Mondrian || Nichloson: In Parallel – a personal view

Mondrian|| Nicholson: InParallel opens at the Courtauld Gallery on 16th February, outlining the remarkable story of the relationship between Ben Nicholson, one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century, and Piet Mondrian, the celebrated Dutch painter.

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

Nicholson visited Mondrian in his Paris studio in the spring of 1934, and it was to leave a lasting impression on the younger man. He wrote later: “His studio… was an astonishing room … he’d stuck up on the walls different sized squares painted with primary red, blue and yellow….I remember after this visit sitting at a cafe table…for a very long time with an astonishing feeling of quiet and repose…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”.

With Nicholson’s encouragement and assistance, Mondrian showed several works in London in 1935, and Winifred Nicholson became the first buyer of Mondrian’s work in the UK. As the threat of European war developed, in 1938 Nicholson persuaded Mondrian to move to the relative safety of London, where he quickly became part of an international community of artists living and working in Hampstead, transforming his studio with whitewash and coloured squares. For two years Mondrian and Nicholson worked in neighbouring studios, exhibiting together until the outbreak of war forced a separation. Nicholson could not persuade Mondrian to join him in Cornwall, instead he moved to New York where he settled. Despite working on different continents, two of these later works are hung together in this exhibition – a fitting finale to this small show.

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

Occupying two rooms in the Courtauld gallery, this is a rare opportunity to see paintings and panels by both artists side by side, including some works reunited for the first time since their original showing. The works are expertly hung and lit – the latter a vital component in appreciating Nicholson’s  subtle white-painted relief panels. Although at first glance the viewer might consider the works of both artists be rather similar in construction and composition, I found that I was drawn repeatedly to the Nicholson panels – in terms of composition they have more subtlety, whereas the Mondrians left me feeling a little short-changed. There’s only so much variety you can achieve with a handful of primaries and some black lines. And although Nicholson experimented with primary colours, they are offset with passages of neutral tones. Two illustrations have been included in this article, but the works have to be seen in the original to fully appreciate them. The nuanced shades of white, for example, cannot be seen in reproduction.

The two artists had different approaches to presentation, although the requirements of modern curating make this harder to appreciate. Nicholson constucted his own frames with the intention of containing his work, whereas Mondrian intended his panels to be mounted directly against a white wall, so that his work could flow out into the surrounding space. Sadly they now have to be shown encased in perspex, and some are showing the effects of age with cracking paint beause of the multiple layers of oil on canvas. Nicholson’s work is not immune to time either – his major work 1937  (above) is accompanied by a note explaining that the yellow paint used in a central square has faded over time.

The Courtauld is showing just two works by these artists painted prior to their initial meeting. One Nicholson forms the start of the exhibition, but an early Mondrian has to be sought out in a different room. This relative lack of background material is a small criticism of an otherwise fascinating exhibition – a display case contains letters written by the two artists to each other, and in a flattering assumption that Courtauld visitors are an educated lot, there is no full translation of the French documents, nor a full transcript to help decipher the handwriting. These tiny niggles didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this rare opportunity to see these works brought together from international collections and we should always applaud those institutions who are wiling to allow us to see their gems.

For more details of this exhibition, which runs until 20th May 2012, go to

Christine Hopkins SGFA


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