October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) is one of the first two curved paintings created by Ben Nicholson, marking a new development in his pictures. The shaped format added a new dimension to the interplay of line and curve that dominated Nicholson's rigorous, harmonious compositions. Painted in 1949, October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) was in fact made curved originally because it had been created to decorate a liner, the MV Rangitane; it was one of two panels made as part of the same commission. As is so often the case with artists, this commission would become a crucial spur for Nicholson in a number of ways. Indeed, a photograph from 1949 shows October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) in Nicholson's new Porthmeor Beach studio, hanging with its sister picture, October 1949 (Rangitane-curved panel) (private collection). The move into this spacious new studio, financed in part by the commission, resulted in an immediate explosion in the scale of works that Nicholson was to create from this time onwards. He was now able to introduce a new monumentalism and might to his works, lending them more weight and impact. He referred to this period and this development as 'bliss' (Nicholson, quoted in S.J. Checkland, Ben Nicholson: The Vicious Circles of his Life and Art, London, 2000, p. 263). It was during the years between the end of the Second World War and around 1953 that Nicholson created some of his most celebrated linear abstracts, placing October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) within a great, fruitful moment in his highly influential career. This was a period when he was combining the increased use of colour that he had developed during the war years with an increasingly dynamic abstract idiom.
October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) and its sister-picture were created at the request of the architectural firm Easton and Robertson, who had been tasked with decorating the interior of the MV Rangitane, an impressive new liner built on the Clyde in 1949 for the New Zealand Shipping Company. It was intended to accommodate approximately 400 passengers, usually on the journey between the United Kingdom and New Zealand, in the high style of the day, with the cabins all of a class, though of different sizes. Nicholson himself was invited to visit the ship to assist with the installation of the panels at the beginning of 1950; they then remained in situ for the career of the MV Rangitane with the New Zealand Shipping Company. October 1949 (composition-Rangitane), then, is a swansong, a legacy of the great, final epoch of the age of the great liners, which became increasingly obsolete with the advent of air travel (see J. Lewison, exhibition catalogue, Ben Nicholson, London, 1993, p. 227).
The new studio which Nicholson had managed to acquire due to the commission from Easton and Robertson had formerly been Borlase Smart's, and was administered by a memorial trust. Nicholson used the fact that he was about to create two vast panels as leverage in asking for the use of the space. It suited his purposes perfectly: as well as being capacious, allowing him to work on a scale hitherto largely out of reach to him, it also had top-light from skylights and no view of the beach onto which it backed. Thus Nicholson was able to focus on a more interior world. During his time there, he created a number of still life compositions as well as the linear abstract works such as October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) which reached their apogee during this period.
Looking at October 1949 (composition-Rangitane), the sense of enjoyment of space is immense. Nicholson's forms dart around and articulate the curved panel with an incredible dynamism. Even the composition, with its suggestion of various plunging perspectives, accentuates the sense of space. Nicholson must have revelled in this, especially after the paucity of both space and materials which he had suffered during the previous years, partly due to the privations of the Second World War and its aftermath and partly because of the small bedroom he had previously used as a studio.
Nicholson's play with space in October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) is complex yet crisp. Unlike the abstract works he had previously made, which often comprised squares, rectangles and circles with lines dominated by strong horizontal and vertical lines, here there is a sense of leaning forms in the triangles and the other forms. Some of them seem to be bending into the space behind; in other places, Nicholson has used deliberately scumbled tones in order to give a sense of shadow which increases the three-dimensionality of the composition. This is all emphasised by the curve of the panel itself: Nicholson has turned what could have been a limitation imposed by the space which the picture was intended to occupy into a strength in its own right. His fascination with the concept of a curved panel would come to the fore in later works too, not least his celebrated murals for the Festival of Britain in 1951, now in Tate, London.
In October 1949 (composition-Rangitane), the rigorous formality of the works of some of Nicholson's friends and contemporaries, for instance Piet Mondrian, has been partially banished by the leaning shapes and also the incredibly textured, varied sense of colour treatment on the surface. The complex play of tones adds a sense of materiality to October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) which emphasises its nature as a painting while also adding an almost tactile, sensual dimension which is only heightened by the incised pencil marks, a legacy of his drawings during the War. After all, Nicholson's abstract pictures were not intended as purely geometric investigations. Instead, they were ordered yet often instinctive images of balance and tension which sought to distil some of the grace found in the outside world. Nicholson's abstraction was based on the real world and especially our experiences of it. His still life and landscape compositions were often verging on the abstract, using their subjects as a mere pretext for an exploration of form. After all, as Nicholson explained in the same year that he painted October 1949 (composition-Rangitane), in terms that clearly apply to this picture, 'the kind of painting which I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational but is both musical and architectural, when the architectural construction is used to express a "musical" relationship between form, tone and colour; and whether this visual "musical" relationship is slightly more or slightly less abstract is for me beside the point' (Nicholson, quoted in M. de Sausmarez (ed.), Ben Nicholson, London, 1969, p. 7).
The rootedness of the abstract works in the representational world had a long pedigree in Nicholson's work, as it was based on a revelation that had occurred some years earlier, when he had created 1932 (Au chat botté) (Manchester City Art Gallery). In that work, Nicholson had captured his fascination at looking at a shop display through a glass window. The writing on the window meant that the glass provided one plane, the reflections in it another, and the objects within the shop a third. In October 1949 (composition-Rangitane) and its sister picture, similar conceptual games are being explored with the various planar forms, created using a variety of tones, which jostle against each other, emphasising the interior space and the different layers of content, albeit quasi-geometric. Looking at October 1949 (composition-Rangitane), it appears more complex than its sister picture, in that its interlacing, interweaving forms create a more intense sense of perspective. This composition has been carefully constructed, recalling Nicholson's own account of a yacht designer's opinions regarding his pictures who had explained to him 'that it was a hair's breadth in design which decided the pace or lack of pace in a yacht and that it seemed to be this same hair's breadth in design which decided the power or lack of power in a relief' (Nicholson, quoted in ibid., p. 33).
That nautical comparison is all the more apt for October 1949 (composition-Rangitane), as its location was in a cutting-edge liner. The Rangitane had as its name a Maori phrase which translated roughly as the 'paramount chief's daughter'. It took its name from another liner built in the 1920s which had been sunk soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. The new Rangitane was an impressive vessel, as is reflected by the fact that its launch was a matter of some occasion. She was the first passenger ship to be named and launched by the Duchess of Gloucester, on 30 June 1949. Subsequently, it was fitted out to a degree of some luxury, with bars, dining rooms and a swimming pool. A modern palace of the seas, it was only too apt that a great modern artist such as Nicholson had been invited to create these works for its interior; they remained there until the ship was decommissioned and sold in the 1960s.