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Mondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel 

at the Courtauld Gallery


by Anna Leung

Left: 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

Right: Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition with Double Line and Yellow, 1932 Oil on canvas 45.3 x 45.3 cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh © 2012 Mondrian/ Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Washington DC

For a few years between 1934 and 1940 London became the centre of the European modernist movement, though this was by no means an indigenous development and was not to last. It had been brought about by an influx of artists seeking refuge from Nazi Germany; Gropius came in 1934, Gabo and Moholy-Nagy in the following year, and Mondrian, eventually persuaded to leave his beloved Paris, was escorted to London by Winifred Nicholson in 1938. Most of the artists making up what the critic Herbert Read dubbed the ‘A Nest of Gentle Artists’ had studios in Parkhill Road in Hampstead but eventually crossed the Atlantic and made new homes and new careers for themselves in the US. The presence of these avant-garde modernists did not bring about a substantial change in British art as a whole, which continued to produce art either tinged with romanticism or scorched with realism. The outstanding exception among painters was Ben Nicholson. 


The main theme of this exhibition is the relationship between Mondrian and Nicholson. This was a friendship that was not anchored in a close rivalry or collaboration but was characterised by mutual respect and a shared understanding of what were felt to be the main principles motivating their artistic practices. Both artists shared a deep commitment to abstraction that went far beyond the artistic and the visual. Geometric Abstraction was not just a style but a model or blueprint for a new egalitarian and harmonious society. Like those other pioneers of abstraction, Malevich and Kandinsky, Mondrian and Nicholson had as their aim to embody a metaphysical dimension that would eventually usher in a revitalised society based on spiritual values. Abstraction was equated with a utopian, historicist position with regard to the eventual evolution of society that can be traced back, via theosophical idealism, to nineteenth century symbolism, its basic tenet being that through art humanity would advance inexorably towards a better world. Though egalitarian in principle this credo was fundamentally elitist with the artist, functioning as a kind of medium for the expression of a universal reality, showing the way to the future.

Left: Piet Mondrian in Hampstead, c. 1939-1940, Photograph by John Cecil Stephenson © Estate of John Cecil Stephenson/Tate Archive. 

Right: Ben Nicholson in his Hampstead studio, c.1935, Photograph by Humphrey Spender, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The political context of the thirties made the belief in the unfolding of a better world even more trenchant. The interwar years were marked by an ever-increasing escalation of hostilities. Communism was ranged against Fascism with the democratic nations of the west caught in between. In the visual arts this was reflected in a polarisation between abstraction and figuration. On one hand, abstraction, with its history of progressive disengagement from historical and traditional subject matter, favoured a universal and international perspective resulting in the adoption of a formal syntax, through line, colour and shape, which was in principle accessible to all, whatever their station or background in life.  Based on an understanding of art as determining intellectual and social life, it justified the notion of the artist as an agent of historical change. Rebutting this was the notion, held by Communists and Fascists alike, that art was itself determined by these social and political factors and therefore subordinate to the state and to society’s needs. As a result, modern art with its emphasis on autonomy was viewed as a symptom of decadence and decline and labelled ‘degenerate’ in the eyes of the Nazis and ‘formalist’ in the eyes of the Communists. Both sides of the political divide, Communist and Fascist favoured a more accessible art practice based on traditional and nationalistic themes expressed through naturalistic figuration; from this perspective, abstraction was no more than a retreat from reality. Mondrian, on the contrary, viewed his paintings as embodying a higher reality. Nicholson, too, described his own work as evoking a superior reality and observed that ‘what we are searching for is the understanding and realisation of infinity - an idea which is complete, with no beginning and no end and therefore giving to all things for all time’ (Unit One, 1934).


As this exhibition demonstrates, however, there are many differences between Mondrian and Nicholson despite their sharing this quasi-religious outlook that vindicated geometric abstraction by proving it was more than merely decorative-- the great danger for all abstract painters. Nicolson’s reliefs impart a quiet stillness, and however rectilinear his paintings are they still convey a poetic mood. Mondrian’s paintings, though meditative, possess a dynamic quality that is surprisingly hard hitting. What comes through is a didactic element that is foreign to Nicholson. Mondrian’s paintings communicate resolution. They defy phantasy or whimsy of any sort. They are the realisation of a strictly held belief in a universal plastic language that could only be arrived at through the progressive purging of all extraneous elements, in other words anything foreign to painting’s intrinsic make-up. Consequently nothing could be taken from the natural world.  It was for these reasons that painting had to be geometric and to be abstract. These principles were fundamental to the De Stijl movement, of which Mondrian was a founder member, and formed the basis of a reductive analysis of painting into its fundamental components: planes; horizontal and vertical lines; the primary colours, red, yellow and blue and the non colours, white, grey and black; and their integration into a non-hierarchical whole. The crucial factor was that ideally, despite distinctions, no one element would be more important than another. On the contrary, contrasts made each element stronger while still contributing to a dynamic equilibrium. Consistent with this was the determination to destroy the opposition between figure and background, bringing everything--lines and colour and non-colour planes--to the same level and thereby accentuating the painting’s flatness. It might seem from this programme that Mondrian was unaware of what was happening in the world around him. But this was far from true.

View of the exhibition Abstract and Concrete, Lefevre Galley, London (1936). Piet Mondrian’s Composition C and Ben Nicholson’s 1936 (white relief) both featured in the show. 

Of all the British artists of his generation Nicolson responded most positively to the art of the modern European masters and was able to absorb their influence and ideas without compromising his own integrity and vision. He owed his receptivity to continental ideas partly to the fact that due to ill health he had spent much of his early years on the Continent. He responded very positively not only to Cezanne but also to Cubism and instinctively understood the new syntax that meant that a painting was made up of a network of relationships. This was also Mondrian’s understanding of painting which prioritised neither lines nor colour planes but the various relationships to which they gave rise. Mondrian was 22 years older than Nicholson but had not opted for avant-garde status till relatively late in his painting career.  Up till 1911 he had a reputation as a passably good landscape painter whose work was if anything rather old-fashioned. A change took place when he became interested in Theosophy around 1900. With its fusion of world religions, Western and Eastern, its occult mysteries and, perhaps surprisingly for us, its positive attitude to scientific developments including Darwinism, Theosophy provided Mondrian with a spiritual and philosophical basis for his art.  He viewed it as a spiritual science that looked not back but forward into the future and was therefore appropriate as a vehicle to express his belief in the immaterial through formal means. In 1911 after a trip to Paris he decided to return there leaving behind in Holland a safe career, family, and a fiancée. 


By 1913 Mondrian had already jettisoned titles that related to a visual motif. Moreover, as was also the case for Nicholson, Cubism had functioned as the catalyst in his search for abstraction. Mondrian considered that even Picasso and Braque had failed to follow Cubism through to its logical end. According to Mondrian, their experimental work was never fully abstract per se, never pure abstraction. For while a mark or shape in a cubist work could perform literally as an index of an internal pictorial value it could at the same time continue to function mimetically as a representation of something in the three-dimensional world.  He was therefore never tempted to emulate their collage experiments that bridged art and the outside world. Nicholson, on the other hand, based his earlier still lifes on  the cubist rendering of non-recessional space, and this preference can be seen in his compositions, many of which are based on overlapping colour planes that nestle around a central motif, for example his 1937 Painting with its central red square. 


Mondrian did not take that much from Cubism apart from the idea of differentiating line from colour but methodically worked through various problems that Cubism had given rise to so that by the mid-1920s the stage was set for his classic period. His abstract compositions were characterised by interplay of variables (position, the dimension of the primary colour and non-colour planes and vertical and horizontal lines) and invariables (the right angle or the meeting of the vertical and horizontal lines that was crucial since it expressed equilibrium between contending forces). Like Nicholson, he considered his work as something not calculated but intuitive so that the end product was the result of a process of very gradual readjustments in terms of weight, colour and position in which manual touch was very important. Charles Harrison compares this process to the fine-tuning of an instrument ‘in pursuit of a perfect aesthetic pitch.’ (Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction, The Open University, 1993) Once we interrogate Mondrian close up, we see that facture (the brush mark) is very important and make his paintings more object-like, as does his framing of them.


Nicholson was introduced to Mondrian by Moholy-Nagy in 1933 and visited his studio the following year. He reported that ‘the paintings were entirely new to me and I did not understand them on this first visit.’ However there is no doubt that he absorbed something of Mondrian’s uncompromising work. Nicholson had by that time already abandoned painting on canvas and was creating lyrical works on board that he incised with a pointed tool, in this way highlighting their status as independent objects.  This would be further developed in the reliefs that figure in this exhibition. Crucial developments for Nicholson were his move towards abstraction and his emphasis on surface rendered through actual carving that may have been a response to Mondrian’s interplay of line and plane. His first relief came into being by way of an accident at the intersection of two incised lines when a small chip fell out suggesting the meeting point of actual planes in real space. He continued to work on many carved reliefs, first drawing his rectangles and circles freehand and later using rulers and compass while still retaining a hand-made quality. However, his decision to paint his reliefs white is consistent with his participation in the international modernist movement and its tendency to see white as pure and geometric harmony as indicative of a new egalitarian society. His abstract paintings too might seem at first sight highly indebted to Mondrian’s rectilinear disposition of forms if it were not for Nicholson’s inclusion of the circle and his use of secondary and tonal colours that betray a continued affiliation to his earlier still lifes and landscapes and reveal a continued adherence to nature and the outside world that was anathematic to Mondrian.


The Courtauld Gallery has chosen to show Nicholson’s abstract paintings and reliefs together with those works by Mondrian that Nicholson helped exhibit and sell to collectors -- his ex-wife Winifred was one of the first in the UK to buy a Mondrian -- when Mondrian came over to London. As a result, both the differences and the similarities between these two artists are highlighted, artists who in dark times continued to champion abstraction as a beacon of light and hope in a world that was coming ever closer to military confrontation. Both artists implicitly believed that art and design functioned as an index of a society’s health, with the corollary that improvements in art and design would positively affect our spiritual and moral well-being. It was these abstract works that placed Nicholson at the forefront of the British avant-garde, bringing it closer to the international modern movement than at any other time. Mondrian might have chosen to remain in London were it not for the blitz. But not being able to envisage living outside of a city he chose not to accompany the Nicholsons to Cornwall and joined those artists taking refuge in the US. The direction of both artists underwent a profound change; Nicholson producing more still life and landscape paintings than reliefs, Mondrian in the few remaining years of his life –he died at the age of 71 - beginning to address a whole new series of problems in which black and coloured lines took on a different and freer role but still announced his undiminished belief in a better future.

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.


Mondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel is at the Courtauld Gallery in London from 16 February - 20 May 2012.

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