THE GUILLOTINE

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 18: BEN NICHOLSON
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Throughout the century, and in almost all the high art forms, the British artistic intelligentsia adopted uncannily the same shilly- shallying, wait-and-see attitude to continental modernism as the present government has to the prospect of Britain signing up as a full-fledged member of a politically integrated Europe. It's a question in both cases of: eventually, but not yet. Let's find out if it works before we commit ourselves. Let's, in short, do it the British way.

At the same time, again in both the cultural and political domains, we've zealously fostered what we affect to think of as our special relationship with the United States. Our novels (those, notably, of Amis fils) read as if they had been written by Americans. Our movies increasingly strain to replicate the glitzy textures of the mainstream Hollywood product. And, of course, the most successful art movement latterly associated with this country was Pop - and, even on this side of the Atlantic, Pop meant Elvis Presley not Elvis Costello, hamburgers and fries not fish and chips, America not Europe.

There were exceptions, to be sure, but none of them escaped contamination from the general pusillanimity of the British art world and its phobia of authentic modernity. Ben Nicholson, for example. Nicholson was a fine, subtle artist who could manipulate tones, lines and planes with a compositional panache calculated still to delight the eye and engage the mind. And yet ... When one studies his canvases, one is fatally reminded of someone else, inevitably a European master.

This elegantly cubistic painting of a Dieppe cafe window? Picasso. This still-life of a guitar? Braque. This white-on-white relief? Malevich. These rectangular blocks of colour? Mondrian. This abstract arrangement in black, red and white? Mir.

And so it goes. For all Nicholson's unquestioned talent, for all the grace, the airy rarefaction, of his paintings, one is forcibly made aware that in nearly every case someone else got there first. In fact, one is made aware of his belatedness on the scene precisely because of his work's unfailing charm, its svelteness, its total absence of rough edges. He was content to transform the innovations of a Picasso or a Mondrian into mere felicities. They were pioneers; he, like a true Brit, was a gentrifier.

Comments