ART EXHIBITIONS / Cool, calm and collected: Great claims have been made for Ben Nicholson. But a new retrospective at the Tate Gallery reveals an accomplished painter who is lacking in passion

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The Independent Culture
HE'S ALWAYS said to be the classic painter of English modern art, and looking round the Ben Nicholson retrospective at the Tate one can see how commanding his presence must once have been. He has the serenity of a man who never put a foot wrong. Nicholson may have made mistakes in his life but his paintings are judicious, perfectly judged, faultlessly executed. And what a supreme diplomat he was. The pictures are full of ideas that he took from other people. But he sails calmly through his influences, as though Braque and Mondrian were indebted to him and not the other way around.

This is a fine tribute to one of the Tate's favourite sons. The works have been carefully chosen and are beautifully hung. A separate gallery contains prints and drawings, emphasising the abundance of Nicholson's production. The catalogue, mainly the work of the exhibition's curator, Jeremy Lewison, has much new information culled from archives, and he offers a number of challenging interpretations of Nicholson's career and general standing. Not all of these are Lewison's own, and the most dramatic is his report of Patrick Heron's view of Nicholson as an international figure: 'To this day Heron maintains that Nicholson was a greater artist than Mondrian, Miro or Klee.'

They have their internal quarrels, but once out of Cornwall these St Ives artists always stick up for each other. Heron's claims are exaggerated. This is not the retrospective of a great man; but it does show that in the craft of picture-making Nicholson had few peers.

I write 'craft' because of his expertise, neatness and deep wish to please, if not to be useful. His career coincided with what were, all in all, the best years of the crafts in England, and surely there is a connection in his art as well as his social life. Perhaps this is a prejudice. I come from a generation (and a part of this country, Birmingham) that had limited sympathy with St Ives art. We wanted more difficult pictorial innovation and sculpture of steel. People who made cars were preferable to prats by the seaside wearing pseudo fishermen's clothes and applying glazes to little pots. They still are. My difficulty with Nicholson is in the higher daintiness of his work, the feeling that everything comes easily to a person of such talents. He belongs to the ruling class of art.

He was born into it. The eldest son of Sir William Nicholson, he went,as though nature had intended it, to the Slade and then to Paris. Asthmatic, he did not serve in the Kaiser's war. His independent career began in the 1920s. The first room in the Tate is very impressive. One likes the touch and the ability, which I suppose may have been innate, to compose just that little bit off

balance, yet with the charm to right the balance. It seems that his own art was already inclined to accept the influence of Alfred Wallis, whom he famously 'discovered' on his first trip to St Ives in 1928.

The proof of this is in the delightful Porthmeor Beach of the same year. Already, though, one wants to say something like this: Benny, paint thick, put beef into your colour, load your brush, get a palette knife, use weight as well as lightness. All his life Nicholson stood away from his surfaces. He was not a physical painter. That does not make him an inadequate one, but it suggests that he was not involved in his material. And, around 1933, a crucial time came. He could have changed by using collage. Instead he hit on the expedient of making reliefs, pictures stepping backwards in shallow planes.

Within the realm of fine art, collage is done by artisans and relief by craftsmen. Collage is more physical and awkwardly changes the shape of a picture. Relief, honed and finely adjusted, tends to confirm the picture's outside boundaries. Noticeably, Nicholson liked to enhance previously made boxes by decoration and polishing before he turned to relief. And once he established the quarter-inch steps of a relief picture, his composition became precise. Colour was more difficult to apply because it would be at different distances from the notional picture plane (or, often, the relief's glazing). So his palette paled; and then we get the acclaimed all-white reliefs of the mid-1930s.

Though they are an innovation and respond to international abstraction of the day, I find them wanting. The craftsperson, as so often, aspired to architecture rather than to art. Nicholson would have made better use of relief had it led him to sculpture rather than the imitation of facades. But, again, sculpture was too artisanal. The best of his reliefs is a hefty brown job on a curved panel, called Rangitane after the liner for which it was destined. This looks as if someone had really made it - if not with hammers, at least with heart and strength.

Perhaps Nicholson's marriage to a sculptor (Barbara Hepworth) drained him of the desire to make genuinely three-dimensional work. Or there may have been something deeper in his temperament. Asthma? I look forward to two books coming out next year about the arts and the asthmatic life. We know what it does to literary folk: they read grown-up books in bed when they are children. But artists? Might the condition not lead to this distant feeling about the making of art that one senses in Nicholson?

Conjecture, merely, covering coarse Brummie attitudes. None the less we must find an explanation for Nicholson's weakness in Nicholson. I think a clever decorum took over, as if automatically, when inspiration failed. And I don't think he really admired anyone. Very typical of the old ruling classes.

Tate (071-887 8000) to 9 Jan.

(Photographs omitted)