Painted in 1929, Ben Nicholson’s 1929 (Guy Fawkes) represents a pivotal movement in his oeuvre, and the burgeoning development of a modernist aesthetic. Having spent the previous decade moving away from his father’s legacy, Nicholson now sought to establish himself as a pioneering member of the British Modernist movement, challenging the established ideas of quality and finish, and focusing instead on the interplay and experimentation of surface, pictorial space and form.
Although he strove for the pursuit of a more simplified and pared back modern aesthetic, which could speak of the sensibilities of the day, Nicholson never turned his back on the figurative completely. One of his most effective tools and beloved of themes was the still life: a reference point from which he was to produce some of his most boldly innovative paintings. Amongst the still lifes of the late 1920s are a handful of firework paintings, created between 1929-32, that highlight his sense of experimentation and playfulness, of which 1929 (Guy Fawkes) is one of the finest examples.
At the time that 1929 (Guy Fawkes) was painted, Nicholson was particularly close to Christopher Wood. Wood was a guest at Bankshead, Ben and Winifred’s home in Cumberland in March 1928. Later that summer, the trio spent two and half months together in Cornwall and developed an intimate friendship that fostered an intense period of creativity for them all, with one often influencing the other. Indeed, Nicholson said that: ‘The subject of “fireworks” came first to Kit Wood’ (B. Nicholson, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1969, p. 19). Winifred later recalled to Frosca Munster that, ‘Ben and Kit had made friends with a friendship and fellowship in their work which brought the very best of them to flowering point – it was great fun to see – the zest and vitality of life in it meant everything to us all’ (W. Nicholson, letter to F. Munster, circa 1930, quoted in R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood, London, 1995, p. 184).
This period of creativity was enhanced by their encounter with the fisherman-painter, Alfred Wallis in St Ives during the summer of 1928. Wallis had retired from deep-sea fishing, aged seventy, and after the death of his wife had turned to painting to keep himself occupied. His naïve and child-like vision of fishing boats and landscapes on scraps of irregular, old bits of paper and cardboard, which were nailed onto his walls, appealed to Nicholson and his modernist sensibilities, captivated by their raw immediacy and instinctive nature. Charles Harrison saw that Wallis’s work was a positive influence on Nicholson stating: ‘… The influence of Wallis upon Nicholson, when it came, was to add sophistication and abstractness to his work rather than any superficial naivety’ (C. Harrison, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, Tate Gallery, 1969, p. 15). Jeremy Lewison described that Nicholson, ‘valued Wallis’s use of irregular pieces of cardboard on which to paint and the interrelationship he achieved between ground, texture and colour. Nicholson perceived in Wallis’s work a sense of the painting as an object and enjoyed the stress he placed naturally and possibly unknowingly on materials’ (J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford, 1991, p. 11).
This increased interest in the surface and the materiality of things, inspired by Wallis, is evident in 1929 (Guy Fawkes). Here Nicholson deploys a series of loose and broad brushstrokes to create patches of saturated colour, which are both descriptive of objects but are also themselves the subject. His scumbled use of tone, in particular the earthy colours of the background, which paired with the vibrant unnatural tones of the fireworks, interlaid with pencil, only emphasises the materiality further. Nicholson also plays with the pictorial space, almost eliminating perspective completely to further emphasise the two-dimensionality of the work. The idea of stressing the materiality of the paint surface would be taken further in the white reliefs of the early 1930s.
Works from this period, such as 1929 (Guy Fawkes), are often linked to that of the Cubists, in particular Picasso and Braque, with whom Nicholson became good friends. Nicholson was well versed in the modernist movements from the Continent, as he travelled extensively with Winifred through Paris and Northern Europe in the 1920s. These frequent trips, along with Wood’s even closer links, aided by his time spent in Paris in the early 1920s, where he met Picasso, Cocteau and the Parisian crowd centered around Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, exposed Nicholson to a freer and more modern approach to art than Britain had yet experienced. This influence can be seen in Nicholson’s work, perhaps most evidently in his focus on the theme of table-top still life, a flattened perspective and the inclusion of type-face, which he utilised to dramatic effect in the present work. Lewison, however, marks some clear differences, which stood Nicholson apart from the Cubist artists. He explains: ‘The overlapping objects found in Nicholson’s work of the late twenties together with the flattened perspective are characteristic of Braque but, whereas Braque was interested in the plasticity and merging of objects, Nicholson emphasised their flatness, independence and individuality … While accepting the changes in the perception of the object which Cubism introduced, Nicholson was less interested in Cubist structure … he isolates the objects and whereas in a Cubist composition each object would be seen from different angles, here each object is viewed from a single angle, although not consistently the same one’ (J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford, 1991, p. 12).
Lewison concludes, ‘The twenties were a decade of artistic variety and experiment for Nicholson in which he continued to educate himself by appropriating and assimilating the styles of other artists, using them, however, in a manner which was ultimately characteristic of no one but himself. His paintings in this decade show evidence of a mastery of line, quick and incisive wit, an ability to paint in close tones rather than high-pitched colour and, above all, an enjoyment of materials’ (J. Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Oxford, 1991, p. 12).