Archive for March 2012
My wife kindly agreed to come with me to see the Mondrian/Nicholson in Parallel exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, London
She isn’t massively interested in art, but I thought that she might quite like the Mondrians. Imagine my surprise when she was totally underwhelmed. Partly she was bored, and more than that she just didn’t seem to ‘get it’. I have come to think of those paintings as traditional but her reaction showed me that they remain challenging. In fact, the fact of abstraction can continue to be challenging, even now 100 years since its birth.
I had planned to visit the Alex Hubbard show at Simon Lee the next day and I anticipated her finding that even more of a challenge. After all, the paintings are virtually monochromes with plastic rubbish embedded into their glossy surfaces, and the videos could be seen as making no sense. But she was fascinated by the videos and watched them with me a few times and she thoroughly enjoyed looking at the paintings.
This work is, to my mind, much more contemporary and much more challenging than the Mondrian and Nicholson paintings, yet she could connect with them and enjoy them. Partly she was attracted to the colours, it had not occurred to me how decorative they could appear. She was also sure that the embedded pieces of rubbish were selected for their colour and carefully placed. At the time I disagreed with her, but now I am beginning to think she may be right.
Mondrian/Nicholson in Parallel is showing at The Courtauld Gallery until 20 May 2012 and Alex Hubbard, Eat Your Friends is showing at Simon Lee until 5 April 2012
Piet Mondrian suggested that humanity seeks rest within motion, or “repose through movement” and he found an example of it in dance, referring possibly to the foxtrot, he said “each movement is immediately neutralized by a countermovement which signifies the search for equilibrium”.
Taking part in the ISTD dance medallist competition (ballroom, latin and sequence) at Castleford Civic Centre on 11 March, I thought that my own foxtrot seemed to have too much repose and not enough movement! Maybe I was feeling too relaxed after looking at the Henry Moore reclining figure on the way into the centre.
The reclining figure figures a lot in Henry Moore’s oeuvre, and he donated this one in 1980 to Castleford, the town where he was born, the Civic Centre having been officially opened a decade earlier on 24 March 1970.
The Civic Centre, a fine example of modernist architecture, designed by Derek Goad, is an optimistic looking building if ever I saw one, even now when it seems to reflect an optimism about the future that is a situated in the modernist period, when perhaps we believed more honestly in “a steady advance from the poor environment of the past to the more pleasant and brighter surroundings of the future”. One of the features of the building is its facing in precast concrete panels manufactured from a limestone aggregate chosen for its weathering properties: “it has been found to get naturally lighter in colour with exposure to the atmosphere so counteracting the darkening process caused by the atmosphere itself”. Apart from the darkening beneath the windows this hope, this countermovement does seem to have been realised.
I find it a hopeful place also by association, because of the activity (medallist competition dancing) for which I have been here a few times now. I go in filled with hope anyway! Sometimes I come out feeling even better than when I went in, other times less so. I first started to become interested in the building when I looked across the dancefloor/theatre and saw the wall sculpture, comissioned for the opening in 1970, silent, static, yet visually rhythmic (movement through repose perhaps). The dynamic rhythms of the dancefloor seem to be echoed in the sculptural forms.
The artist is Diana Dean, who was working with abstract geometric form in both painting and sculpture at the time, and the work, made in stainless steel, is entitled Symmetry in Opposition. I could wonder to what extent the title also echoes that idea of equilibrium found in the Mondrian quote above. Dean explained to me that at first the two projected squares were facing inwards with two corners touching, and then this changed to the outward projection which is why she called it Symmetry in Opposition.
Here are some photo’s of what it looked like in 1970.
I wonder if I also find Mondrian’s notion of the neutralisation of opposites in the contrast between the stasis of the final form Vs the activity of its making.
Dean moved to Canada in 1975, where she focused on painting and moved away from abstraction, the geometry hidden, as it were, within the structure, supporting the figuration. When I contacted her recently she replied saying “I felt it was quite synchronistic to receive your email this week as I had just begun a portrait painting with geometric patterning appearing in the carpet and all perspective lines in the room going to the left eye of the sitter. Maybe I am moving towards a new form of geometric abstraction again”.
A psychological reading might suggest that we are witnessing a “return of the repressed”.
(Thanks to Diana Dean and Derek Goad for supplying information and pictures for this blog post)
 Piet Mondrian. ‘Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: an essay in Trialogue Form’ (1919-1920) in Mondrian:
Natural Reality and Abstract Reality edited by Martin James (1995) p.27 quoted in Dancing with Mondrian by Annette Chauncy, in The International Journal of the Arts in Society vol 5, no.3
 Piet Mondrian. ‘The New Plastic in Painting’ (1917) in The New Life the New Art – Collected writings of Piet
Mondrian edited by Harry Holtzman & Martin James (1987). P.43, quoted in Dancing with Mondrian by Annette Chauncy, in The International Journal of the Arts in Society vol 5, no.3
 Opening ceremony brochure
 Opening ceremony brochure
 Personal email from the artist
At last, I got to see Mondrian//Nicholson In Parallel at The Courtauld Gallery over the weekend, and it was worth the wait. Just two rooms of modestly sized paintings and reliefs, a small exhibition, that delivers a lot. It explores the relationship between the works of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson during the 1930’s when their friendship culminated with Mondrian moving to London in 1938. They worked in neighbouring Hampstead studios for two years, London at this time being the centre of an international community of avant-garde artists.
Their influence on each other is undeniable and can be seen in the works shown here in their obvious similarity. I am tempted to say that Mondrian’s influence on Nicholson’s painting seems clearer than the other way round. Stylistically, Nicholson’s work appears to have changed more under Mondrian’s influence than Mondrian’s did as a result of Nicholson’s, but it surely was not the “one way street” that some commentators have inferred. Nicholson did a lot for the reception of abstraction in the UK, and he helped to secure sales of Mondrian’s paintings, these actions alone would have been positively reinforcing for Mondrian’s art.
Looking at the work in this show the similarities soon start to give way to the differences. In Mondrian’s Composition C (no. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, the grid lines and intersectional coloured rectangles seem to refuse any representational associations I might attempt to bring to it.
I keep coming up against its decisive abstractness, almost like it says “oh no you don’t” every time I find the beginnings of pictorial content. The Nicholsons’, on the other hand, almost invite it. These two paintings hang side by side in this exhibition, highlighting for me this similarity-giving-way-to-difference.
In the Mondrian paintings we get primary colours with Black and White. The painting above being the only one in the exhibition with all three primary colours. By contrast, in Nicholson’s 1937 (painting), planes of primary, secondary and tertiary colours group around a red square, creating a pictorial space with potential associations. For me it resembles architectural forms or possibly a spiral staircase. Although, as with the Mondrian, I am ultimately brought back to its abstractness, it happens less insistently.
I am also surprised to find more evidence of underpainting in Mondrian than in Nicholson, looking like the final version of, for example, Composition C is arrived at through multiple re-workings, whereas I wonder if 1937 (painting) follows a more pre-determined course. Not that either of these approaches is better than the other, just different.
I love the colours of the Nicholson paintings, so it is with some reluctance that I say that he is most authoritative in the white reliefs, (that somehow I still tend to read as paintings). Even there I find it difficult not to read figuration into the abstract forms. A square and a circle looking at times like a building and a full moon. Nevertheless, it is the purity of the forms that ‘speaks’ rather than those ‘accidental’ associations. And they speak of a time when abstract art was capable of opening up a whole new world of possibilities, compared with today when that language seems more or less fixed, and we speak of the ‘abstract tradition’, not to mention its impossibility.
Reblogging an appropriation of a shadow of an artwork
As the sun slowly sank towards the Wakefield horizon on Tuesday evening, I amused myself, in an empty gallery, by admiring the shadows cast by Babs’ sculpture Two Forms With White (Greek) on the wall.
No photographs of this sculpture are allowed to be taken, or at least not without signing lots of forms, but can you copyright the shadow of an artwork?
I love Painters’ table…
…and especially so when they feature patternsthatconnect!