Thursday, 23 February 2012

Mondrian and Nicholson at the Courtauld Gallery

Stencil, after Ben Nicholson
Went to the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. It builds on the fact that, just before the outbreak of the second world war, in 1938, Mondrian moved from Paris to London at Ben Nicholson's invitation. They had studios in the same building and no doubt influenced each other significantly. The collaboration could only have been for a year or so, because Nicholson had moved to Cornwall and Mondrian to New York by 1940.

The exhibition displays Nicholson and Mondrian's works adjacent to each other. They alternate, which is very effective. You can clearly see the effect of Mondrian on Nicholson, less so the other way, although I expect the traffic was both ways.

It's always good to see Mondrian's very precise work. Precise, that is, for the 1930's. Nicholson seems to have followed Mondrian's lead by straightening up his edges and restricting his palette.  Mondrian may have been influenced by Nicholson's use of white in images such as White Relief (1935), imitated above. Certainly Mondrian seems to have considered his use of white a great deal. Not all the whites in his constructions are the same. I don't think this was simply an accident of pigment supply, but a clear artistic choice.

As regards process, I was intrigued once again to be able to take a close look at some Mondrian originals. The edges between black and white, or black and colour, are the most interesting. Which did he paint first? Which did he paint last? There is evidence that he tidied things up towards the conclusion of a painting, so you have black overlapping colour, but also colour overlapping black.

Mondrian is clearly the greater artist, but there is evidence here that Nicholson was just as good. He didn't get the same level of recognition. Is that just chance?