Review: Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson are In Parallel at London's Courtauld Gallery

By Laura McArthur | 17 February 2012
A black and white photo of sculptures and abstract artworks inside a gallery
View of the exhibition Abstract and Concrete, Lefevre Galley, London (1936). Piet Mondrian’s Composition C and Ben Nicholson’s 1936 (white relief) both featured in the show
© The estate of Arthur Jackson Hepworth
Exhibition: Mondrian – Nicholson: In Parallel, The Courtauld Gallery, London, until May 20 2012

An untold story of a remarkable friendship and a creative relationship between two artists in the 20th century has been re-explored in a two-room show nearly 80 years on since the work was first shown.

From the mid-1930s, Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson were increasingly paired as leading exponents of what became known as “geometric abstraction” due to the similarities the artists had created in their work.

Nicholson first met Mondrian in his Paris studio flat in the Spring of 1934, and the friendship between them culminated from then on:

A black and white photo of a man looking at his reflection in a mirror with abstract artworks and sculptures surrounding him
Ben Nicholson in his Hampstead studio (circa 1935). Photo: Humphrey Spender© National Portrait Gallery, London
“His studio…was an astonishing room”, Nicholson recalled. “He had stuck up on the walls different sized squares painted with primary red, blue and yellow…the feeling in his studio must have been very like the feeling in one of those hermits’ caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws.”

When they met, Nicholson was a rising star of modern British art and Mondrian, 20 years his senior, was already recognised as a leading artist of his generation.

In 1938, with World War II appearing imminent, Nicholson sent an invitation to Mondrian to leave Paris and stay in London with him, where they then lived together for two years.

Nicholson was already exploring abstraction before he met Mondrian, but he found powerful confirmation of his artistic convictions through the Dutchman’s example.

Several of the works displayed in the Courtauld were originally shown together in pioneering exhibitions and publications and, after nearly 80 years, they have found themselves once again “in parallel” to each other.

The story of this creative relationship starts with pieces made before they came together in abstract. The first Nicholson piece, Six Circles (1933) shows his first steps in exploring this niche.

His rough carvings into the brown wood are so unlike the clean-cut, well thought out white reliefs in the exhibition, and it is through this that we can see throughout the display how much more an influence Mondrian was to his work after the two met.

Mondrian had already found his place in abstraction, but he became more explorative in his painting, making greater use of expanses of white space in combination with small but intensive areas of vibrant colour in his Combination pieces.

Nicholson worked like an agent for Mondrian during his time in London, finding collectors in England to sell his work to. The first English buyer was Nicholson’s first wife, Winifred, who purchased Composition with Double Line and Yellow in 1935.

He also helped arrange for Mondrian’s work to be exhibited in England, with three paintings being included in the seminal Abstract and Concrete exhibition, organised by Nicolete Gray in 1936, where the artist’s works were shown side by side.

The longer the Dutch artist lived in London, the more his love for the city grew. He even went as far as to say that the size and character of London was having a liberating effect on his work:

“I’ve noticed that the change has had a good influence on my work,” he admitted. “The artistic situation doesn’t differ greatly here from that in Paris. But one is even more ‘free’ – London is big.”

Throughout In Parallel, the use of black and white accentuates the similarities between the two artists’ creations.

Nicholson does not paint the black onto his work. Instead, by carving different depths into a single piece of wood, he creates shadows, whereas Mondrian explores the thickness in his painted lines.

Also on display is a more personal look into the artists’ friendship through some of their letters, photographs and other items of importance in their lives at that time.

The story ends perfectly – and somewhat solemnly – with two 1940 pieces. Both artists had moved out of London and were living on separate continents by then.

Two Forms (Nicholson) and Composition Number III White-Yellow (Mondrian) would be the last time the artists work would be in parallel to each other (Nicholson took a new direction in his work and Mondrian died two years after making this piece).

Although made on different continents, the creative relationship between them was still visible.

  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission £6/£4.50  (free for under-18s, students and on Monday 10am-2pm). Book online.
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