Somerset House, Strand
London WC2R 0RN
16 February to 20 May 2012
Piet Mondrian's two years in London after escaping Nazi-occupied Paris in 1938 were among the most productive of his artistic career – not least because of his friendship with British sculptor Ben Nicholson. This incisive exhibition at Somerset House's Courtauld Gallery pairs some of their most corresponding works. Mondrian arrived in the capital at Nicholson's invitation and their artistic relationship continued to develop after the peripatetic Mondrian left his beloved London for New York.
Nicholson's work just prior to meeting Mondrian is more evocative of natural materials. 1933 (Six Circles) has the nubby look of suede, making you want to reach out and touch it. His imperfectly drawn circles appear for the last few times. After meeting the Dutch painter, geometrical shapes begin to dominate his canvases, though the same warmth remains in the colour schemes. There are obsessions shared by the two artists – red, achieving precision in their lines, managing the tension between colour and shape.
However, what really comes across is how Nicholson takes the European influence from Mondrian in unprecedented directions. He explores new ways of expressing depth while using flat colours. Nicholson's four carved white reliefs, dating between 1935 and 1936, are a revolution in his work. Their increasing precision, the carving's edge as fine as a light pencil line, echo Mondrian's own exactingness with his grids. In parallel to Nicholson, Mondrian's later work begin to bleed more colour. Red pulses outward in the top corners of the grid in Composition No.1 with Gray and Red 1938/Composition with Red 1939 as though trying to escape the canvas. Interestingly, Nicholson similarly uses red in 1936 (Painting) to signify dynamism, by conversely putting it at the centre like a still beating heart. The Courtauld Gallery's small rooms put a powerful lens to their symbiosis, showing how British and European art was always in dialogue. It also accentuates the drier, colder aspects of Nicholson and Mondrian's styles – always a risk with parallels – and hides the ways in which they are actually ultimately very different.
The documentation and correspondence between the two counterbalances the very masculine nature of the work on display. Mondrian's missives from London reveals a surprisingly playful side to his personality. He nicknames himself Sleepy in one postcard, after the dwarf in the newly released Disney animation Snow White. Mondrian was famously meticulous about his space. In New York, he spent several hours of the day moving around coloured squares on the wall as a kind of meditative practice between painting. In comparison, Nicholson later chose to live next to the spit and the roar of the Cornish sea. The Dutch artist declined Nicholson's invite to move there, describing himself as a resolutely city person. This is a man who famously decorated his Paris studio with a single tulip, painting its leaves white. Mondrian's quirks bring him to life, in the same way that his work leaps stages of evolution. Despite this, I left the exhibition wanting to know more about Nicholson. His work has the same qualities as Mondrian's here, but the warm tones and textures hint at an entirely different way of perceiving the world.
Zakia Uddin is an East London-based writer who has previously written for Time Out, Londonist, Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and The Wire.view all articles from this author