to Ben Nicholson
I went up to London to see your show, and as I expect you expected I should like to buy the Bré drawing, but I have not got £25 or anything near it (it has cost a lot to go to France and now we have the death duties to deal with), and I don’t want to talk to Duncan about it because he was so kind last time I got a picture and took the percentage off, so that he got nothing out of the sale. If it is not sold at the end of your show will you let me know what it would cost, if, that is, you could reduce its price and I’ll see if I can find the money for it. I was glad to see it again, an unopened bud of promise to come.
I liked a number of the new ones. I liked best the colour of 78 – earth red and whisper blue against dark neutrals, next best 90 – whisper blue against oatmeal.
As to your use of Violet may I say this. You use blue, yellow, and red as living entities – as full melody. You know them as well as you know your friends, and they dance or play ping-pong as friends – but when you come to Violet you exclaim ‘Here I Ben Nicholson am using Violet – look out for snags’ – and then you go and plop Earthy-Red as a policeman to hold your magic Violet down, and hold it mum. I know Violet can become Acid (she never will in your hands), I know she can become Vieux Rose as she does in No. 75 – and give one a jaded feeling that one tires to jink up in vain with Yellow. I don’t mean to say a word against that good and law abiding friend Earth Red, he does a fine job of work in No. 70 with grey and ochre. But just try Violet Magenta free from him – just try. I don’t know whether I can introduce you to my good friend Magenta. She’s a person like blue and yellow, not just a transition between wide intervals as you use her – the sort of minor key between two chords that resolves them. She’s a person, very alive and potent and fugitive and transparent. Can you see her on the rainbow’s edge as the colours fade into thunder cloud? Some people can, some people can’t. But you can certainly see her if you get hold of a prism, preferably one with an angle of 60˚ (not 45˚ or 90˚), and look at light and darkness through it. There is colour in all dark. She is the colour that comes out of dark, into which dark is transmuted, just as light transmutes into yellow – dark and the scale of darkness transmutes first into this colour that I call Violet Magenta, but Goethe calls ‘Ruby Magenta’, or Peach Blossom. He also calls it ‘purpur’, but not of course purple, from which she differs fundamentally. Look at a large white square against a large black square through a prism. She’s floating there – but even Goethe, with all his understanding of colour, could not see her with his naked eye on the rainbow’s rim. He says she is not in the rainbow, which must make her laugh, seeing she is its pivot – even when unseen.
Perhaps you think in opposites, in duality (which so may people do, thinking either black or white – light or dark). If so she is the complimentary of that spring meadow green in which the sky lies reflected – that is an ‘every-where’ colour. Its opposite of course is a ‘nowhere’ colour. Or if you think of the complimentary of tones, she is the complimentary of black, for of course the complimentary of black tone, is the most brilliant colour – which Violet Magenta is – being the brightest, most light giving after white. Look at the magenta flame which you get once in a blue moon in the fire.
I liked 69’s colour, but it takes no account of the 7th pause in the astral dance of Ether.
You know I don’t think colours fit themselves on to the rectangles of concrete art, any better than they are fixed on to the material objects of representational art, though what on earth they do fix themselves on to I can’t for the life of me think. It’s so easy in one’s thought.
I think the only possible way would be to find the underlying principle of form. How forms grow and transmute themselves into one another – the rainbow shape – the law of organization of mass – the complementary opposition of earth on air, mass and no mass – opacity and transparency. If one could only find the prism that would show one form’s secret and rhythmic law, then of course one could so easily relate it to the law of colour, the wonder of colour – and play ping-pong with those two beauties. Can you help me? Can you think what the key to the cohesion of form is? It’s something far far deeper than the opposition of rectangle to circle – that is just the same as the opposition of light and shade to colour. It’s a working hypothesis, but static after a bit and one wants something further. The Greeks knew it, and what it was. It is somehow connected with proportion.
Until I find it, I may, who knows in this world or the next – for myself I am as happy (or as discontented which ever way you like to put it), with cuckoo flowers as squares.
Love from Winifred.
Did you get the Casa Arte I posted you?
to Ben Nicholson
I’ve been meaning to write to you for days to thank you very very much especially for the Bré drawing. It means a frightful lot to me. I’ll tell you sometime, but it’s difficult to write it in a letter.
I delayed writing 1) because I wanted to write a long letter about VIOLET – my special pet – and 2) I had not much time because I was enjoying 14 days alone, everyone else had gone on holiday and I have enjoyed a blessed spell of solitude to work.
It needs solitude and concentration to work out my next move – after the life I’ve had the last years, and the way I have been repeating the same themes. I’m getting on to the new ones all right now, but they’ll take a great deal more evolving – but noting can stop a scheme working itself out, only some take longer than others.
You did not get what I was trying to write to you about Violet and colour of prism in my last letter, and I’m not going to go into it any more, as I have an old, very old picture of yours with a rather sad primula, lilac in an earth red pot – but exactly the two colours I was protesting about in your show – and as there is no other colour , only grey, in the picture – it explains to me that that chord is one that though it seems a discord to me, is a chord of yours and part of your notation – so there it is. I’ll watch you resolve it, your way.
Kate seems to be having a gay time in Touraine …O no it doesn’t cost much the way we go to France…that smelly little hotel in the quarter latin cost 100 francs that is 4/- a night and the most delicious meals in the workmen’s cafés would cost 45 francs which is 2/-, and you were never hungry after them – in fact we came back saying we never wanted to eat English food again.
Thank you again so very much for the drawing – I love having it.
to Ben Nicholson
I am so glad you are able to repair the White Relief, which as you say is among the very best that you have done and has something exalted that I have not found in others…
I think it would be a very good picture to send to Venice, and I should specially be glad to think of its going there, but don’t think that I do not prize it, nor remember very acutely and joyfully the circumstances under which it was painted – joy – happiness – yes indeed one does wish them to everyone…and I also like very much that you add in a small note above the line that you wish me to be included in your wish for everyone’s happiness.
There are several kinds of happiness, and there is one sort which I have found. It is the sort that is within oneself, enjoying fresh promise, and taking all the experiences of life that one has been through, so-called sad ones and so-called happy ones, to make up understanding that is further on than joy or sorrow. I have been extremely lucky – I have had ten years of companionship with an ‘all-time’ painter, working in the medium of classic eternity and that has been better than a lifetime with any second-class person – isn’t it – I have found it so…
All the young people are here, full of plans, in the gay adventure and uncertainty of youth.
Best love and thank you very much for the repair to the relief.
to Ben Nicholson
Train to Banks Head [c. 1969]
I have now finished my show and Kalman seemed to be pleased. I certainly was. We sold 20 out of 30 pictures, but more than that it was cheering to feel that people understood what I was attempting – not just portraits of flowers, but the light they convey.
Yes, thank you for your letter which I shall keep by me as I start my spring painting. Indeed I have not forgotten Cézanne’s looking at things from on top as well as on side – nor Mondrian’s horizontal versus vertical – nor Nicholson’s circle versus square – (garden versus town – paradise versus city).
But which of these three great painters remember what Matisse opened up? There is a great way along his line of ‘Notan’ – colour light the interplay of the seven rainbow hues so that they create light – so that the picture becomes a lamp – a luminosity – a transparent entity – something so exciting that I for one have no time to bother about how the great masters play with space, with shapes, with measurements and their balances. Colour light does not mind what kind of space you think of – it is the interpretation of substance and space that colour is dealing with. Fortunately no photo nor even any reproduction will give an idea of what one is after if one follows the rainbow… where does it lead?
Love to you, Winifred.
to Ben Nicholson
But I adore criticism, I am very grateful for it – I get all too little up here. The only person who gives me any is a young Chinaman, Li [Yuan-Chia], – he has exhibited in Rome, Florence and in Signals. He makes things that the spectator participates with – that is large white magnetic panels on which one places wooden circles, to ones liking. When Li places them they have meaning, when other people move them they have none. He said to me yesterday, ‘The way you paint fast what you feel and want to paint, is fine for making a good picture, as you can – but to take the next step and make a masterpiece, you must know what you do not like and what you cannot do – and think, not only feel, “how can one do that?” by painting very slowly. When you are painting what you feel, you can and must paint very fast as you do, when you are painting after that with your thoughts you must paint very very very slowly.
Which is I suppose what you do – and have always done – and maybe is what you have written to me – and of course ‘Notan’ and the allocating of space are interdependent – and yet, and yet if one thinks of Van Gogh, Matisse, the Eastern colourists, one thinks of blue or yellow or even black, if one thinks of Picasso or Li one thinks of angles, or in Li’s case of circles. In your case one thinks of space in universal terms of scale and great dimension expressed in tones of the smallest dimension – the closest intervals of neutral grey or dove or oatmeal – O yes you sometimes make a joke with a tiny space of cerulean or a spark of vermillion – but often express the greatest dimension with only white. The close proximity of your tones make scale and dimension, they do not make light. Making colour-light and making division of space may be interdependent, but I cannot think of any master who does both with equal emphasis, equal delight – you would have to be two people – at the dame time.
And I for one could never be a square. I think an engineer could be – or a tennis player. I can’t think of anyone who could be a circle, not even Mrs. Eddy, her American words would jolt out of a circle – perhaps Buddha could become one. But anyone could be a flower – it’s easy, it grows and moves, and enjoys being alive. I am an iris at the moment – an early purple black one with stiff rising petals that have 3 mouths of fire – one for the sun, one for the bees, and one for the wind – that is blowing from the snow-covered hills.
But where is my reasoning off the mark? What mark?
P.S Not of course that you would not make a colourist, if you thought that it would add anything to your span – it would not would it? Anymore it would not add anything to my colout-light if I became a half moon or an ellipse, even if I could – instead of the iris that I am. It would take me the rest of this life to become an ellipse, and I have far too much to do with it, and with two or three other lives if I can be given them, to make the really portentous colour-light that could be made. And if you say that what I write is still off the mark, may I ask why do not sculptors colour their statues or their abstract forms? etc. etc. etc. etc.
to Kathleen Raine
The lavender water has been appreciated on this voyage which is quite a cheap way of getting to Greece – £28 each, including everything. But like all things cheap one has to share them with a crowd, and this crowd is an emigrant one on its way to a new life in Australia – one thousand eight hundred of them, and all their children babies and baggage. Some of them are very nice, some look hunted as if the new life and leaving their old way, distressed them. The Greek crew laugh and joke and try to cheer them up – e.g. entertainment is offered them and it's like Butlin's camp' Kate has made friends with some Greek girls and barefoot on the sunny decks is learning the wonderful steps of Greek dances – behind them the blue Mediterranean and the blue mountains of Africa, under their bare feet the bodies of the sun-bathers, but neither the dancers like Greek nymphs nor the naked sunbathers like Blackpool sands, seem to heed one another.
There has not been much quiet or space to think anything out, but in a little dark rabbit burrow of my cabin I have been thinking deeper into the conversation we had – conversations should never stop, should they, on that superficial layer of everyday necessity, but attempt to go deeper into our common earth goddess depths – of the underworld, and the upper regions of angel clouds and blue eternity - those two always talk to one another – as they did on Jacob’s ladder – the angel thoughts ascending and descending, and as they did in the labyrinth of the Cretan palaces where the labyrinth was not a flat maze but a spiral staircase ascending to the high terraces from which one viewed the sacred twin peaks of Mount Ida, spiralling down to the cave vault shrine, underground, of the Snake Goddess of the underworld.
God is slow, you say – is he? Only when we slow him up and put a barrier to the free flow and activity of His Will. That Will is certain arid ultimate and our happiness, and the welfare of us all in any situation. Our own will is often selfish, often blind to what others need sometimes it has the vision to see God's Will, even if only in part and is willing to let that will operate even if in ways that are unexpected, and even against our preconceived beliefs.
I know very well, when I was trying to work out my own problem, how I held that marriage was sacred . . . Then I discovered that perhaps I could follow out certain trains of thought better on my own . . .
Marriage in fact is not sacred in the way that the orthodox church teaches, but a happiness of this earth, which can be happy if one is happy inside or unhappy if one is unhappy. If [one] was unhappy before [one] married [one] will be unhappy if [one's] marriage breaks – until one finds the inner happiness. A happy marriage like health is an effect, not a cause – and like ill health can only be dealt with at the creative source of being.
If one says, I can only be happy if I have brandy, or a motor car, or a different lover, or a thousand pounds, or kill my mother-in-law – one is limiting God's working the thing out, and it is just like playing a game of chess, only the white knight may not move - on any account. The game of chess will only evolve if all the pieces are in the interplay of the intelligence that has the game in mind from beginning to end . . .
Love and forgiveness for this rigmarole from Winifred
to Kathleen Raine
Boothby, Cumberland, St Patrick's Day 1949
What I want to know is why my angels talk differently from yours? Mine say that yours are the boys that wear little black jackets over the top of their wings and tell people to pay their income tax, and I say to my angels that they are very unkind and that you are making a wonderful and brave fight against the deaf and blind society in which we live in this generation – and they say they know that perfectly well and that you will come through in the end, and that it is a sure end, and not a very far off one. You are giving so much. But they say we could get at something if we worked a bit together.
They say they told me so that week I stayed with you in London. They say that they have prepared a wild wind for you from over the brown hills, they say it's blowing in their hair already. They say they have something in store for you. They say you need a rest from cooking if only for a week or ten days. They say you could finish your translation quietly up here with no one to interrupt, and that they'd throw in a handful or two of poems when you weren't looking, just as they are throwing in a few lark's songs and curlew’s calling . . .
The supply comes to us artists from the source of all of everything, as you know, whenever an idea comes of itself on its own wings. That is an inexhaustible source and the same impetus which sends the idea brings with it the power of carrying it out, which implies nourishment, shelter, friends, peace of mind, everything. The only thing one has to do is not to block up the channels through which the supply comes, and not to think, 'l must make some money. My genius must support me. I must. That is like going up into the high heavens to bring down a special pocketful of sunlight for oneself. This is of course my angels talking - and they say that your boys are telling you how to work it out practically.
I can only tell you how it works out for me, and it's like this - for instance when I saw those Vanessa Bells and Duncan Grants that I was to show with, at first I thought how dismal, and then I ‘worked', thinking for us all, knowing that their recognition was for service they had given in the past, in painting in the last generation and opening the way for us, and that they were old and doubtless sad, and needed probably help for their old age – and I was very pleased that all those pictures of theirs were selling to the Contemporary Arts and getting good criticisms in the papers (not really for what they are, but for what they were 21 years ago, which people’s eyesight has just caught up on). And you see it worked well, for their depressing stuff didn't worry me anymore, and the power at the back of my pictures sold themselves to the exact amount I needed, i.e. Andrew's school fees for this last term which I had not paid, plus an overdraft at my bank – but exactly the right amount. . .
I'm sure you’re right not to do the BBC, etc., because that is only second hand. Your real power and idea is in your poems, and you're feeling a lack because you are not letting it – the poem – play, and the power behind them. Isn't that right? Surely it is. I thought so yesterday when I was reading 'Stone and Flower', several things that are quite new to me and give so much, and will give so much to the future, the present has got to pay for the future. I am sure we could help one another.
I'm getting through a lot of work, I have a new exhibition with 20 pictures or so at the Lefebvre in May. It's good weather to paint, the world looks wonderful, but I'm more interested in my new book, which is into its third volume, and I've had a delicious lonely fortnight with very few political activities to interrupt . . .
Soon, oh all too soon, will be the Easter holiday, by next Friday the house will be bridge and whist drives, and Liberal Balls, and Committee Meetings – that's why I thought it would have been fun if you could have come, but you know best.
Love to you from Winifred