It was a study in contrasts as I made my way across the courtyard of Somerset House where London Fashion Week was being hosted, and fashion models in glitzy outfits and extraordinary hats posed for photographers with big cameras.  I was headed for Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel, a small but brilliant exhibition at the Courtauld, in which the relationship between the two artists is recounted through just 18 works, from the moment when Nicholson visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris early in 1934 to the time when the two went their separate geographical ways some seven years later.

The title of the exhibition says it all: this is a study of two artists following parallel lines; it is certainly not a question of Nicholson aping Mondrian. Both men are revealed as independent spirits who drew inspiration from each other, but who were both already well set on their own journey into abstract art when they met.

Nicholson first visited Mondrian in his Paris studio in the spring of 1934.  The visit marked the beginning of an enduring friendship and creative relationship that lasted until Mondrian’s death ten years later.  When they met, Nicholson was a rising star of modern British art and Mondrian, who was twenty years older, was already seen as a leading artist of his generation. Their friendship culminated with Mondrian moving from Paris to London in 1938, at Nicholson’s invitation, and the two working in neighbouring studios in Hampstead.  It was friendship that spanned a turbulent decade as Europe headed towards the Second World War.

Ben Nicholson: 1937 (Painting)

In a threatening world on the way to war, Mondrian and Nicholson pursued a refined form of abstraction with a restrained vocabulary of colours and geometric forms.  They created compositions of uncompromising purity, united in the belief that the balance and harmony of their abstract art could offer an antidote to the violence and discord of the modern world.

Nicholson was already exploring abstraction before he met Mondrian –  as demonstrated in the first exhibit, Nicholson’s ‘Six Colours’ (1933).  Its abstraction lacks the geometrical precision of the works to come: the coloured abstracts and his famous series of pure white reliefs hand carved  from solid wooden panels, making planes of different depths to create
shadow lines of varying thicknesses.

Mondrian: Composition with Yellow and Blue, 1932

Mondrian, meanwhile, was taking new directions in his painting, making greater use of expanses of white space in combination with small but intensive areas of vibrant colour.  ‘Composition with Yellow and Blue’ from 1932 may have been in his studio when Nicholson first visited in April 1934.

Ben Nicholson: 1934 (Painting)

In ‘1934 (Painting)’, Nicholson explores geometric planes of colour, but his abstraction is distinctively different to Mondrian’s.  It is not as insistently flat, forms overlap, and colour intensities are varied.

Mondrian: Composition with double line and yellow, 1932

Together with his first wife Winifred, Nicholson was instrumental in bringing Mondrian’s work to England.  Winifred was Mondrian’s first English buyer when she purchased ‘Composition with Double Line and Yellow’ in 1935, while Composition C (No. III) with Red Yellow and Blue (1935) was one of the first Mondrian paintings to be shown in England in the seminal  Abstract and Concrete exhibition in 1936. The exhibition, in which Mondrian and Nicholson’s works were shown side by side,  toured a number of English cities.

View of the Abstract and Concrete exhibition

In Nicholson’s ‘1937 (Painting)’ (top),  a complex and shifting rhythm is created across the canvas by the arrangement of small blocks of strong colour with larger sections of softer colour. The yellow square has faded over time. It was originally a bright acidic colour and would have created a stronger tension with the black and red. The sense of depth achieved by the visual weight of the coloured planes recalls the spatial effects of Nicholson’s white reliefs which he was making at this time. Both Nicholson and Mondrian shared the same commitment to geometric abstraction, but Mondrian’s flatness is in marked contrast to Nicholson’s warmer tones and greater sense of depth.

Nicholson: 1935 (White Relief)

Nicholson’s ‘1935 (White Relief)’ was carved from a mahogany table leaf bought in Camden Market.  It was one of his largest works.  Mondrian had a photo of it on the wall of his Paris studio. The ‘White Reliefs’ (all produced between 1934 and 1937) were Nicholson’s zenith, a writer for the British Council states:

They represented a move away from canvas to board, and from subject to object, where the object becomes the embodiment of an idea of perfection. Each one is a tabula rasa, a microcosm of the infinite, which ‘should be seen as something like a new world’, as Paul Nash put it. The white has a purity and a metaphysical dimension, beyond place and temporality… On one level, this gesture might seem out of touch with the realities that were bearing down on world events, given the economic depression, national rearmament and the rise of Fascism in Europe. And yet it is possible to see these works as icons of hope and clarity: moments of a glimpsed cohesion, hermetically sealed within a frame, set against the general confusion of the era. Nicholson himself explained, ‘As I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing, and what we are all searching for is the understanding and realisation of infinity – an ideal which is complete, with no beginning, no end and therefore giving to all things for all time.’

Nicholson 1936 (White Relief)

‘1936 (White Relief)’ is a precise piece of carving for which Nicholson used a ruler and compass.  It was reproduced in the 1937 avant-garde publication Circle, probably the most important work in English to champion abstraction.  Circle, aimed to unite an international modernist movement of artists, designers and architects with an ambitious agenda to revitalise modern civilisation.  The publication opened with a sequence of Mondrian’s paintings paired with a group of Nicholson’s white reliefs.

Nicholson’s other 1936 White Relief is vertical, and contrasts sharply with Mondrian’s flatness, its composition of stacked blocks evoking ancient standing stones.  It’s a sign that Nicholson was beginning to explore sculptural ideas with his future second wife, Barbara Hepworth.

Nicholson: 1936 (White Relief)

While Nicholson’s Reliefs exude a quiet stillness, Mondrian’s paintings are dynamic and intense.  ‘Composition B (No II) with Red’ was one of the Mondrian paintings shown in the Abstract and Concrete exhibition.

Mondrian: Composition B (No II) with Red 1935

In 1938, with war threatening, Nicholson persuaded  Mondrian to leave Paris for London.  Winifred accompanied him, recalling that on the train journey to Calais Mondrian became engrossed in the passing countryside.  She initially took this to be a change of heart by the ardent city-dweller with his geometric aesthetic.  However, she soon realised he was actually transfixed by the telegraph poles, murmuring, ‘look how they pass, they pass, they pass, cutting the horizon here, and here, and here’.

Mondrian: Composition in Red, Blue and White II, 1937

Once in London Mondrian was welcomed into an international community of avant-garde artists and writers
living close by in Hampstead, including Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, Herbert Read, John Cecil Stephenson and Nicholson’s future wife, Barbara Hepworth, who also became a close friend.  Mondrian gave her ‘Composition in Red, Blue and White II’  after the move to London.

Mondrian in Hampstead 1939

Nicholson found Mondrian a studio-cum-bed-sitting-room which the French artist immediately set about transforming, having it whitewashed before adding patches of colour, as he had in Paris: ‘his wonderful squares of primary colours climbed up the walls’, Barbara Hepworth remembered.  He installed his few possessions, including his gramophone on which he played greatly loved jazz records.  Finally, he arranged his unfinished canvases, which he had brought from Paris and set up a trestle table that Nicholson had given him to paint on.

Mondrian: Composition No. 1 with Red, 1938–39

Mondrian took to multiplying lines and reducing colour to the extreme, with ‘Composition No. 1 with Red’, painted in 1938–39, being the most austere example.  On the Guggenheim website, Lucy Flint writes:

By divorcing form completely from its referential meaning, Mondrian hoped to provide a visual equivalent for the truths that inhabit nature but are concealed in its random, flawed manifestations. He felt that if he could communicate these truths by means of a system of resolved oppositions, a ‘real equation of the universal and the individual’, the spiritual effect on the viewer would be one of total repose and animistic harmony. … Although the artist’s gesture is minimized and the reference to personal experience erased, his presence can be detected in the stroke of the paintbrush and the unevenness of the edge of the transcendent line.

Mondrian: Composition No III White-Yellow, 1935-42

The outbreak of war finally separated Mondrian and Nicholson.  Nicholson and Hepworth implored him to join
them in their move to Cornwall, but a rural life was anathema to Mondrian, who sailed for New York. The two final works in the exhibition mark the culmination of Mondrian’s and Nicholson’s creative relationship.  Although completed on different continents the paintings speak of the profound affinity that had developed between them as they worked, in parallel, over the previous decade. Mondrian’s ‘Composition No III White-Yellow’ was started in Paris in 1935, worked on in London, and finished in New York in 1942. Nicholson’s ‘Two Forms’ was begun in London and finished in Cornwall after Mondrian had sailed for New York.

Nicholson: 1940-43 (Two Forms)

Leaving the exhibition, although I had enjoyed the work of both men, it was Nicholson that had appealed to me the most. Mark Hudson, in his exhibition review for  The Telegraph pretty well summed up my feelings:

Nicholson … seems to move in Mondrian’s wake, his lines and shapes becoming harder and sharper after their first meeting. Not that he was a mere imitator. While Mondrian pushes everything to the surface of the painting, employing the simplest primary colours, Nicholson explores the spatial effects of subtler, secondary hues. […]

Where Nicholson scores is in his superbly elegant “white reliefs”: layerings of cut and white-painted board – never more than three – in which shadows form a similar function to Mondrian’s lines. One, entitled simply 1935, is just two layers of board placed on a third larger piece, with a circle and a rectangle cut from the top layer. If it sounds as though almost nothing has been done, this is where Nicholson comes closest to Mondrian’s essential minimalist geometry. By the time of the last of these pieces, 1936, he has abandoned the Dutchman’s relentless parallel lines in favour of tapering, asymmetrical forms that look towards the work of his second wife, Barbara Hepworth. […]

If Mondrian dominates this exhibition, you’re left wanting to see a lot more of Nicholson. There are a series of beautifully subtle paintings that look well worthy of further exploration. But they’re rather overwhelmed here, just as Nicholson was on that first meeting in Paris.

Adrian Hamilton gave the exhibition a positive review in the Independent:

This is a warm as well as approachable show. The works, borrowed from a wide range of sources, may not prove a full dialogue between the two artists. But they certainly suggest a conversation and a mutual support which we can share. Another feather in the cap of a gallery that has made a consistent success of small shows centred on one of its own paintings (in this case the pitch-perfect ‘1937 (Painting)’ and building a concentrated theme around it.

Leaving the exhibition, down in the Courtauld courtyard on a February day so warm it might have been April,  I weaved my way through the throngs of glittering, polished and perfect young people attending London Fashion Week to perch on a stool in Tom’s Kitchen and scoff a very decent sandwich and brownie.

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