Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Mondrian / Nicholson: In Parallel

There's a rather nice little exhibition on at the moment at the Courthauld Gallery in London, showcasing the abstract work during the 1930s of Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian.

 Mondrian I Nicholson In Parallel Catalogue

Nicholson and Mondrian first met in Monrian's studio in Paris in 1934.  The studio was painted white and had different-sized squares of primary colours stuck over the walls.  Nicholson was astonished, and it struck such a chord with him and his own work that he invited Mondrian (20 years his senior) to come and live near him and his artistic circle in Hampstead, London.  Mondrian did so in 1938.

Piet Mondrian, Composition C (No III) with Red, Yellow and Blue 
(Oil on canvas, Private collection on loan to Tate ©)

Nicholson was already exploring abstraction before he met Mondrian, but he was inspired by the calmness and spirituality of Mondrian's work, and went on to produce some of his greatest abstract paintings.  In turn, Nicholson offered Mondrain encouragement and support, and exhibition opportunities. 

Ben Nicholson, 1937 (Oil on canvas, The Courtauld Gallery, London)

His first wife, Winifred Nicholson, was the first buyer of Mondrians' work in England, in a pre-war climate when art sales were thin on the ground.  Winifred even accompanied Mondrian on the trip from Paris in 1938, recalling that on the train journey to Calais, Mondrian was transfixed by the passing countryside. She realised he was actually mesmerised by the telegraph poles: “Look how they pass, they pass, they pass, cutting the horizon here, and here, and here” he said.  

Mondrian was of course Dutch, and it becomes obvious when you go to Holland, with its flat landscapes of low horizons, that any upright vertical - a church spire, a tree, a telegraph pole - attains an incredible importance.  Thus you are always very aware of the horizontals  pierced by the verticals.  

Here is a 1909 painting by Mondrian of his native Holland, which is all about horizontals.  You can see how any vertical on the scene is going to be pretty mind-blowing stuff.

Piet Mondrian, View from the Dunes with Beach and Piers, Domburg 
(Oil and pencil on cardboard 1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Once in London, Mondrian was welcomed into an international community of avant-garde artists and writers - Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, Herbert Read, John Cecil Stephenson and Nicholson’s future wife, Barbara Hepworth - and also into city life.  He enjoyed jazz clubs and cinema (his favourite film being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).  

But along came the war, and Mondrian left for New York - could there be a more appropriate city for a painter of grid-patterns? -  whilst Nicholson and his entourage went to Cornwall.

For more information on the exhibition, which continues until May 20th, click here.

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