Ben Nicholson was a victim of his own caution. Even his most impressive works seem tainted by pastiche, Andrew Graham Dixon argues
William Nicholson, elegant Edwardian painter of elegant Edwardian still lives, never did much like his son Ben's pictures. ''Your paintings came at last with 80 something francs to pay on them,'' Nicholson senior wrote sniffily in 1914 to Nicholson junior, then 18 years old, who had sent some examples of his work home from abroad. ''The pictures frightened me a good deal they were so abnormal and they seemed to me the work of an untrained eye, both in colour and form. They have however a certain depressing distinction . . . Draw draw - only draw.''
''Ben Nicholson,'' at the Tate Gallery in London, sets out to consecrate Nicholson junior as the Oedipal hero of modern English painting: the artist who liberated himself not just from the influence of Nicholson senior but from all that he stood for in terms of the stuffy, conservative, well-mannered world of early 20th-century English art; the artist who cut loose and broke free from dun and dreary and parochial fatherland and who dared to step into the blinding white light of European modernism. In fact, the exhibition is an intriguing failure. It demonstrates that despite what the young Nicholson described as the need to ''break away from my family ptg painting tradition'', Ben always remained William's son.
Nicholson junior might have eschewed Nicholson senior's techniques, avoiding rich wet impasto and stolid academic drawing, but he did inherit his father's nonchalant facility and his ability to turn out quantities of perfectly unobjectionable and perfectly tasteful pictures by rote. Nicholson (like his father) painted almost no pictures that could be described as outright failures, but his consistency was inseparable from his greatest failing. He was too good at covering for his own lack of inspiration with extreme competence.
Early Nicholson is so determinedly faux-naif that he gives the impression of protesting too much against his own inherent polish and sophistication. He comes across as an artist singlemindedly bent on breaking the rules of good taste: Cortivallo, Lugano is an Italian landscape rendered in scrawled lines and patches of discontinuous colour; Balearic Isles, with its ghostly nude on a parapet against an arid and abstract landscape background, is a self-consciously primitivist reworking of the Mona Lisa. But he also comes across as an artist who knows that his tendency to cautious tastefulness is a handicap.
There is something touchingly pretentious about the young Nicholson's attempts to mimic the directness that he found and admired in the works of Le Douanier Rousseau and Alfred Wallis, the Cornish fisherman-turned-naive artist whom Nicholson and Christopher Wood came across in St Ives in 1928. Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, painted in that year, with its cartoon horse prancing on the strand, its child's-ideogram fishing boat and lighthouse, is Nicholson attempting to out-Wallis Wallis, to be as primitive as primitive can be. In fact, it is an involuntarily polite and sophisticated painting. The artist betrays himself in the care he has lavished on minute adjustments to the painting's tonalities and textures. The attention paid to pictorial harmonies of off-white and ochre marks Nicholson out as something of an old-fashioned Whistlerian aesthete. The result is a kind of nice dirtiness: the equivalent, in painting, of Marie-Antoinette dressing up as a shepherdess.
Constantly in this show you have the sense of a painter desperately attempting to be something other than he is; and of a painter perpetually misunderstanding what lies at the heart of the various kinds of otherness to which he aspires. Nicholson's pastiche Cubism may be the most embarrassing example of his role-playing because the Cubists' iconoclastic violence was so thoroughly alien to Nicholson's safety- first aesthetic. Attempting Cubism, Nicholson exposed both his perennial politeness and the emotional vacuum at the centre of his painting. The ingredients of Cubism are dutifully assembled, but the passion of Cubism - the way Picasso might turn a guitar into a threatening fetish, an object loaded with sexual suggestiveness - has gone missing. What Nicholson serves up, instead, is a contradiction in terms: tidy Cubism; neat and careful and ever so tasteful Cubism.
These particular pictures distort and denature their sources of inspiration so thoroughly that they seem almost vengefully genteel. Nicholson's Cubist pictures are painted in the colours (or non-colours) of polite English taste, a palette that evokes battered brown paintings in interiors filled with battered brown furniture. It is as if the English artist can only square Cubism with his timid English artistic sensibility by sabotaging it. Nicholson's nearly- Braques and not-quite-Picassos are pictures that have been purged of dangerous modernity, made to look smoked by time. Painting Cubist pictures the colour of kippers, Cubist pictures that look as venerable (and unthreatening) as the dark old pictures in English country houses comes to look like Nicholson's way of holding Cubism, with all its passionate energy and irrational force, at arm's length.
Nicholson broke out of safe brownness just once in his career. In the 1930s and early 1940s he created what remain, still, among the most remarkable English works of art this century: his white reliefs and his pure geometrical abstractions, with their sudden slivers of icy blue, their blocks of postbox red and their bricks of vivid yellow. Nicholson became, for a short moment, England's answer both to Le Corbusier and to Mondrian. He became the only English artist who dared to dream one of the great modernist dreams, of whiteness, brightness and ethereal spareness, of a bright new world released from base materialism into a spiritual zone of purified forms and dancing colours. He became an artist championed by other and younger English artists who saw in his example the possibility of escape from provincialism and marginality. ''To this day,'' the Tate's catalogue informs us, ''Patrick Heron maintains that Nicholson was a greater artist that Mondrian, Miro or Klee.''
That is the view from Planet St Ives, but in the real world Nicholson's achievement seems considerably less substantial. In retrospect, even his most impressive works seem tainted by the spirit of pastiche that infects virtually everything that preceded them. The awkward fact remains that Nicholson relatively quickly turned his back on the daring and clarity of his work of the 1930s and early 1940s. This may be because - unlike Mondrian - Nicholson can hardly be said to have struggled his way to hard-won visionariness. The suspicion lingers, even over his most seductive works, the white reliefs, that Nicholson was always an artist trying to dream other artists' dreams: someone who could never have the courage of his convictions because conviction was somehow beyond him.
The later stages of this show are deeply disappointing, as Nicholson progressively muddies the clear waters of his own abstract style. He draws twee little drawings of the English landscape, and scales his reliefs up to mural size. Everything goes brown and sepia, appallingly tasteful in the English manner. Walking out of one last room of kipper-coloured picures, it is clear that Nicholson became, finally, just the kind of artist that his father might have approved of.
''Childish pranks which . . . should not be taken au serieux .'' PG Konody 1927
''His achievement is already considerable and. . .require(s) us to recognize in Ben Nicholson one of the major artists of our time.'' Herbert Read 1952
''Nicholson. . .is one of the best, albeit minor painters alive at the moment.'' Clement Greenberg 1949
''Nicholson. . .hasn't the means to say anything of consequence.'' John Berger 1955
''Here at last is an English artist of universal significance''. Michel Seuphor, 1955.
''The still-life paintings are impregnated with qualities of light, texture and colour which convey one at once to St Ives.'' Patrick Heron 1952
''To categorize him as a St Ives artist is to misunderstand his art. In the 1930s he was close to being a Constructivist.'' Jeremy Lewison 1993
''He was never a Constructivist. He speaks about art as a form of religious experience.'' Norbert Lynton 1993
''One looks at the Constructivism as if it's just to do with mathematics and misses the poetry. There's a more intuitive way.'' Christopher Neve 1993
Genius or prankster?
''Childish pranks which . . . should not be taken au serieux.'' PG Konody, 1927
''His achievement is already considerable and . . . require(s) us to recognise in Ben Nicholson one of the major artists of our time.'' Herbert Read, 1952
''Nicholson . . . is one of the best, albeit minor painters alive at the moment.'' Clement Greenberg, 1949
''Nicholson . . . hasn't the means to say anything of consequence.'' John Berger, 1955
''Here at last is an English artist of universal significance''. Michel Seuphor, 1955
''The still-life paintings . . . convey one at once to St Ives.'' Patrick Heron, 1952
''To categorise him as a St Ives artist is to misunderstand his art. He was close to being a Constructivist.'' Jeremy Lewison, 1993
''He was never a Constructivist. He speaks about art as a form of religious experience.'' Norbert Lynton, 1993
''He is part of International Modernism and almost alone among English artists in this.'' Christopher Neve, 1993