Mondrian and Nicholson in Parallel
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.