As you know, the exhibition space at The Courtauld is at the very top of the building. Now, during a quiet afternoon it may be permissible to have a quick pant in-between floors or to embark on the climb wearing flat shoes but these weren’t options at an evening opening and so I bravely tottered all the way up, without stopping and without moaning (well, not that I recall). This is an unusual exhibition in many regards: It is a more contemporary show than we would expect of The Courtauld, it successfully changes the gallery aesthetic and it pairs two artists who many wouldn’t otherwise have realised are connected.
The exhibition explores the creative relationship between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, allowing us to continue London’s exploration of Modern British, charting the parallel paths explored by the two artists during the 1930s when their works were often presented side-by-side. The exhibition presents the two artists in parallel – in conversation – with the works leading us through their story. When Nicholson first visited Mondrian’s studio in 1934 he had to rest in a café afterwards to try to take in what he had just seen – the elegant serenity of the works, the ambience of the studio and the energy of Mondrian himself. This visit marked the beginning of a fascinating friendship that lasted until Mondrian’s death.
Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief). Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk.
At Nicholson’s invitation, Mondrian moved from Paris to London where the two worked in neighbouring studios in Hampstead. They were separated by the outbreak of war when Mondrian moved to New York and Nicholson to Cornwall but there are over 60 letters from Mondrian to Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth (Nicholson’s then wife) covering the ten years of their friendship.
As they often do, The Courtauld has cleverly conceived a show around one of their own works – this time a Nicholson canvas, 1937 (painting). It is part of a group of related works with powerful colour combinations of white, black, yellow and red, moderated by a cool blue. Nicholson stretched his canvas over board, ensuring a flat and solid surface on which to work. As ever, the painting is precise and disciplined; the colour planes are carefully ruled and there is no chance that colours will bleed into each other. The painter’s mark is suppressed. The composition is actually very unlike Mondrian but these two artists are united by their use of forms.
Ben Nicholson, 1937 (painting). Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk.
Nicholson explores lines, shapes and spatial effects in a subtle way whereas Mondrian’s works radiate energy. It is so easy to go around this exhibition comparing them but this should not be the point. Yes, their lives are placed in comparison but Nicholson was never trying to imitate Mondrian and their works must be viewed as a relationship of influence. Their art offers an alternative modern vision using a restrained vocabulary of colour and line. Although, at times, the compositions may be strikingly similar and their vocabulary is harmoniously shared, they are very different. They do work well as conversational pairs but there can be no denying their extreme differences. Mondrian’s works have a calming effect yet their vibrancy is uncontainable.
Before this show, I don’t think many people were aware of the depth of the mutually reinforcing friendship of Mondrian and Nicholson. Like the exhibition, the catalogue is small and focused, a perfect reflection of a joyously academic and calming show. It mentions the ‘opposites attract’ theory stating that Nicholson was a networker while Mondrian was a loner, Nicholson demanding and provocative while Mondrian was courteous and quiet and that Nicholson was intolerant while Mondrian was patient. Further research into their lives has shown that this is probably a myth but a rather nice one as there is an interesting parallel in their works – they are similar but different.
Piet Mondrian, Composition C (no. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935. Image courtesy of Mondrian/Holtzman Trust and via www.courtauld.ac.uk.
Mondrian painted using very specific rules where geometric figures were only ever to be the result of linear intersections and never to be separate forms. Colour was reduced to the three most saturated primaries creating a stark contrast of black lines with bright colours. His works have a forceful impact.
No spotlights are used to illuminate the paintings; instead, the white walls are floodlit bathing the works in light rather than starkly presenting them. The show is beautifully and thoughtfully curated. The exhibition space isn’t large and, therefore, the curators needed to be disciplined in their selection, presenting juxtaposing works that reveal the similarities and differences between these two artists. Comments that the show is too small are unfair as this is what The Courtauld has to work with and they have done so brilliantly and in an astute fashion.
Mondrian and Nicholson present two strains of modernism that art history has often separated. Now, thanks to this smartly masterminded exhibition, the two are no longer disjointed and are shown to be very much related. Although Mondrian was Nicholson’s senior by 22 years, this only aided their reciprocal inspiration and willingness to develop. The exhibition concludes with Nicholson’s 1936 (two forms) and Mondrian’s Composition No. III White-Yellow from 1935-42. Nicholson’s painting, of which he produced nine variations over a period of great upheaval, is a transitional work that concludes his abstract paintings of the 1930s. A small but intense rectangle sits proudly among three shades of grey; the work illustrates Nicholson’s highly refined use of colour relationships and the precise combinations he engineered. The vertical format of the Mondrian is relatively unusual giving emphasis to the shape due to the obvious length of the lines. No horizontals cross the full width of the composition. Although the artists were apart when these works were conceived and painted, the paintings speak of the profound affinity that had developed between the two men as they worked in parallel.
Ben Nicholson, 1940-43 (two forms). Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk.
The PV was so busy that I must return to this show another time, to view the works in a calmer atmosphere than amidst the bustling crowds of last Wednesday. Not that there’s ever anything wrong with a bit of chatter and a glass of wine! Dinner at Cigalon beckoned and I made my way a tad more cautiously back down the stairs.
Mondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel is at The Courtauld Gallery until 20th May 2012, www.courtauld.ac.uk.
Due to restrictions by the Mondrian estate, I have only been able to reproduce one image here without charge.