Image: Leeds City Gallery
Art and Life’ follows the artistic partnership between Ben and Winifred Nicholson in the 1920s and the varying influences their friends and fellow collaborators (Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William Staite Murray) had on their work. The Leeds City Art Gallery has made a considerable effort to demonstrate the lasting impact these friendships had on the Nicholsons, with a vague nod to the fluctuating art scene of the time such as the growing fascination with cubism and ‘primitive’ art by artists such as Picasso, whose work, particularly his ‘Guitar’ sculptures, have clearly shaped the pottery exhibited by William Staite Murray.
The exhibition opens with a series of comparative pieces by the Nicholsons. Inspired by one another’s techniques, the couple often painted the same subject together, with Ben specialising in form and Winifred in colour. The contrast demonstrated between the couple’s works allows the visitor the opportunity to explore their varying artistic differences and therefore to later fully appreciate the artists’ individual creative developments. Arguably the exhibition best displays their differing focuses in their series of window views. Through the shared technique of interior views of differing landscapes we see a disparity in their interests. Ben is forever eager to explore the livelihood and busy fishing boats of St Ives from the safe distance of a nondescript window sill, whilst Winifred continually ventures into the perspective of her subjects. Occasional comparisons such as these are continued throughout the exhibition, and are clearly very well thought out.
Despite the fact their works were visually stimulating I could not help but feel disappointed that the couple were heading the exhibition. The relationships between the couple and the group of artists as a whole appeared secondary to the overriding influences of cubist and ‘primitive’ art. What should have been a side note appeared wrongly as a header.
The work of the Nicholson’s associate Christopher Wood appears most strongly resonant in the exhibition, perhaps due to the fact that his work had clearly undergone the most drastic shift in technique. Following a similarly contemplative window view (‘Anemones in a Cornish Window’) the trail ends with a final flourish of surrealism from Wood with his ‘Zebra and Parachute’ which interestingly features Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy. There is a sense of ground breaking development. Wood’s recognition of the art world combined with his depression, addiction to opium and financial insecurities coloured his work more strongly than a like-minded friend- ship.
If the purpose of this exhibition had been to demonstrate the influence of the art world on a group of artists, who happened to be friends, then Wood would have led the exhibition. Interesting as it is to observe the works of an artistic couple, it is far more enticing to picture the development of modern genius than a circumstantial marriage.