© Angela Verren Taunt 2015. All rights reserved, DACS

1935 (WHITE RELIEF) 1935

Ben Nicholson (1894 – 1982)


54.5 X 80 CM
Accession number


It is, you might say, simply a lavatory artform, a clean antiseptic bath¬room 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 aplomb something of the battle between the new forms of Modern Art that was raging across the Channel. 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 seeth¬ing 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 a significant part of the working 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 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 a frame, set against the general confusion of the era. Nicholson himself explained, ‘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)


1. Porteus quoted in Jeremy Lewison, 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, 24.
4. Ibid., 33.
5. Nicholson quoted in Lewison, 33.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009