First there were Ben and Winifred, just married, painting the same scenes side by side like proto-modernist peas in a pod. Then along came Christopher, troubled and ambitious, who’d been to Paris to meet Picasso and wanted to be the most famous painter in Britain. Together, Ben and Winifred Nicholson and Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood made the kind of faltering steps towards modernism that render Britain’s early twentieth-century art history such a pleasant if slightly plodding affair. Throw in some biographical detail, some letters and diary entries, though, and you end up with something far pacier. It’s the type of exhibition-making at which Dulwich excels.
‘Art and Life’ focuses on the 1920s and develops in a series of play-like scenes – geographically, from Lugano and London to Cumberland (now Cumbria) and Cornwall. In Chelsea in 1925 the Nicholsons share everything including a palette: he attempts his first abstract, a stuttering, blocky affair; she paints two vases of flowers on a window sill, the city’s chimney pots receding beyond. It sets a lasting creative template. In Cumberland Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood go out sketching together, trying to reduce the landscape to its bare essentials. All three of them have a go at painting Northrigg Hill seen from Hadrian’s Wall. The results are shown side by side: Winifred’s unfussy version gets my vote.
Of the remaining characters in this tale, while the relatively unknown potter William Staite Murray is given perhaps too much emphasis, the naive painter Alfred Wallis, whom Wood and Ben Nicholson ‘discovered’ in St Ives in the summer of 1928, has never looked so important to the story of British art. Ben Nicholson, in particular, is transformed by Wallis’s directness, his disregard for perspective and rectangular painting supports.
Cornwall marks a high point but also a kind of unravelling of the story. By 1930, Ben and Winifred begin to separate. Even though the gallery texts insist on their enduring friendship, she paints two of their children ‘Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight’ (1931-32) looking so disconsolate in their party hats that you half want to phone the CSA.
When a show bring artists to life so roundly, the galleries are bound to feel haunted. But the ghost here is more of an elephant in the room. Step forward Ben Nicholson’s lover and future second wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, with whom he would become the most famous artist couple in the land. Except she doesn’t. The show leaves the story dangling, with Ben and Winifred in the throes of divorce and Kit Wood jumping under a train at Salisbury station, his talent and ambition unfulfilled. Momentarily, you may feel unfulfilled yourself by this fizzling ending but you’ll leave hungry for the next instalment.