23 April 2012

Mondrian and Nicholson at the Courtauld

A post last year touched on the influence that the Cornish naïve painter Alfred Wallis had in the late 1920s and early 1930s on the artistic development of Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). Nicholson was a cosmopolitan individual who had already absorbed modernist ideas from Picasso in Paris, as the current Tate Britain exhibition, Picasso & Modern British Art, makes clear. In 1934, again in Paris, Nicholson, who had been exploring abstract composition, encountered Piet Mondrian (1872–1944). By this time Mondrian had arrived at his characteristic style of geometrical abstraction: horizontal and vertical lines placed on a white background with some of the resulting interstices filled in with primary colours.

The Courtauld Gallery exhibition, Mondrian || Nicholson: In Parallel, explores the relationship between the two artists from their first meeting until Mondrian’s departure to the USA in 1940. Works by both men during this period are on display including Nicholson’s pure white reliefs. These were built up or relieved laminas of different geometry, rectangular and circular, creating complex shadows. The reliefs merit careful examination to appreciate their construction, their apparent simplicity being deceptive. Mondrian’s pictures seem be presenting a curatorial challenge in long-term preservation akin to that of modernist architecture. This exhibition is particularly valuable as there are few public opportunities in England to see Mondrian’s works. The Tate has six in its collection, Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935 (above and currently at the Courtauld), being a long-term loan. The BBC Your Paintings website shows only that one.

Mondrian left Paris as war seemed imminent in 1938 to come to London at Nicholson’s invitation. After travelling to London in the company of the estranged Winifred Nicholson he settled into the artistic colony of Hampstead, living at Parkhill Road with Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth and their triplets around the corner in the Mall Studios. At the outbreak of war Nicholson and Hepworth left for Cornwall to be joined by Naum Gabo and his wife. Mondrian left London for New York after the fall of France in 1940.

The archival material on display includes Winifred Nicholson’s tiny diary (“Gabo telephone 10:30” “Ski lesson 3-4”) and correspondence between the two artists (“Dear Nicholson and Barbara”). It’s easy to get the feeling that for Nicholson parallels existed not only with Mondrian but in his relationships with Barbara and Winifred. An aide-mémoire of his first two marriages might be useful:
  • 1920-1938 Winifred Roberts (two sons and a daughter born 1927-31)
  • 1938-1951 Barbara Hepworth (triplets: a son and two daughters born 1934)
Admission (until 20 May) at £6 (full price) is reasonably priced and includes access to the Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection. The exhibition catalogue is £30 and may be of considerable scholarly merit, although some visitors might consider it slim and short of colour illustration even at the current Amazon price of £19-50.

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