The Courtauld presents a selection of works by modernist giant Piet Mondrian and great British abstract artist, Ben Nicholson in order to illustrate the creative relationship between the two that developed throughout the 1930s, culminating, at Nicholson’s suggestion, in Mondrian’s move to London in 1938, when, for a short period the city was an international centre of modernist art and experimentation. From the mid-1930s Mondrian and Nicholson were increasingly paired as leading exponents of what became known as ‘geometric abstraction’. On display is a selection of historically significant paintings and relief works, several of which were originally displayed together in pioneering exhibitions, ‘Abstract and Concrete’ at the Lefevre Gallery in London (and subsequently at St Giles Gallery in Oxford) and ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, or were produced whilst the artists occupied neighbouring studios in Hampstead. Others were published most notably in avant-garde publication Circle or were bought by Winifred, Nicholson’s first wife and Mondrian’s champion in England. Archival material, including photographs and letters offer further insights into this fascinating and fertile relationship.
Nicholson first visited Mondrian’s Paris studio in April 1934. In a letter to John Summers in January 1944 Nicholson recalled vividly his experience: ‘It was an astonishing room…with a window looking down onto thousands of railway lines emerging and converging’. Remarkably ‘his studio wasn’t white’, ‘he’d stuck on the walls different sized squares painted with primary red, blue and yellow and white and pale grey’, colours which had been built up over the 25 years of Mondrian’s residence there. ‘The paintings were entirely new to me and I did not understand them on this first visit’. Afterwards, I remember ‘sitting at a café table…for a very long time with an astonishing feeling of quiet and repose’. Nicholson, it seems obvious to suggest, is awestruck by Mondrian’s abstraction, finding his visit enlightening and intensely revelatory. He concludes with the wonderfully cryptic simile centric phrase, ‘The feeling in his studio must have been very like the feeling in one of those hermits’ caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws’.
The visit marked the beginning of an enduring friendship lasting until Mondrian’s death ten years later, a friendship that spanned a turbulent decade of 20th century European history ending in the outbreak of the Second World War. Mondrian and Nicholson practised Constructivist creeds in pursuance of a refined form of abstraction characterised by a precise vocabulary of colours and geometric forms. Both artists sought to offer a vision of ‘something like a new world’ at a time when alternative movements vied for prominence. They believed in the potential of abstraction to attain the highest aesthetic and spiritual power, with the balance and harmony of their compositions offering an antidote to the violent discord of the modern world.
Nicholson began to explore abstraction several years before he met Mondrian, executing his first abstract painting as early as 1924, yet he found powerful confirmation of his artistic convictions through the Dutchman’s unique, inspirational and strikingly assured example. On display at the Courtauld is Mondrian’s Composition with Double Line and Yellow (1932), bought by Winifred Nicholson in 1935, alongside Nicholson’s Six Circles (1933) and 1934 painting, a black canvas overlaid with interlocking blocks of a sophisticated blend of pale pink, purple and varying shades of grey. I find this piece intriguing and I like it very much. Also on show is Mondrian’s Composition C (No. III) With Red, Yellow and Blue, one of the artist’s first works to be exhibited in Britain (at Lefevre’s legendary ‘Abstract and Concrete’ exhibition) and the only painting of this period to combine three colours alongside Nicholson’s white relief works several of which were reproduced in Circle: An International Survey of Constructive Art published in 1937 and edited by Nicholson himself, together with architect, J.L Martin and great friend Naum Gabo. Circle was a highly influential monograph printing work by painters, sculptors, architects and writers including Arp, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Picassso, Moore, Hepworth, Giacometti, Le Corbusier, and Herbert Read and aiming to unite an international modernist movement of artists, designers and architects with an ambitious agenda to revitalise modern civilisation.
Nicholson’s white reliefs are quite remarkable, aesthetic realisations of the infinite, ‘an ideal which is complete, with no beginning, no end and therefore giving to all things for all time’. Clean, enticingly simple, precisely achieved planes of differing depths create near imperceptible shadow lines on close examination. ‘I judge paintings by the quality of light given off … In my own work, it is my only way of judging its achievement or progress’, for light, Nicholson elaborates, reveals ‘the reality underlying appearances’. Such assertive, minimalist, metaphysical statements seem imbued with a belief in utopian purity, in constructive coherence. Amongst others on display is Nicholson’s 1935 white relief, hand-carved by the artist from a mahogany table leaf bought in Camden Market. It is one of his largest and most monumental reliefs and Mondrian is known to have had a photo of it in his Paris studio.
At the same time, Mondrian was making greater use of expanses of white in combination with small squares of vibrant colour often bringing his black lines, reminiscent of the railway tracks as viewed from his apartment window, together as parallel lines, enhancing the dynamism of his compositions. Mondrian’s indubitably idiosyncratic aesthetic represented new artistic possibilities that Nicholson recognised and rendered his own in highly original and imaginative ways.
In 1938, with war seeming imminent, Nicholson sent an invitation to Mondrian enabling him 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 softening of the devout city-dweller’s insistence on a geometric aesthetic, however, she soon realised he was actually transfixed by the telegraph poles when he murmured: “look how they pass, they pass, they pass, cutting the horizon here, and here, and here”. The couple were instrumental in bringing Mondrian’s work to England and in finding him other patrons among their circle of friends and associates at a time when securing sales was becoming increasingly difficult.
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. Nicholson found him a studio-cum-bed-sitting-room at 60 Parkhill Road, overlooking his own studio. Mondrian immediately set about transforming the room, “his wonderful squares of primary colours climbed up the walls”, Hepworth later recalled. Initially, Mondrian was a little overwhelmed by the vast scale of London and the deep escalators of the underground scared him but he quickly settled into London life, professing to a friend: “I’ve noticed that the change has had a good influence on my work… The artistic situation doesn’t differ greatly here from that in Paris. But one is even more ‘free’ – London is big.” He was assiduous in sampling the city’s nightlife frequenting jazz clubs with Peggy Guggenheim. Mondrian’s contentment with his new life is expressed in blithe postcards sent to his brother, Carel, several featuring one of Mondrian’s favourite films, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Mondrian lived in London for almost two years working on a number of major canvases during this time. One of these was a large-scale composition that was bought by Peggy Guggenheim and is included in this exhibition.
The outbreak of war finally separated Mondrian and Nicholson who moved to New York and Cornwall respectively in 1940. Nicholson and Hepworth implored him to join them but a rural life was unimaginable to Mondrian whose conscious aversion to greenery was well known. This to me seems to represent the essential difference between the sensibilities of these two artists, while both seek to represent the infinite, Nicholson it seems has a profound attachment to the external, to nature that Mondrian by this time had rid himself of wishing to ‘transcend the tragic’ and to ‘contemplate the repose which is within all things’. Where Nicholson’s attention was focused on St. Ives, Mondrian’s was focused on lines, lines everlasting, not matched in nature and found only in the art of the city. Having settling in America he wrote to Cecil Stephenson, “I do like New York but in London I was of course more at home.” The two final works in the exhibition mark the culmination of Mondrian and Nicholson’s creative relationship. Although completed on different continents the paintings speak, the curators suggest, of the profound affinity that had developed between Mondrian and Nicholson as they worked, in parallel, over the previous decade.