Mondrian And Nicholson Square Up At Courtauld

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel @ Courtauld Gallery – REVIEW

The two modernist painters Piet Mondrian – one of world’s most celebrated 20th century artists –, and our very own Ben Nicholson – a key figure in British art history – are an obvious pairing. Both artists (during the 1930s and 40s, at least) were leading exponents of geometric abstraction, engaged in a love affair with the grid, testing its formal properties and spiritual potentiality through a series a compositional scenarios and colour relationships.

As good friends – exhibiting together, and even, for a two-year period, living as Hampstead neighbours –, the similarities in their work could be understandably attributed to that inadvertent collaboration of mutual influence. But, suggests the new Coutauld exhibition bringing their work together once again, such an understanding would be wrong, with the two artist’s working – as the title sums up – in parallel, not (as might be superficially presumed) in tandem.

The case for comparability to be tempered by an understanding of fundamental difference is well made, with work by the two artists hung on the wall more or less alternately from the period of their close acquaintance. One thing, for example, that becomes immediately apparent is the differing visual depth in the work of the two painters. Mondrian clearly worked hard to eradicate depth entirely from his work, deploying white, black and primary tones, to create thickly layered opaque panels in which colour and line could operate undisturbed by illusions of three-dimensional space. But Nicholson’s ostensibly-similar geometric abstracts quite clearly court a sense of depth: his 1934 oil work, for example, utilises soft half-tones, greys, purple, and soft pink for a jumbled composition that draws the in eye and subverts the canvas’s flatness. And Nicholson’s interest in three-dimensionality becomes ever more obvious as he begin to create those groundbreaking ‘white reliefs’, carved from a single piece of board to create sharp contours and shifting shadow lines – a far cry from Mondrian’s flatly applied lines of division.

This is not to debunk the similarities between the two – far from it –, with the exhibition affirming their shared mission to create a pure form of wholly abstract art via distillation down to the basic forma elements of line and colour. It furthermore makes every effort to create fuller picture of the strength of their friendship, producing evidence of regular correspondence, and revealing Nicholson’s key role in marketing Mondrian to London collectors (with his wife being the first ever UK buyer), as well as his facilitating his move here with outbreak of war.

Perhaps the essence of this relationship is best summed by Mondrian’s statement in their very first exchange of letters: ‘although I am very busy with my work, I would be pleased to make your acquaintance’. In other words, while the worlds of the two artists would very much overlap, sharing buyers, exhibition space, companions, and artistic mission, each retained creative independence – ‘busy with my own work’ in spite of pleased acquaintance. Words/Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst


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