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Flowers That `Paint Themselves'

THIS painting by the English artist Winifred Nicholson (18931981) was painted looking out of a house on a hillside near Lake Lugano in the Italian Alps. The house, which her father had bought for her and her husband, the painter Ben Nicholson - they were only recently married - was called the Villa Capriccio. They spent several winters there in the early 1920s. ``Cyclamen and Primula'' is one of several paintings from that time and place, of flowers wrapped in tissue paper standing on a windowsill with all the light of sky, mountains, and lake limpid beyond, and the paper, flowers, leaves - even the pots and saucers - made translucent. These paintings were virtually the foundation of Winifred Nicholson's subsequent art - in their observation of a light so pervasive that it transforms whatever is in its path into a color-medium for its brightness; in their delight in the unassuming, their sensitivity to the fresh color and tender form of flowers; and in their realization that even cast shadows are full of light and living color.

These paintings began with one of lilies of the valley, or, in Italian, ``Mughetti,'' also wrapped in tissue paper sitting on a windowsill. In ``Moments of Light,'' her autobiographical essay, the artist describes the importance to her of mughetti at the Villa Capriccio:

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How many winters were there? I do not remember - but that last one our painting came to flowering point. It had hatched - Ben had given me a pot of lilies of the valley - Mugetti [sic] - in a tissue paper wrapper - this I stood on the window sill - behind was azure blue, Mountain, Lake, Sky, all there - and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe. That picture painted itself, and after that the same theme painted itself on that window sill, in cyclamen, primula, or cineraria - sunlight on leaves, and sunlight shining transparent through lens and through the mystery of tissue paper. I painted every day, and the last day when we had packed and there were no paint brushes out of suitcases, I had to paint with my fingers....

In the correspondence that Ben and Winifred shared over some 60 years, there was frank discussion of each other's paintings. Ben paid tribute to what he learned from Winifred, his first wife, (they were together about 10 years but kept in touch for the rest of their long lives) about color.

Winifred always greatly valued what Ben had to say about her paintings. But there were barriers between their complete understanding of each other's work which were mainly centered on her persistent conviction that color had to be liberated from its attachment to, or dependence on, forms and shapes, no less than objects. Ben Nicholson believed that you could never separate color from forms and shapes: They were the same thing. Without ``construction,'' he wrote her, ``NOTHING EXISTS ... I much admire your inspired flights of imagination but unless they have structure they do not fulfil themselves - as I see it.''

In the 1930s Winifred did become much intrigued by the idea of abstraction, and color as the essence of abstraction. She even took this particular picture - ``Cyclamen and Primula'' - and painted a sequence of increasingly abstract pictures based on its forms. These are really experiments in ``construction.''

Whether or not she was satisfied with the results, she later returned to painting flowers and landscapes rather than shapes and lines and forms for their own sake, and most of her abstract work - not all - seems, by comparison, too calculated and cold. Spontaneity is so integral to her vision; and the visible world - rather than what to her was the more contrived world of abstraction - seems to have sparked in her the ability to let the paintings ``paint themselves.'' She needed a ``motif.''

Of all the variations on ``Cyclamen and Primula,'' it is the original one that is both truest to her vision and has the most surprising and vivid light and color about it. It's almost as if she needed to prove to herself what she probably intuitively knew, that the capacity to make color seem vibrant and potent in a painting is more natural when a painting has the outside visible world underpinning it.The imagination helps supply the color the artist hints at.

Winifred found in flowers the liveliest color in nature, and knew that paint could only echo or suggest it. She had an acute sense of color harmony - rather than of complimentary dissonance - as a means of enhancement: colors that work for, rather than against, one another to produce vibrancy. She rarely resorted to dark tones or deep shadows to make bright colors seem brighter by crude contrast. For her the ``darker'' meant the more richly colorful, not the less light-full. Thus in ``Cyclamen and Primula'' there are few dark accents, because light reflects and reverberates everywhere. The carmine of the cyclamen heads, though strong, is still penetrated by light. The dark bar of the window frame is a structural element for the picture, - but even that firm division between inside and outside was not necessary for her in later pictures on the same theme, where she explores with no division (not even window glass) the near and the far, the particular and the general, the specific and the universal.

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I think also that this painting's symbolism - though delicately touched upon with the least emphasis - matters a lot. This symbolism vanished in her abstracted versions; it is dependent on the subject. For one thing the flowers are wrapped: They are a gift, and carry with them all the meaning of giving and receiving. In the translucent paper wrapping, the flowers are half hidden, inward, secretive and lightly protected: the symbol of intimacy. And then, above all, they are flowers, which, Winifred once wrote, held for her ``the secret of the Cosmos.'' For a different painter, strong conviction can certainly mean that an abstract shape or a form carries universal meaning. That is so for Ben Nicholson. For Winifred Nicholson it is more likely to be found in the small flower of a snowdrop, or early iris, in a cyclamen or a primula.

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