Mondrian Nicholson: In Parallel
Courtauld Gallery, London, 16 February-20 May
In Parallel is a witty and concise title for the exhibition of work by Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian that opens this week at the Courtauld Gallery. These are, after all, pictures full of parallel lines, and the exhibition treats the two artists similarly, putting them alongside one another and meticulously constructing a grid of shared context around them. A low rumble of ticket sales - double the names, double the potential audience - seems to echo through many exhibitions that compare artists, but not this one. The relationship between the artists is explored thoroughly, focusing on the period from their first meeting in Mondrian's Paris studio in 1934 to Mondrian's spell in London from 1938 to 1940, before he moved to New York.
The story is fascinating: Ben's first wife, Winifred Nicholson, as well as being the first English buyer of Mondrian's work, accompanied Mondrian on his journey from Paris in 1938. He settled in a flat in Hampstead that overlooked Ben Nicholson's studio and, after fanatically painting everything in the flat white, then had to black out the windows when war was declared. An illuminating catalogue essay by Sophie Bowness gives this adventure rich texture, and is full of endearing details about Mondrian, such as his enthusiasm for Disney and his endless references to Snow White - as well as his preference for city over countryside, which he could countenance only "in utmost emergency". The work shown in these two rooms at the Courtauld spans a slightly broader period, from 1932 to 1943; with a spread of archival material it evidences amply the case for considering these artists alongside one another.
The parallel that the exhibition demonstrates most clearly, however, is a parallel between these artists and their context rather than between their art. The longer the work is looked at, the more divergent the lines seem, and one of the virtues of having the work assembled in this exhibition is the clarity it brings to each artist by contrast with the other. The circles that populate many of Nicholson's compositions - the first painting in the exhibition is his Six Circles of 1933 - never appear in Mondrian's. They lend Nicholson's work an organic quality and frequently introduce the idea of a landscape. So, too, do Nicholson's colours: the blues, greys and shades of taupe carry a suggestion of sky, land and sea. Mondrian's abstraction, conversely, is uncompromising, impersonal and mechanical, setting primary colours within an architecture prescribed by thick black lines. Mondrian's Paris studio had overlooked railway tracks, and with a little imagination these can be seen encroaching into his studio, giving the strength and severity of the lines seen here.
The mechanical or industrial versus the organic is a fairly conventional binary for comparing these artists, but a merit of having their work together is that it offers surprising revisions of this rather clean separation. Given the precision and absence of any human trace associated with Mondrian's work, the pictures exhibited at the Courtauld are surprisingly painterly. The edges of lines and colours are very visibly painted, and the thickly layered canvases are now covered with little cracks: they look bleached and they wear the passage of time like old skin. Nicholson's are meant to be the crafted surfaces, the handmade, and he typically emphasised this aspect by having them photographed in raking light, showing up the variations and contours of his reliefs. He was interested in process and history, an engagement evident in the Tate's White Relief, which was carved from a mahogany table he found in Camden Town and brought back to his studio on a bus. Yet in this exhibition Nicholson's surfaces are the crisp, faultless ones; they wear their creation so lightly that they appear no more handmade than iPads do. Conversely, with time, Mondrian's paintings become ever more geological; the cracks also give them their own sense of landscape and so bring them gradually closer to Nicholson's work.
Parallel does not mean identical: for all the associations it draws, the Courtauld's considered display illustrates quite how varied abstraction can be. The artists shared an early interest in still life and landscape, a susceptibility to mysticism and a similar formal vocabulary. And in the London period, they were immediate neighbours. Despite these affinities, their artistic paths ultimately diverge. Mondrian's paintings have an ineffable nihilism, Nicholson's a warm humanism. If Mondrian stood on the shoulders of Kazimir Malevich, the painter of black squares who substituted abstraction for religious iconography, Nicholson's abstraction came via an interest in primitivism, and as a result never seems as stark. The polished white cube, or the shiny museum of steel and glass, is the natural habitat of Mondrian's paintings; Nicholson's live more comfortably in softer or more domestic spaces, like Kettle's Yard in Cambridge.
It was indeed at Kettle's Yard that the exhibition Roundhouse of International Spirits recently placed Nicholson alongside other European abstract artists working in the Ticino, Switzerland, in the 1960s, such as Hans Arp and Italo Valenti. Nicholson's friendships with these artists may have been less intimate than his friendship with Mondrian - the Courtauld catalogue quotes a letter in which Mondrian refers to Nicholson and his second wife as his "best friends" - but their work sits more easily and naturally together.
In the history of art, painter is often conflated with painting, but artistic influence is in the end a far larger and more complicated thing than a social question of the painter's friendships and conversations. The ascendancy of abstraction and its role in 20th-century British art had many other protagonists. This exhibition is brilliant and scholarly, but so too would be an exhibition populated with other relevant practitioners of abstraction (the work of the much-neglected Edgar Hubert sits somewhere between Nicholson's and Mondrian's, and deserves mention).
A striking feature of the paintings and reliefs on show in the Courtauld is their framing. Both Mondrian and Nicholson made their own frames, many of which can be seen here. The unity of Mondrian's and Nicholson's frames - very handmade, very white, with each artist preferring the abutting of perpendicular edges to 45-degree mitred corners - provides a neat metaphor for the exhibition as a whole. It is in the framing - the context, the artists' social relationship - that the artists are closest to one another, not in the work itself. Nicholson later spoke of infusing his work with the "visual poetry" he experienced in landscape. Mondrian associated his paintings - most famously Broadway Boogie Woogie - with rhythm and jazz. In the end, this distance between words and sounds is one that eclipses the personal and contextual relationship explored here. Throughout the many beautiful paintings and reliefs at the Courtauld lies this intriguing gulf.