'Mondrian/Nicholson in Parallel'

By Paraskos, Michael | British Art Journal, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

'Mondrian/Nicholson in Parallel'


Paraskos, Michael, British Art Journal


'Mondrian/Nicholson in Parallel'

Cotirtauld Gallery, London 16 February-20 May 2012

One of the dangers in bringing together a major European modernist and a less well-known British artist is the tendency to look for similarities and differences. Where similarities exist we seem drawn to say the British artist was copying the European master; and where they are different we say the British artist didn't really get it. This ties into a self-imposed myth that cultural historians like to maintain about the British: that modernism was not understood in this country, or if it was understood it was not liked.

Seeing works by Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson side by side at the Courtauld it was tempting to go down this route. In two small rooms the works alternated between the artists, and were frequently placed to accentuate a particular parallel point of reference. In this way we were literally encouraged to make direct comparisons and contrasts. Where this show avoided the pitfall of suggesting that the British could not do modernism was by ensuring the parallels between Mondrian and Nicholson were strong. Or at least as strong as they could be.

Wisely the curators opted to cover an extremely restricted period, approximately 1933 to 1939, when the links between Mondrian and Nicholson were at their greatest. I suspect also they had given a great deal of time and thought to ensuring that the quality of the two artists' works on show was of equivalent standing, so that neither outshone the other too much by being larger or bolder, or even better. As a result it was genuinely difficult to look at this show and think of Nicholson as a mere follower of Mondrian. In fact he emerged more fully as a fellow-traveller, although possibly we should say as an independent modernist voice.

Mondrian and Nicholson first met in Paris in 1934. Before this Nicholson had experimented with a simplified form of abstraction, represented in this show by his 1933 relief painting 1933 (Six Circles). Although geometric abstraction of the type practised by Mondrian was little known in Britain at this time, the theory behind it was quite highly developed, most notably through the writings of Herbert Read. Taking his starting point from the work of the German philosopher Wilhelm Worringer, Read argued in his 1933 book Art Now that art tended towards either organic figuration or inorganic abstraction.

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