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‘Telling Decoratively’: Ben Nicholson’s white reliefs and debates around abstraction and modernism in the home in the late 1920s and 30s

By Andrew Stephenson


Within the dynamic visual culture of late 1920s and 1930s' England, decoration and what constituted and signified the 'decorative' remained a vexed and much debated issue. Clement Greenberg had proposed that decoration was 'the spectre that haunted modernist painting', and terms such as 'decorative' were frequently employed by British art writers and critics as ones of disapproval and disapprobation. As any work that apparently compromised its artistic credentials and aesthetic integrity for easily attainable ornamental effects was branded as inferior, British artists frequently had to defend modernist work from the condemnation that it was amateurish, inauthentic and superficial. At key moments in these discussions, the language of sexual difference was strategically employed to reinforce distinctions between traditional forms of decoration and an emerging international modernism positively identified with the 'masculine', the professional, the rational and technological. By contrast, decoration was aligned with the 'feminine' and the fashionable, supporting the widespread claim that it signified an artist's market orientation and modern art's commercialisation. This article addresses the productive anxiety that these debates generated as they were brought into play to support (or undermine) the growing commitment of contemporary artists, designers and architects in England to continental modernism. In particular, it examines the changing critical evaluation of Ben Nicholson's 'reliefs' and 'white reliefs' in the light of these shifting categories and in relation to Nicholson's altering personal circumstances (namely his relationships with Winifred Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth). As younger, cosmopolitan audiences emerged whose approaches to design and architecture were disseminated by popular journalism and mediated through fashion and life-style magazines, and as post-cubist art languages were exploited by popular fashion and interior furnishings markets, so this antinomy between abstract art and decoration appeared less viable, especially as Nicholson's 'white reliefs' seemed so readily compatible with the then popular all-white interiors. Moreover, this article concludes that such re-structuring of artistic debates was responsive to (and reflective of) the vulnerability of men's and women's professional and economic status in the years around the Depression and that it registered the changing conditions of modern private and personal life. What it also signalled, in relation to the reception of Nicholson's abstract art, was an unstable reproduction of earlier artistic identities, gender role models and aesthetic hierarchies, suggesting that altered frameworks for understanding modern design aesthetics and sexual identities were already in currency amongs

Year: 2008
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