For as long as I can remember, the simplicity of the strong black lines against a clean white background with a hint of colour in Mondrian’s abstractions have always been some of my favourite pieces of art. Now, the Courtauld Gallery is comparing this work to that of modern British artist Ben Nicholson and I just had to take a look.
Nicholson met Mondrian in 1934 and it is the years of the two artists friendship that is displayed at the small, but mighty, two room exhibition at the gallery. The first room contains work from when the pair first met in Paris, including correspondence letters in both English and French, while the second room shows Mondrian’s years in London, where he worked in a studio next door to Nicholson in Hampstead. It is known that both artists had examples of each others work in their own studio, which is interesting, as more emphasis goes onto Mondrian’s influence on Nicholson, though it is likely that the younger artist also gave Mondrian, 22 years his senior, something to think about.
The shared use of white in Nicholson’s reliefs and Mondrian’s painting is the most obvious similarity between the two, though in Nicholson’s later paintings, he too uses a form of rectangular geometric abstraction. The work conducted by both artists is a different kind of abstraction than what most are used to. It is simple and refined. There is a sense of form and discipline that is self contained within the works, an element of restraint. Mondrian in particular, with his rectangular areas of white and the odd inclusion of a patch of red, yellow or blue have the poise and strength to handle such simplicity without looking basic. Nicholson also used angular shapes in his paintings but with a more muted palette. However I personally much prefer Nicholson’s reliefs to his paintings. Here he favours the white of Mondrian to carve into his support which is much more striking, for me at least, than his paintings.
Whilst similar, there are clear differences between each artist and it is impossible to mistake the work of one for the work of the other. Mondrian slightly outshines Nicholson in this exhibition, though I don’t particularly see this as a problem. It is clear that the young Brit looked up to the dutchman as though he were a mentor or some kind of master. He was on a higher level, older and wiser than Nicholson and this is evident in the display.
Mondrian & Nicholson in Parallel is on show at the Courtauld Gallery until May 20