patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘Piet Mondrian

Mondrian and Nicholson in Parallel

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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.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935 Oil on canvas, 56.2 x 55.1 cm Private collection, on loan to Tate © 2012 Mondrian/ Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Washington DC

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.

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

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.

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Waltz, Quickstep, Mondrian and the Endurance of Abstraction

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Mondrian, a keen social dancer, disliked the Waltz. It was romantic, emotional, and the rise and fall and sway seemed to denote the curved line. He preferred the Foxtrot and the rhythms and figures that would later become the Quickstep, modern, all straight lines, abrupt changes of direction, obtuse angles and speed. I could imagine that some social dancers like Mondrian might have expected the new dances to replace the Waltz for ever. However, rather than one replacing another they all carried on being danced, side by side, as it were. Today, no longer new, the Modern Waltz, Modern Foxtrot etc continue to be danced.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935 Oil on canvas, 56.2 x 55.1 cm Private collection, on loan to Tate © 2012 Mondrian/ Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Washington DC

At the time (not long before Mondrian was in London painting, and dancing, with the Nicholson/Hepworth crowd),  I wonder if it could have seemed like abstraction might replace figurative painting. Now in the modern ‘modern world’ (metamodern possibly), both remain whilst newer art forms than painting are dominant. Like ballroom dancing, painting continues alongside more contemporary practices, and within the (in)discipline of painting representation and abstraction co-exist.

At the Indiscipline of Painting  exhibition at the Mead Gallery some of the abstract paintings on show question the relationship between abstraction and representation. The show as a whole explores the endurance of abstraction (arguably Mondrian’s invention), specifically concentrating on international abstract painting since the sixties. There is an international element to another abstract painting exhibition that opens in February: Mondrian//Nicholson in Parallel at the Courtauld Gallery where the relationship between the these two artists and their work is the theme. For a few weeks the Courtauld exhibition and the Mead Gallery exhibition will be showing in parallel, a short train journey apart.

Seeing them in parallel may give us a detailed view of abstraction since its early days, what has happened and what is now happening to it, especially now that we no longer think of the adventure in terms of linear progression.

At the Indiscipline show, Bernard Frize’s wonderful painting for example, has little continuity with Mondrian, other than its abstractness, neither in the way it looks nor in its attitude.

Bernard Frize, Suite Segond 100 no 3, 1980, Alkyd Urethane lacquer on canvas162 x 130 cmCollection of the artist, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery, London

Has Mondrian’s utopian purity been replaced by its opposite? Instead of painstaking corrections in the search for harmony we have a chance placing of colours skimmed from the top of the paint cans. Mondrian’s dislike of the curve was not shared by other early abstractionists, for Nicholson the circle starts to look like an image of purity, but not here. For Frize it even has a referent, the paint can. Also, long gone is the insistence on red yellow and blue with black and white, and whereas Mondrian and Nicholson thought of their art as ‘spiritual’ and somewhat lofty, Frize’s seems entirely ‘material’ and approaching the trivial. It is matter of fact, mechanical perhaps, yet not quite resigned or cynical. I still have the sense of searching, discovery and playfulness (or possibly gamefulness) that seems to me to be part of what makes abstraction continually new, interesting and endurable. In ballroom dancing, though the steps and figures of each dance were invented long ago, their repetition in each new performance continues to demonstrate the impossibility of repetition. Though I have heard it said that the ‘language’ of abstraction has now been invented, it is still very much alive.

Mondrian//Nicholson in Parallel is showing from 16 February 2012 to 20 May 2012, and The Indiscipline of Painting is at the Mead Gallery until 10 March 2012.

Mondrian and dance

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Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian is a clear reference to music and dance. Mondrian was a keen ballroom dancer, and some of his works are named after dances, for example Fox-Trot B, and Fox-Trot-Lozenge-Composition-with-Three-Black-Lines.

I read in one place at least the implication that he was a good dancer, for example that he practised dance steps in his studio and was known as ‘The Dancing Madonna’ in Holland. Then in another place:

He went shopping for painter’s smocks with Naum Gabo’s wife Miriam and danced with Peggy Guggenheim and Virginia Pevsner in the London jazz clubs. His love of jazz and dancing was well known, but Miriam recalled that he “was a terrible dancer… Virginia hated it and I hated it, we had to take turns dancing with him”.

In an article entitled Dancing with Mondrian By Annette Chauncy, published by The International Journal of the Arts in Society, she suggests that the paintings were possibly inspired by the dances, especially the Foxtrot, the Quickstep and the Tango.

I also found this little film clip entitled Mondrian and Dance at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, suggesting that the paintings ‘dance’ more than perhaps we thought.

Written by Andy Parkinson

January 17, 2012 at 8:45 am

Studying Mondrian

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This link shows the Mondrian on view at The Hepworth,Wakefield: Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue  1935. I am making studies of it. It is nearly square.

Sean Scully says somewhere that if you have Mondrian, Matisse and Rothko, then you have his (Scully’s) work, and he also says that its impossible to get to the artist’s touch in Mondrian (that’s how I remember what he said anyway, what I have forgotten is where I read it). If that’s what he said he certainly has a point.

However, there is something of Mondrian’s touch in the paintings. Though it never approaches gesture, I do get a sense of the numerous re-workings. In Scully’s paintings you can clearly see lots of layers of under-painting, whereas in Mondrian you discern them.

Don’t you also get a strong sense of the thinking process of making the work, the creative tension between thinking and doing?

Written by Andy Parkinson

November 1, 2011 at 8:00 am

Post Mondrianism

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This link shows the Mondrian painting I saw recently at The Hepworth,Wakefield: Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue  1935, Oil on canvas,560 x 552 mm. I have started to make some studies of it.

I was chatting with someone about abstract painting and contemporary art and, intending to say “post-modernism” it came out as “post-Mondrianism”

The first time I ever heard the word ‘post-modernism’ was in a lecture in 1979. I have no idea who was lecturing but the case they were making for post-modernism was a lot to do with Kandinsky’s notion of the spiritual and both his and Mondrian’s links to Theosophy, but I remember struggling to understand how that was post anything.

There’s a show at The V&A just now called Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 on the blurb they say “many modernists considered style to be a mere sideshow to their utopian visions; but for the postmodernists, style was everything”.  I guess what they say here about “many modernists” would be true for Mondrian, who was highly utopian. So perhaps ‘post-Mondrianism’ says ‘post-modernism’ after all.

Ross Wolfe’s blog charts the importance of Utopianism for modern art and architecture, it’s subsequent demise leading to late and post modernism.

Industrialism and the Genesis of Modern Architecture (via The Charnel-House)

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Another brilliant post from Ross Wolfe and a continuation of the guest blog post at my site a week or so ago. Here he emphasises the link between modernism and industrialisation, and especially the influence of the machine and the techniques of Taylorism.

Industrialism and the Genesis of Modern Architecture MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE — POSITIVE BASES (CONTINUED) The spatiotemporal properties of architecture that were developed by experiments in abstract art reached their highest expression in the work of Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy.  Stepping back from our analysis of this development, however, we may witness a crucial conjuncture between the realm of abstract art and the other major positive basis for the existence of modernist architecture — industriali … Read More

via The Charnel-House

…much of which seems to confirm the Ellulian stance I blogged about a short while ago: according to Jacques Ellul, modernist art is either an imitation of technology or a compensation for technology.

Whilst Kandinsky’s treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art could be seen as a compensation for technology (along with the appreciation of the Theosophy of both Kandinsky and Mondrian), the paintings often turn out to be an imitation of technology.

Ellul suggested that Kandinsky painted like a computer. I think that was unfair, but it is also a point that is difficult to argue against! I think that the same criticism (it was meant as a criticism) could be levelled at a lot of the painters I admire, and the practice I have adopted.

Mondrian and Nicholson

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At The Painting Space I found out about a very exciting exhibition planned for next year ( February to May 2012) at the Courtauld Gallery, London, exploring the relationship between two important early modernist, abstract painters  Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson.

The Painting Space post reminds us that in the 1930s they were leading forces of avant-garde art in Europe. Maybe a re-view of their work and the patterns that connect them will help us to think again about abstraction, its tradition and its continued relevance. In my opinion, the project that they started (non) represents a rich vein for current and future artists to tap.

One of the aspects of Ross Wolfe‘s recent guest post that I particularly appreciated was his celebration of the work of Mondrian, Malevich, Rodchenko and other early avant-garde artists. Ben Nicholson was clearly influenced by these artists and he contributed massively to a broadening of awareness of abstract art in the UK.  Earlier this year, seeing one of his paintings, as well as a Winifred Nicholson, a John Piper, and Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures  alongside a magnificent Mondrian at the Hepworth in Context  display at the Hepworth, Wakefield, highlighted for me just how wonderful some of the abstract art of the 1930s could be.

The Hepworth Wakefield Installation shot, image by courtesy Hepworth, Wakefield

Written by Andy Parkinson

September 13, 2011 at 8:00 am