Saturday 18 February 2012

Review of Mondrian || Nicholson: In Parallel at the Courtauld Gallery

Mondrian || Nicholson: In Parallel
The Courtauld Gallery
16 February – 20 May 2012

When Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) first met Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) at the latter’s studio in Paris in April 1934, Nicholson was an up and coming British artist, and Mondrian a well-established and successful Dutch painter. They already shared some common interests and aesthetic ideals in their penchant for abstraction and shared preoccupation with the colour white, but, as their friendship bloomed over the coming decade, so too did an extraordinary creative relationship between the two men. It is this relationship which is the theme being explored in the latest exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, a small but focused two room show, arising, as is often the case in this institution, from one particular painting in its own collection: in this instance, Nicholson’s 1937 (painting) (1937).

Opening with a couple of works from shortly before the two men met, Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow and Blue (1932) and Nicholson’s 1933 (Six Circles) (1933), visitors are given an insight into how the men worked independently at the beginning of the politically turbulent decade. Mondrian’s composition is one of a series where he was playing with moving about his trademark black lines and squares and rectangles of colour, and adjusting the thickness of the lines to see what effect this might have. Nevertheless, in comparison to his later works, there is a stability here, a kind of dynamic equilibrium, which would be difficult to dislodge. Nicholson’s work, on the other hand, is one of his early reliefs, from a time when he was still cutting his lines and circles freehand (he later moved on to increasingly employ a compass and ruler).

On the next wall, we find Mondrian’s Composition with Double Line and Yellow (1932), which, although also produced before the artists’ first meeting, is significant for its being the first work of Mondrian’s purchased by Nicholson’s first wife Winifred in 1935. In fact, it was the first work of Mondrian’s to be bought by any English collector, and Nicholson and Winifred were to play a key role in getting the Dutch artist known, bought, and exhibited in this country. The two artists were also often shown together, as, for example, in the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at MoMA in New York, where they were paired as leading exponents of ‘geometrical abstraction’.

Two years later, with war appearing imminent in Paris, and with Mondrian having been included in the Nazi’s Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, Nicholson sent an invitation to his friend, enabling him to leave France and come and join the Nicholsons and a wider community of international avant-garde artists (including Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, and Nicholson’s future wife Barbara Hepworth), in Hampstead, where Nicholson also found him a studio-cum-bed-sitting-room. It was here that Mondrian began to make his lines much thicker, multiplying them, and pushing his colours to the very edges of the canvas. He wanted to make his white as opaque as possible, and, to reach this goal, painted it over with many layers, sometimes even wet on wet, which has resulted in a number of visible cracks today. Another interesting side effect, however, is that the intersecting black lines have the appearance of being almost ‘cut in’ to the white, thus giving a sense of relief, as with Nicholson, who always carved his works out of single pieces of board, rather than taking the easier option of overlaying separate sheets. 1935 (White Relief) (1935), for example, which is one of Nicholson’s largest works, is carved from a mahogany table leaf, bought from Camden Market.

Whilst there are indeed a great many parallels between the two men’s works, as the exhibition’s title would suggest, the curators also hope that the conversation engendered between the pieces on display will highlight some of their outstanding differences. For example, aside from the appearance of relief resulting from Mondrian’s layering of white paint, he was very much an artist concerned with flatness of the surface, and with creating a punctuating rhythm using lines and colours. Nicholson, on the other hand, is famous for his reliefs, and for the lines he created through the use of shadow and depth, with the contrast of white and more neutral tones. When he began to add colour back into his work in the latter half of the decade, he placed it centrally, whereas Mondrian, by this time, was pushing his colours further and further to the edges. He also framed his works quite deliberately so that they could expand on the walls, whilst Nicholson framed his so as to contain them.

The outbreak of the Second World War finally separated Nicholson, who moved to Cornwall with Barbara Hepworth, and Mondrian, who declined their offer to join them, preferring to remain in a city environment in New York. The exhibition concludes with two final works, produced on different continents, yet reflecting the closeness between the two men, and a similarity never again to be attained, since Mondrian died two years later, and Nicholson returned to figuration. Nicholson’s 1940-3 (Two Forms) (1943), with its many coloured squares and rectangles, is perhaps as close to a Mondrian as he ever got, and could be interpreted as a homage to the friend he was missing. Mondrian’s Composition No. III White-Yellow (1935-1942), on the other hand, seems to build space within space, with a pair of vertical lines down the centre of the canvas pushing outwards, really expelling the colours, and letting the white break through from behind. The lines, however, take centre-stage and dominate the work, capturing the essence of Mondrian’s theory of art, and their parallel form also resonating particularly here, with the title of the exhibition, thus providing the perfect closure.


Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
1937 (painting)
Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 91 cm
The Courtauld Gallery, London,
Samuel Courtauld Trust
(Alistair Hunter Bequest, 1984)
© Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012
Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
1936 (white relief)
Oil on carved board, 79.5 x 91 cm
Private collection
© Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
1940-43 (two forms)
Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 59.5 cm
National Museum, Cardiff
© Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
Composition No.III White-Yellow, 1935-42
Oil on canvas, 101 x 51 cm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis)
© 2012 Mondrian/ Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Washington DC

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