by Pat Harvey SGFA
The Courtauld Gallery, London, 16 February -20 May 2012
Small but, as they say, perfectly formed, the current exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery explores the relationship between one of art’s odd couples: arch-International Modernist and perpetrator of the puritanical doctrines of De Stijl, Piet Mondrian, and Ben Nicholson, a member of the Brtish ‘thirties’ avant-garde and founder of Constructivism: a softer, more organic version of abstraction with its roots in the Arts and Crafts movement.
Cunningly constructed, as is the Courtauld’s wont, around their holding of one iconic work, Nicholson’s 1937(painting), the exhibition, through loans of other paintings by both Mondrian and Nicholson, photographs and letters, builds a touching picture of a friendship between two artists who, while supporting and deriving nourishment from one another, remained fiercely independent. London in the thirties was the focus for ongoing cat- and dog-fights between the protagonists of various forms of modernism, notably Surrealism and Abstraction. The great art critic Herbert Read managed to bestride both camps; while Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, accused the latter of “being forced to spin a web from its own guts” (1) Ben Nicholson, a part of the little group of Hampstead artists and intellectuals that included sculptors Henry Moore and Naum Gabo and painter/photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, was already exploring abstraction with his famous ‘white reliefs’, carved out of mahogany table-tops with the aid of tools belonging to his lover, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, many of which may be seen in this exhibition, but also through some rather hesitant paintings (one of which may also be seen).
In April 1934 Nicholson visited Mondrian in his Paris studio at 29, Rue du Depart. It was an epiphany. “The paintings were entirely new to me and I did not understand them on my first visit..They were merely, for me, part of the very lovely feeling generated in the room…very like one of those hermits’ caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws” (2) The friendship flourished, with the artists exchanging photographs, and each trying to secure exhibitions of the other’s work. Nicholson took Mondrian’s work on consignment to try to sell for his friend, and in 1935 his estranged wife Winifred, herself a distinguished painter, became the first British person to own one. His efforts bore further fruit in 1936 when ‘Abstract and Concrete’, the first exhibition devoted to abstract art in England, and the first time Mondrian’s work had been shown in this country, placed the two artists alongside one another.
It is hard to generalise in any easily understandable way about Mondrian’s famous gridlines, arranged in various combinations and punctuated, sometimes sparsely, sometimes less so by patches of primary colours, except in so far as they are the outworking of a deliberate, painstaking and almost messianic philosophy. ‘Neo-Plasticism’, as he called it, was born out of his belief in Hegelian dialectics: the view that freedom – a kind of fragile balance – can only arise from ‘dynamic equilibrium’ – the eternally irreconcilable tension between opposites – be they verticals, horizontals, primary colours or black and white. See, for example, Composition with Yellow and Blue, (1932), or Composition C (No.III) with Red,Yellow and Blue (1935).
This secular mysticism is often traced traced to Mondrian’s early involvement with Theosophy (he corresponded with Rudolph Steiner). Astonishingly, the two men wrote almost identical statements on this topic. According to Mondrian, art is “an end in itself, like religion…the means through which we can know the universal and contemplate it in plastic form” (3). For Nicholson, an adherent of Christian Science, “ ‘Painting’ and ‘religious experience’ are the same thing. It’s a question of the perpetual motion of a right idea” (4). In other words, a species of pantheism. “I could not be bothered to read Mondrian’s theories”, claimed Nicholson. “What I got from him I got from direct experience of his painting”.(5).
And the exhibition shows how, from his own early experiments with abstraction, his painting grows in firmness, boldness, and conviction without relinquishing his personal style. Turning, from 1936, increasingly to painting, with small patches of bright colour, unlike Mondrian, who restricted these to the edges, he placed them near the centre of the painting, from which the rest of the composition appeared to grow organically, as one writer put it, “like a rose”. See the Courtauld’s 1937(painting).
By 1938 the international situation had deteriorated to the point where Mondrian felt unable to remain in Paris, and he asked his friend’s advice. Ben responded with a hearty invitation to rent a room in the same building as his own studio at 60 Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, and was astonished when the Dutchman, by the prodigal use of whitewash and an assortment of red, blue and yellow squares, turned it into an replica of his studio in Paris, itself a version of one of his paintings!
Mondrian settled happily into London, working on a trestle table lent hm by Nicholson and naming one of his paintings Trafalgar Square. “I’ve noticed that the change has had a good influence on my work”, he said, ”the artistic situation doesn’t differ greatly from Paris. But one is even more ‘free’ “. (6) The lighter side of life in the capital was not lost on him, either, as he saw Disney’s Pinocchio on its release in March, 1940, and signed himself ‘Sleepy’ on postcards to his family in reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. An accomplished dancer, he sought out the best night-clubs, and developed a taste for the Evening Standard.
In 1939, sensing the onset of war, Ben Nicholson and his family left for Cornwall, and tried to persuade Mondrian to accompany them. The inveterate city-dweller declined politely, but, with the surrender of France, decided that he must leave for New York, doing so just as the Blitz was beginning. He wrote to Barbara Hepworth and Nicholson, “I feel always grateful to you for your help in coming to London” (7).
(1) Kenneth Clark, ‘The Future of Painting’, The Listener, 2 October 1935.
(2) Letter from Ben Nicholson to John Summerson, 3 January 1944.
(3) ‘The New Plastic in Painting’, first published in De Stijl, 1917-19.
(4) Ben Nicholson, Circle International Survey of Constructive Art, Faber &
(5) ‘The Life and Opinions of an English “Modern” ‘, interview in Sunday
Times, 28 April 1963.
(6) Letter from Piet Mondrian to Jean Gorin, 26 January 1939.
(7) Letter from Piet Mondrian to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, 23
This article is reproduced from the April edition of Third Way magazine.