Ahead of Piano Nobile's Ben Nicholson exhibition, InSight considers a work which the artist made after swapping Cornwall for Switzerland in 1958. Nicholson liked to travel, though art was always his overwhelming concern in life, and his adventures abroad often prompted new ideas for his work.
The city of Mycenae, a leading polity and military strength in Greece between 1600 and 1100 BC, was long abandoned when the Romans came to rule the province. Writing in the second century AD, Pausanias referred to ‘the ruins of Mycenae’. A little earlier, Ovid reflected in the Metamorphosis,
Sparta was highly renowned and so was powerful Mycenae; […]
Sparta is bare, flat earth and the towers of Mycenae were toppled […].
When Ben Nicholson visited Greece for the first time in 1959, he responded to the ruins and made a small number of works which allude to the site. Speaking to the art critic John Russell a few years later in 1963, the artist described Mycenae as one of his favourite places.
Like many artists of a modernist persuasion, Nicholson had a nuanced attitude towards history. While he was fascinated by the ancient past and the longevity of human civilisation, originality was highly prized and he often downplayed any recent influences on his work. In a statement for the Unit 1 publication in 1934, Barbara Hepworth – Nicholson’s partner at the time – explained this love of things ancient among their generation of modernists.
[…] the earth revealing its shape to the feet and eye as I once walked up a long white road between trees and saw a stone arch two thousand years old standing on green flat space of earth against stony mountains […]. It is the relationship and the mystery that makes such loveliness […].
In the meeting of natural elements and ancient architectural fragments, these artists perceived something that was fundamental to life itself – something ineffable and unspeakably important. Theirs was a world where phrases like ‘total form’ were uttered in a spirit of deep conviction.
Nicholson’s incentive for adopting Greek placenames in the titles of his abstract reliefs was their irresistible connotation of something ‘classical’, removed from the swim of recent history. Though November 1959 (Mycenae 3 – brown and blue) is recognisably descended from the abstract language of circles and receding planes pioneered by Nicholson in the 1930s, its subtitle – the Greek Bronze Age city – invites a different set of comparisons from an earlier work like 1935 (white relief). Posing as the perfect fragment from a lost civilisation, this Mycenae work might be re-imagined as an irregular building block, a sawn-off shaft of stone, or the textured foundations of some crumbled palace. Though Nicholson never sanctioned this type of slick interpretation, he well understood that Greece and its ancient past opened a door onto the ultimate goal – ‘total form’ – and in cultivating that connotation, he moved closer to achieving his overriding artistic aim.