Saturday, 15 December 2018

‘P’ is for ‘Parrot’: William Nicholson’s Birds


The still-lifes of William Nicholson frequently pivot between seeming like chance arrangements that have caught his eye (the ruse), and a kind of frank aknowedgement that they are in fact carefully contrived and composed groupings of like, quite-like and un-like- surfaces and shapes chosen for their echoes, equivelances and opposites (the reality). 

Yet two of his still-lifes (rare in that they include birds) Parrot and Persimmons (1915) (2.) and The Rose Crested Cockatoo (1917) (1.) stand out with their overt exoticism (and to an extent historicism). 


These paintings also offer much less in terms of their handling and surfaces- none of the complex play of decoration on ceramics such as in Pink Still-life with Jug (4.), or the perceptual feats of reflected and refracted light and shadow of the glassware in Glass Jug with Pears on a Plate (3.). Yet despite (or because of?) this, they remain compelling: Nicholson rears the bird pictures away from simple divertesment through his typically inventive, subtley suggestive subversions of composition and content.



Practically Flaubertian prose, the well-behaved precision of Nicholson’s flawless handling, with its pitch-perfect calibrations of mark, surface and tone, often masks a hundred buried asocisiations that cumulatively register (subconsciously but substantially) to colour the work. 

With its unlikely, tarte palette of blue & orange & red & grey, Parrot and Persimmons is also very ‘frontal’ for a Nicholson. Often he chooses a vewpoint from high or low, yet here the ambiguities are much less immediately apparent, in a very conventional, though quite low, mid-foreground, with only the bird poking out from the frame. 

More arresting is the blue background and what is going on in the top right corner. 


At first the background looks to be a crumbling plaster wall- but then we see the chequered fabric is hung on top of the edge of this blue surface- which is what? A partially filled-in canvas? A drawing board (it seems to have pin or nail holes)? If it is a canvas, or a board wrapped in it, then the weave of the actual canvas is allowed to ‘double up’ as depicted canvas, the thin paint representing itself (a frequent Nicholson conceit).

There is an emphasis on the wrapped and stretched nature of the thing- one kind of fabric over another, and in turn painted on another again. It is very much a ‘painted’ thing. And still- the blue can read like a hazy sky- the ledge of a wall in the foreground, the arch of a bridge and a canopy above- with just enough horizontal sweeping to suggest perhaps a Venetian canal (or equivalent). 

There is an indoors-outdoors relationship going on; the exotic bird has no call to be inside, and so must be domesticated, yet we feel strong sunlight in a nearby window (if we are inside at all), with the strong shadows cast by the persimmons; the light and space feels open and external rather than closed and interior, maybe even a hawker’s stall or a market; but if the blue backdrop is a board it seems strangely close, propped up on the table (which itself can read subconsciously as stone, due to the dark stripe in the bottom right corner seeming like a joint between slabs), and with an utterly dark space behind.

There is a sense that the blue screen could topple over quite easily, revealing the darkness behind. The indoors/outdoors quality suggests something of an offering in the fruit and the dish- as if left out for the bird – maybe even a lure? Certainly, there is a sense in still-life of the objects being a kind of offering to rope in the viewer- and perhaps this is partly the old meaning of birds in the genre, attracted onto windowsills by glittery trinkets, an avatar of and ironic comment on the connoisseur (birds, with their feathered strokes of colour, their flitting sense of flight, motion, light and so on are also a very ‘painting’ kind of subject). Or perhaps they subvert the genre's concern with worth/value, contained/un-contained, ownership and possession, natural and synthetic beauty/worth, 'you can't take it with you', etc.

The sense of a lure or even a trap is extended in The Rose Crested Cockatoo, where the black tray is both a kind of portal and a trap door.

The strong highlight suggests it is highly glazed and polished, yet it seems to absorb most of the light that touches it. Where Nicholson would normally make a feature of the bird’s dark reflection there is practically none. The tray behaves like a black hole into another time or place, but also a blind or shutter or screen, it refuses to interact totally with the reality around it. The string attached to the bird’s feet subconsciously reads also as a kind of pull-string- as if set up like the old trick of propping a lid on a box with a stick tied to a string, pulled away when the bird is lured inside (in this case by a bread roll).

The shape of the diminutive upturned teacup, with its associated china tinkle, also recalls something of a falconer’s bell- again suggesting the idea of a lure, or a summoning. Perhaps Nicholson is also saying something about the setting-up of pictures- the blue screen and the black tray corollaries of the various rectangles of easel painting, as if the act of wrapping fabric round a stretched rectilinear frame is already a kind of trap, a thing which accrues images, which encourages them to collect and coalesce, like spreading jam in a jar to attract wasps. And perhaps also that these rectangle traps can be just that; that certain images just seem to fit, to fall into place, that the rectangle is sympathetic to certain arrangements, that there is a reason for paintings across history containing certain things, taking certain forms; and equally, that one must be wily enough to outsmart these traps, to be alert enough and inventive enough to out-manoeuvre them, to work close to them without totally falling in. 
It is as if the rectilinear frame is some kind of two-way transmitter/receiver- as if the painted bird has fallen through from an earlier era. 

There is a slightly mystical dimension to the painting- extended through the toppled teacup and spilled tealeaves, creating connotations of divination, or homespun sorcery.  Both the blue screen and the tray being propped up on shallow table tops give the sense of a magician’s obfuscating curtains, distracting handkerchiefs, concealing screens, or boxes with hidden compartments, fake backs, mirrors, as if to pull a dove from an empty box. Or the string attached to the bird can look like it is pulled through to the other side of the oval tray by the looping forms of the cup-handle and spoon, as if the image of the bird against the oval is a Thaumatrope- or ‘wonder turner’ – those Victorian novelties where a disk depicting, say, a bird on one side and an empty cage on the other were spun with a ribbon to produce an optical illusion of overlap, as if bird and cage were one image (5.) (thus also carrying ideas of image, object and associative illusion, mirroring the way Nicholson’s use of shadow, negative shapes and strategic overlap create ghost images within the image).  


The dominant oval in the picture renders it emblem-like- like a medieval emblem that would be accompanied by a motto or a moral couplet - but here meaning is totally elusive. The objects point at the notion of meaning and symbolism, of an ordered world of images and significance (again, looking for meaning in the bottom of a teacup, the tray like a crystal ball that’s gone dark) – perhaps Nicholson is consciously or unconsciously dealing with the problems of art and meaning in a world that can seem inimical to either (I’m sure historical commentary could make much of the painting’s date of 1917). Both paintings (physically) offer a kind of void where we might expect to find a subject- the later work much more emphatically so. 

That the image is such an emblematic thing renders it very much as an image- it is definitively ‘picture’, a contrivance. It is an overtly decorated, made-thing, with the string/ribbon a decorative flourish which loops its way into Nicholson’s signature on the bottom right edge. 

The curious echo of the bird’s feet and the ‘seam’ in the bread roll join up with this thread to form a kind of letter shape, generating a large set of unreadable initials between the roll and the loop of string. Or even a ‘‘P’ is for parrot’’ in the bottom right corner, as in the woodcuts of the alphabet and of animals which Nicholson produced earlier in his career (6.), taking the image into an eerie nursery rhyme territory while also speaking of categorisation and selection, breaking the world into manageable chunks, like the bird pecking crumbs from the roll (or seeing what can be done with humble scraps and morsels?) 



Decorative pictures of birds within still lives of fruit and food, frequently on ledges, sills, table tops, go back to ancient Roman painting (the black tray recalls the floor mosaic of a fully-lit parrot against an arrestingly mysterious black background now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, (7.)), and Nicholson seems to an extent to be dealing with the ‘idea’ of painting- its history and conventions, its eccentricities and peculiarities. Ledges, drapes, artful arrangements of food and objects, perched birds, inside and outside, interior and exterior light and space – these are the common language and inheritance of painted images of objects in rooms, and the constituent elements of these two paintings. 


Not just these paintings- there is a striking resemblance between the basic elements of Nicholson’s Red Crested Cockatoo and Henri Matisse’s The Painting Lesson (1919) (8.), painted 2 years later. Matisse would almost certainly have had no awareness of Nicholson, and common wisdom has the two of them on such divergent trajectories that they might as well be painting in different galaxies, orbiting different stars. 

Nicholson’s fame, such as it is, rests practically on his inexplicable imperviousness to absorbing even the most basic principles or formal strategies of modernism- as a kind of blinkered, eternal Edwardian dandy. And yet, are there really insurmountable differences between Nicholson and Matisse? Do they share no common ground? The connections between these two pictures would suggest they in fact do.


Both pictures are dominated by an oval- each the equal and opposite of the other. One is black and defies reflection against a featureless white wall, the other is a white, reflective mirror against a black void (also with Thaumatrope-like handles). Against these black and white dominances both pictures spread thin notes of gold ochre, grey and pink, appearing slightly starched. Both arrangements are set up on white tablecloths with angled implements (spoon, brush) to break up and define the pictorial space; both allude to an outside world, light from windows, and to the presence of an artist; the painter at easel in the left corner, the signature to the right. 


The Matisse is part of a group of paintings made between 1914-19 that have been interpreted as referring obliquely to the War- the other’s including The Piano Lesson (1916(9.)), (in which his recently deployed son is imagined to be young and carefree again, but which is also sharply divided by harsh triangles that cast a shadow across the boy’s face and in turn mirror the indomitable metronome, counting away the time) and the dark blank of the highly abstract French Window at Collioure (1914 (10.)). Similarly, the black shapes in the book that the young woman is reading are probably printed images- but with the sadness in her expression there is perhaps the suggestion again that meaning has been lost, gone AWOL, that a black mood and an uncertain future hang over everything. 

But perhaps it’s not all dark. Nicholson’s parrot and Matisse’s painting lesson also allude to learning and teaching, to reading- if we are to read the ‘‘P’ is for parrot’, emblematic nature of the Nicholson, with its blank blackboard, as a kind of enigmatic demonstration or example (or ‘problem’).   


Both images then seem to deal with the idea of ‘lesson’, and with some sort of notion of painting ‘truths’ (rather than ‘truisms?) and artifices. 

Like the bird in the still life, Matisse’s model is present by contrivance, having to read while acting like she doesn’t know she is being painted – while we know she knows she is. 

The painting is alternatively known either as The Painting Session or The Painting Lesson. It’s hard to say why there might be this confusion- perhaps because it doesn’t automatically make sense as a literal depiction of a ‘lesson’ as such (unless the painter on the left is not Matisse, and the image instead depicts two students put to work in the roles of artist and model). Yet there’s undeniably a quietly studious schoolroom atmosphere- a hermetic little chamber with a few teaching aids, a table, some books, and a tantalizing view of the outside world from the window. 

What the ‘lesson’ might actually be is the painting itself: the way it rhymes off its constituent parts- vase, flowers, fruit, table, mirror/window, figure – like a times table, while never coming across as calculated- more a kind of dazzlingly simple expression of something complex (and a dazzlingly complex expression of something simple), like an elegant algebraic solution. 

Yet it would be an act of astounding arrogance to declare a picture one’s ‘lesson’ on painting- ‘this is how you do it’. Rather it is a kind of treatise or argument – something to test and prove something to oneself as much as others (and certainly open to their judgement and critique).

Part of the legacy of still life (as with painting from models in such contrived setups) is one of pedagogy. Still-lives were traditionally learning and demonstration pieces, but also a kind of self-set exam. 

Throughout their careers, Nicholson and Matisse would set themselves pictorial problems- how to deal with light, space, weight etc. in this or that subject or this or that composition- perhaps both paintings are a kind of acknowledgment of this process, that one has to continually give oneself lessons to learn. Nicholson particularly ticked off subjects like an encyclopaedia, working his way through (‘P is for ‘Parrot’’) an incredibly wide range of images, never daunted by the innately picturable quality of the world but taking it on as his life’s work.

Yes, the Matisse is the more ‘radical’ in everything from colour and handling to composition and draughtsmanship – but are these means to an end not entirely removed from that of Nicholson’s? Many of the same games are being played in each painting- but in different measures, and to different extents. Both pictures reward sustained viewing, by problematising themselves in various ways.

Perhaps why the Matisse shares so many (inverted) formal similarities with the Nicholson is that he is also dealing with the inherited language of forms that have been absorbed into the artform- albeit in his own way and in his own terms. It would also suggest that the ‘gap’ between Nicholson and the ‘progressive’ trends of modernism is not quite so simple. There is an immense overlap in the basic common ground between the pictorial concerns of Nicholson and Matisse- Matisse who lauded Chardin above all, whose statement about wanting to make paintings which could act as ‘a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue’ is strikingly close to Diderot’s 1767 statement that ‘we stop in front of a Chardin as if by instinct, like a traveller weary of the road choosing, almost without realizing, a place that offers a grassy seat, silence, water and cool shade’. Both these statements are, in turn, ultimately misleading about what Chardin, Matisse and Nicholson are actually doing within their tradition, which is to present something, yes, on the one hand, lyrical and pleasing- but also empirically troubling, uncertain and ambiguous.

That we can recognise the compromised conservatism which can be detected in Matisse, does not remotely blot out his innovation and radicalism- any more than Nicholson’s conservatism should be allowed to blind us to his own compromised radicalism.

Perhaps the two painters- whose lives spanned roughly the same period, one working in graphic arts at the beginning of his career, the other picking it up in his last years, who were both preoccupied with how people exist with objects in rooms, and how these objects and rooms have been and might be depicted- like these two pictures are their own equals and opposites.