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The smaller picture

After the publicity machine of Hockney begins to die down, along comes a quieter exhibition: Mondrian and Nicholson at the Courtauld Gallery. Here Jim Cowan previews the exhibition in preparation for our study visit.
In 1938 the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, whose work had appeared in the Nazi degenerate art exhibition ‘Entartete Kunst’, left his Paris studio at the invitation of Ben Nicholson and moved for his own safety to London. With the flight of other artists and designers from Europe, London became for a short time the centre for International Modernism.

Model of Mondrian’s Paris Studio

Nicholson first met Mondrian in his Paris studio in 1934. Nicholson describes the studio as ‘ a site of sanctuary and aesthetic contemplation’ the artist having decorated the space to match the colours of his paintings – black, white, red, yellow and blue. Even a plastic tulip in a vase had been painted white, Mondrian being famous for his dislike of the colour green. On arriving in London, the view from his new studio in Hampstead may have had ‘too many trees’ but he was appreciative of the support of Nicholson, Hepworth and the other Modernists. In this exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery we see the work they produced as they engaged in a separate but close development.
white relief 1936

Twenty years his senior, Mondrian was an artist with an International reputation who was beginning to move beyond the equilibrium of his classic period (1921-32) and had begun to introduce a greater tension in his painting. This he did by introducing a doubling up of his black lines and a pushing of his colour accents to the periphery of the picture plane. This he referred to as ‘Dynamic Equilibrium’
Nicholson, in contrast, inspired by Mondrian’s austere and rigorous approach, had been working on a series of white reliefs that are now considered his greatest achievement. The purity of form, the simplicity of means, the use of shadow as line and the absence of colour make these works stand out as early examples of minimal abstraction. These white painted reliefs can be seen as a coming back from the ground zero of Malevich’s painting ‘White on White’ 1918.
composition No 1 with Red 1939

In this small exhibition the Mondrian paintings are distinguished by their intellectually rigorous approach. The coloured squares are held in balance through the horizontal and vertical black lines where the later serve to deny the colours special depth. The vibrancy set up by the closeness of the parallel lines gives a more dynamic element to the pictures and shows Mondrian experimenting with different strategies within his established theoretical base.
The grid being absent in a Nicholson painting means the colours, which are more varied and subtle than Mondrian’s, operate spatially and provide a sense of movement and rhythm. This freer approach meant that Nicholson could be open to other influences. This can be seen in ‘White Relief’ 1936 which is influenced by Hepworth’s geometric sculpture and the standing stones of the Cornish landscape. From this highpoint of Modernism, Nicholson was to digress and soon a greater range of influences would inhabit his work.
As the war progressed and a bomb fell close to their London studios Nicholson and Hepworth decided to move to Cornwall. Mondrian declined their offer to join them and in 1940 sailed to New York where he discovered new inspiration in the horizontal and vertical grid pattern of the avenues and streets of Manhatten. This and his love of Jazz inspired his late masterpiece ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie.’ 1942/3
For a short time in the 1930s, International Geometric Abstraction had its headquarters in Hampstead, but when this connection ended, the parallel development in the work of Mondrian and Nicholson ceased. At the Courtauld Gallery the progress of two of its leading exponents is united once again in this excellent exhibition.
The study visit will take place on Wednesday 2nd May in response to student requests for more visits during the week. We’ll meet in the entrance to the Courtauld at 11.15am with a tour guide at the gallery booked at 11.30am for one hour. We expect to leave the gallery cafe at around 2.30, for those of you wishing to book trains ahead. To book onto this study visit please email A briefing note will be sent out to you nearer the date of the event. There are 15 places and they are available on a first come first serve basis, though students who haven’t been on study visits before will be given some priority, so book up now! We plan to share email addresses between students who attend a study day. Please let us know if you are NOT happy to do this.

Posted by author: Jim
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3 thoughts on “The smaller picture

  • I recently visited London to view the contemporary “xhibit 2012” exhibition (well worth a look) and as an admirer of Ben Nicholson I made time to visit the above mentioned exhibition too.
    Although I found it interesting to see at first hand, the very obvious influence of Mondrian on Nicholson during the late 1930’s, the exhibition as a whole didn’t excite me.I prefer the looser,more textured, examples of Nicholson’s work, for example his 1924 “painting-trout” which can currently be seen at Tate Bratain as part of the Picasso and modern British art exhibition.
    However there is no doudt that this exhibition offers a unique chance to see the work of Mondrian and Nicholson in juxtaposition.And as such this exhibition does demonstrate how, by taking inspiration and echoing those artists we admire (Nicholson inspired by his senior,Mondrrian) that the boundaries of art are pushed forward.Because I feel that by removing all colour and adding the circle Nicholson’s 1936 “white Relief” is the most powerful piece in the exhibition.

  • How very revealing. Imagine working in a studio like Mondrian’s. I wouldn’t dare spill any paint- especially not green. What gives people intense dislikes of a particular colour? Is it some kind of trauma? I once knew an artist who hated blue.

  • I saw this exhibition on the OCA study visit on Wednesday – and came away realising my understanding of what both artists were doing had moved on an enormous step, and that it had really helped me develop all sorts of thoughts and feelings about representational / non-representational art in general. The talk by the Courtauld specialist was really thought-provoking, but so was wandering around chatting about the work with the art history tutor and the other OCA students.

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