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Tate salutes artist who sought to paint light

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 1987


Matisse said color must not ``simply `clothe' the form: It must constitute it.'' This observation could almost have been the touchstone for the long painting career of the English artist Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981).

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The Tate Gallery is currently staging the first sizeable retrospective of Nicholson's paintings (through Aug. 2). It is a show that cannot have been easy to put together. A major retrospective suggests the honors of importance and history - both of which Nicholson, in her approach to art, tended to avoid.

``Masterpieces'' she felt were for other artists, and she scarcely ever dated her works. In addition, most of them are of modest size. A feeling of simple domesticity sometimes seems to hover over her aims and achievements. These pictures belong in low-ceilinged rooms, in people's kitchens and sitting rooms. They do not look entirely at home in large public galleries. Such a context emphasizes a certain prettiness that was an undoubted risk in work that concentrated largely on the loveliness of the world, in work composed with a light touch and palette. This said, however, the refreshing originality of Nicholson's paintings, and of the vision she kept alive and kicking over many years, certainly deserves the Tate's accolade.

To coincide with this show - which will travel to five other venues in Britain after the Tate - a book called ``Unknown Colour'' (edited by Andrew Nicholson, her son, published by Faber and Faber, 30) has come out. The book gathers her writings together with a further selection of her paintings well reproduced in color.

What emerges from exhibition and book (perhaps most tellingly from the latter) is a painter with a rare, intuitive sensitivity to color. Colors to her were not only the relating qualities that constitute light, but the scarcely explored essence of painting itself. Her pursuit was to paint light. Like Matisse, she wanted her paintings to give out their own luminosity - and one is almost persuaded that they do, though of course paintings can only reflect light. She possessed, and never lost, a child's love of nature - particularly of its bright, iridescent aspects (whether minute or vast); and this love fed her deep appreciation and expression of both light and light's vast spectrum of colors.

The physical qualities of color clearly fascinated her; she studied - and endeavored to transmute into paint - the translucency and brilliantly living hues of flower petals, the reflective transparency of glass, the opalescence of shells, and the arcing, edgeless bands of the rainbow. She painted the world of her experience, at home or traveling, in these terms. Her pictures are quick, painterly, hopeful. They are disarmingly unpretentious, too: The instinctive takes over entirely from the theoretical. If they are in danger sometimes of being fay, her sensitivity to the light, delicate details of nature is generally translated into brushwork of stimulating vigor and directness.

Her writing shows another side of her character - her fascination for the play and potency of both words and theories. She was particularly intrigued by the colors barely perceptible at the peripheries of the spectrum, where red disappears into infrared, violet into ultraviolet. There was visible to her eye a suggestion of these continuations, just prior to invisibility, which she thought of as a hint of the final completion of the apparently interrupted progression of colors, each merging with logical harmony into its neighbor.