquoise water behind and with the hills retreating into the distance.
Though often viewed through windows or other framing devices, Nicholson’s landscapes are nearly always within reach. Nature is tangible, is lived in. Nicholson’s preference for landscape lasted throughout all her career. Born in 1893 into a wealthy family, she spent her youth between countryside properties in Cumberland and Yorkshire, as well as London. After marrying her painter husband Ben in 1920, they travelled together through Europe, capturing local views from residences in France and Italy. She sought out local flora wherever she went, an enduring theme of her paintings. ‘Flowers mean different things to different people,’ she wrote. ‘To me they are the secret of the cosmos.’ Later, she and Ben purchased a seventeenth century farmhouse, Bankshead, near Brampton, Cumberland, which became a centre for Winifred for the rest of her long life. They had many visitors to Bankshead, including Paul Nash, Christopher Wood and Ivon Hitchens. (A painting by Hitchens hangs nearby to Nicholson’s in the Pump Rooms.)
Nicholson’s lyrical landscapes undoubtedly possess a sense of the proverbial and the reassuring. Summer is an affectionate depiction of a simple English landscape, and in this it is an image that is both dependable and romantic. It was painted when Winifred and Ben, along with Kit Wood, took a painting trip to Feock, Cornwall. Despite Winifred’s faithfulness to the landscape, it is clear that the artist’s preoccupations go beyond the purely descriptive. Nicholson made abstract paintings at various times in her career, in the 1930’s in Paris, a few in the 60’s, and again a few in the late 70’s. In its simplicity, the subject matter of Summer exists in parallel to a playful and exuberant use of colour. Or to put it another way, the subject acts as scaffolding, so to speak, for an experiment in formal composition.
Of all the elements of composition, colour was most crucial to Nicholson’s own sense of creativity, which is why she found flowers to be such an inviting subject. In her text ‘Liberation of Colour’, she wrote of encountering the letters of Gauguin and Van Gogh, and upon reading their theories on colour, ‘felt my eyes beginning to open’. Of the colour spectrum she said that artists ‘play their melodies and harmonies to and fro […] very much as the composer uses the keyboard or the piano.’ For Nicholson, colour was not an intellectual entity but always present in nature and objects. Her methods drew on the tangible, leading to the conviction that colour had a life of its own and could play a significant part in artistic expression beyond the function of mere depiction. In this scheme, coherence of colour and space may be treated as the primary justification for the painting.
This leads me to consider a second painting that hangs on the walls of the Leamington Gallery. It is a work roughly contemporaneous to Nicholson’s. It is The Pulpit by Roger Fry painted in 1927. This painting is smaller, and darker in its choice of hues, and stylistically too it is dissimilar to Nicholson’s. What can be gained from establishing a connection between these two works?
It is well known that at the turn of the century, numerous voices expressed widespread concerns about the ills of industrialisation. In the arts, much of the agenda was set by the Victorian critic John Ruskin whose despair of standardisation in art led him to reject the conventions of Renaissance Classicalism as a corruption of individual creativity. Fry’s generation too were concerned with the destructive power of standardisation, for them characterised by the mass-produced factory object. The Omega workshops, founded by Fry, produced hand-made furniture, pottery and fabrics, and in doing so affirmed the superiority of the crafted item. Meanwhile on the continent, as the First World War approached, Cubism, Futurism, German and Austrian Expressionism, and the first flourishes of Abstractionism, indicated a myriad of alternative concerns.
John Ruskin’s ideas were significant but they did not go unchallenged. With his moralistic tone and his conviction that art was capable of correcting socials evils, combined with his belief in the artist’s indebtedness to nature, Ruskin provoked points of objection from Fry. The latter was a keen Renaissance scholar. Born in 1866, a generation before Winifred Nicholson, Fry published the book Giovanni Bellini and went on to contribute a number of major articles on Italian art to various periodicals. It was however upon ‘discovering’ Cézanne in 1906 that Fry seemed to clarify his theoretical position. He did not reject the Italian Masters; rather his concern was to show the link between European artists of his time and artists of other ages and cultures. According to Fry the connection lay in a shared attention to formal design. Artworks are ‘the sensuous presentment of objects’, selected and organised by the artist over and above that which is given by nature. Unlike Ruskin, Fry did not find perfection in nature, but rather saw the role of the artist as that of organiser, cohering nature’s forms into an aesthetically successful design. Nor did he think the value of art came from its power to morally affect individuals. For Fry, the integrity of the image comes through the artist’s attention to the unity of the formal structure, where colour, shape and space are the most fundamental units.
Fry is probably most well known for introducing Post-Impressionist art to Britain. His reputation (expressed in Kenneth Clark’s famous endorsement – ‘Incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin’) is almost certainly due to the Grafton Galleries shows of 1910 and 1912 in which Fry brought works by a number of hitherto unseen modern painters to the British public. He had direct contact with a number of important Parisian dealers who gave him access to these works, and coined the term ‘Post-Impressionists’ to describe the show of paintings by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and others. As Fry put it, these works carried ‘intellectual content’ and presented not a ‘casual dictation of natural appearance’ but ‘a well-considered co-ordination’ of elements.
During the thirty years preceding the Grafton Gallery shows in London, the English taste for the Barbizon school of painting (Millet, Rousseau, Daubiny, etc.) was interrupted only a handful of times by the introduction of more recent developments in French painting. Reception was generally unsympathetic, notably focusing on the nature of the subject matter – Degas’ l’Absinthe first travelled to British shores in 1893 – which was considered ugly and morally dubious. The acceptance of new French art in England was ultimately to rest on the change of critical emphasis from content to form. Roger Fry was not the first English critic to broach this new emphasis, but he was one of the most influential. Critics such as R. A. M. Stevenson and D. S. MacColl who, around the turn of the century, published texts that defended the techniques of Impressionism and argued in favour of its painterly objectives, prepared the ground for Fry’s formalism.
One aspect of Fry’s theory is his distinction between the world of the real and the world of the imagination. The real world, consisting of external stimuli, is typically treated with instinctive, pragmatic responses. For example, when a dangerous animal is threatening a human being, the human being’s response is to turn and run. According to Fry, the imaginative life on the other hand is not held to account in the same way; it is circumscribed only by aesthetic appreciation and thereby can enjoy ‘greater purity and freedom of its emotion’. With such theoretical distinctions, Fry was able to argue for the detachment of the artist’s field of vision from the ‘meanings and implications of things.’ As Jacqueline V. Falkenheim puts it, ‘He believed that there was a simpler human need for abstract beauty, which is fulfilled through the right distribution of elements in the formal structure.’ (89) We discern here the post-Kantian conception of aesthetic formalism, a position that Fry broadly shared with his contemporary Clive Bell, and later, the influential American critic Clement Greenberg.
In the light of all this, it is perhaps surprising to find that Fry’s own paintings are quietly conservative. The Pulpit was painted in 1927, the same year he published his influential monograph on Cézanne. Stylistically, the painting evokes very little of the spatial investigations associated with Cézanne. Their shared belief in the role of nature as the initial creative stimulant to be co-ordinated through formal design is expressed by a common reference to real objects, but when it comes to the final product we see the two painters diverge. The Pulpit is a conscientious depiction of a church interior; Cézanne’s attempts to locate ‘nature’s depths’ necessarily depart from representation so as to make way for new interpretations. Fry’s formal design, though undoubtedly present, is somewhat cloaked by the very objects depicted, and compared with Winifred Nicholson’s painting his commitment to the exploration of formal elements seems wholly reigned in. It is interesting to note, as Richard Morphet does, that Fry’s critical emphasis on formal design often leads to a heightened expectation for the same formal language in his own paintings. It is for this reason that his works have often been judged as failures (wrongly in Morphet’s opinion).
A brief digression – A work of art, amongst other things, is a historical deposit. It is possible to treat a work of art as evidence for particular strains of thought active at the time of its making. That is, as evidence for the existence and operation of certain cultural and social discourses, currents of discussion, topics of arguments, taste, etc. In short, those things that enable a critical context for both the production and the reception of a work. Often a work of art can take the lead in these matters, leaving commentators catching up with new terms to describe the recent departures. Just as likely, theoretical or critical discussion can open up new possibilities for the creative process. Most of the time the pendulum swings between these two poles, and in such terms artworks are said to be in ‘dialogue’ with the cultural landscape, in some respects moving away from it and in other respects compelled by it.
Fry’s shift of critical emphasis from content to form undoubtedly altered the course of art appreciation in England and Britain. His impact was to move forward the discourse that played out within artistic and critical circles. The priorities of gallery owners and curators, writers, dealers, critics and the general public would have taken on a new order as a result. The artistic community, who though undoubtedly active in the shaping of the cultural landscape, were (and still are) also obliged to respond to its trends, not least out of deference to the marketplace. Observers are in agreement about the crucial part played by Fry in preparing the ground for artists like Winifred Nicholson, whose interest in compositional elements found a foundation on which to build.
Another heritage of Fry’s writings (if not his paintings) is the continued use of the formalist scheme when thinking and talking about works of art. As time passes, new ways of analysing works of art have entered the fray; modern critical theory offers a host of alternative methods that can make the formalist’s approach seem old-fashioned in comparison. Terms like Feminist Theory and Post-Structuralist Theory describe practices that are able to shed new and interesting light onto well-worn discussions. Many historians now work to highlight the social history of art, employing techniques that can be traced back to the theories of Karl Marx whilst also going beyond the conventional rubric of class divisions. The technique of dialectical analysis has inspired art historians to seek discord and contradictions in works of art, to locate evidence for social and cultural conflicts in the form of ‘narrative gaps’ and ‘silences’ in the work. The application of these techniques rarely yields a single answer to the question ‘What does this work mean?’ yet they offer ways of penetrating a work of art that more classical approaches do not.
Hence, to return to Nicholson’s painting, we may remind ourselves that it was produced during an interesting period for British art. The continental Modernist movement had been seen but perhaps not entirely absorbed by the time of the First World War. Roger Fry’s influence in bringing the language of formalism to British discourse has already been noted. However, in 1914 artistic links between Britain and Europe were temporarily severed, leaving a heritage of the ‘modern problem’, as the artist Frances Hodgkins expressed it, without a satisfactory solution. The problem, in short, was to account for the advances occurring on the continent whilst also attending to the persistence of pre-war values concerning the importance of nature’s forms and the eminence of the hand-made, domestic object.
In the combination of domesticity and experimentation we may discern Nicholson’s negotiation of the ‘modern problem’. Summer might thus be understood as a resolution of two positions; on the one hand the affirmation of modernist values and formalist concerns, abstraction and the integrity of the picture plane so epitomised by the works of Mondrian and explored by her husband Ben; on the other, the artist’s personal attachment to the products of nature with their homely and ‘familial’ evocations. The persistent appearance of flowers in her work, interjected between the viewer and the background landscape, may remind us that her landscapes were often painted from interior locations looking out. The landscape is dressed-up by a flower-pot on the windowsill, or in the case of Summer, by a flower-bed as the foremost object. One may also venture to suggest that colour became her beacon because it happily straddled both positions as an intrinsic feature of the real world of objects and also as part of the vernacular of modernism. Between these two poles, it is here suggested that Nicholson negotiated a successful path.