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Mondrian and Nicholson in parallel

This exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery explores the relationship between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson

Piet Mondrian wrote in the Circle review in 1937 that in the future art would no longer exist as a thing separated from the external environment. Instead, his theory of Neo-Plasticism envisaged a complete synthesis of art and architecture. Mondrian’s paintings express this position with planes of white and colour that appear to reach out of the canvas to the surrounding walls.

Ben Nicholson (who edited Circle together with Naum Gabo and Leslie Martin) agreed that art and architecture should work closely together but insisted that they should exist separately in their own right: complementing rather than subsuming one another. Nicholson’s art by comparison is more self-contained, his paintings and relief carvings explore space and depth but remain within the confines of the frame.

The relationship between Mondrian and Nicholson and – more generally – art and architecture, is the subject of the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, Mondrian and Nicholson: In Parallel.The pair first met at Mondrian’s Paris studio in April 1934, and in 1938 Mondrian moved to London, where he lived in Hampstead next door to Nicholson and his second wife Barbara Hepworth. Taking Ben Nicholson’s Painting 1937 as their starting point, the curators explore the parallels between Nicholson’s and Mondrian’s work from the period 1932–43.

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). 1937 (painting). Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 91 cm The Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (Alistair Hunter Bequest, 1984) © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). 1937 (painting). Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 91 cm The Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (Alistair Hunter Bequest, 1984) © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Like the recent Tate exhibitions on the Futurists (2009), Vorticists (2011), Theo Van Doesburg and De Stijl (2011), and the Courtauld exhibitions on Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshop, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, In Parallel is interested in networking. A word usually accompanied by sighs and rolling eyes, networking is just a new word for an old activity. Making connections and allegiances has been an established practice in creative professions for centuries.

Although on a smaller scale In Parallel, like the previous exhibitions, is concerned with how networks between artists influence their work. Using archival material including photographs and letters, the exhibition makes frequent reference to the friendship between Mondrian and Nicholson. But there are hints that perhaps their friendship was driven more by commercial and promotional opportunities than by mutual respect and sympathy.

At times this exhibition gives the impression that the curators are sticking to the conventional story of a British artist (Nicholson) being heavily influenced by a European master of Modernism and abstraction (Mondrian). But the catalogue reveals a very different and much more interesting narrative of the differences between the artists. Alfred Barr was the first to couple Nicholson and Mondrian, under the heading ‘geometrical abstraction’ in his 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at MoMA in New York.

It is a testament to the power of critics and curators that the category has stuck until now, even though the artists themselves chose to ignore it. Christopher Green argues against Barr’s categorisation by explaining that rather than being unified by a common practice, Mondrian and Nicholson’s work followed ‘two distinct trajectories in parallel’. Green deconstructs the formal similarities between the artists’ work, on which Barr based his categorisation, and instead emphasises the philosophical differences between their practices.

Piet Mondrian in Hampstead, c. 1939-1940. Photograph by John Cecil Stephenson © Estate of John Cecil Stephenson/Tate Archive

Piet Mondrian in Hampstead, c. 1939-1940. Photograph by John Cecil Stephenson © Estate of John Cecil Stephenson/Tate Archive

Although they disagreed over art’s autonomy from architecture, Mondrian and Nicholson both worked to bring the two disciplines closer together in the 1930s. They were involved in exhibitions like Abstract and Concrete and Modern Paintings for Modern Rooms in 1936, which aimed to show the increasingly symbiotic relationship between art and architecture. Modern art and architecture were united by the breakdown of traditional boundaries between function and decoration.

This overlap was evident in the work of Nicholson’s brother, the architect Christopher (Kit) Nicholson; his design for the London Gliding Club in 1936 was described by JM Richards in The Architectural Review as displaying the ‘subtle relationship between purpose and formal expression’. Most importantly modern art and modern architecture were united by the belief that they had the power to transform people’s everyday lives. Nicholson wrote that a modern painting hung in the staircase of a jerry-built house ‘could transform a rickety, creaking wooden affair into a monumental, marble, Venetian staircase’.

In Parallel captures this moment, through the work and friendship of two artists, when the relationship between art, architecture and everyday life shifted; which still informs how we understand art and architecture today. 

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). 1936 (white relief). Oil on carved board, 79.5 x 91 cm. Private collection © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). 1936 (white relief). Oil on carved board, 79.5 x 91 cm. Private collection © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Mondrian and Nicholson: In Parallel

Where: The Courtauld Gallery, London

When: Until 20 May

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