15 January 2016
Our work of the week is ‘1924 (Bertha No.2)’ by Ben Nicholson. This piece is currently on show in Beauty & Balance at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The title of the painting, inscribed by Nicholson on the back, suggests that it is a portrait rather than a generalised head. The sitter, however, has not been identified. Nicholson’s handling of the paint is here simple and swift. An off-white ground, still visible in places, forms the base for the urgent preliminary drawing. In both scale and execution, the artist seems to be making deliberate references to Renaissance frescoes. The head is larger than life and the bare shoulders would establish a massive body if projected beyond the canvas. Even the isolation of this detail recalls the way in which fragments of fresco were removed and framed. This is consistent with the growing appreciation amongst London art circles for the so-called Italian ‘primitives’. In this work their simple style and palette came to be combined with a solidity and faceting of the figure derived from Cubism.