Issue Number: 113
An exhibition of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson explores their love of geometric abstraction. Yet, argues Simon Wilson, Mondrian had the edge as a great painter
Piet Mondrian, 'Composition C (No. III) with Red, Yellow and Blue', 1935. Private collection, on loan to Tate/©2011 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton, VA. What is the difference between a great artist and a just very good one? One answer might be found encapsulated in William Blake’s famous and perhaps much misunderstood maxim, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’. A glance at the careers of those artists whom history has lodged in the highest ranks of the canon will reveal, always, an element of excess, some thing or combination of things that has been carried to a hitherto unknown extreme that has propelled that art into the realm of innovation.
In the history of modern art one such artist was the Dutch pioneer of abstraction Piet Mondrian and, like all great innovators, he rapidly acquired followers worldwide (even if sales were hard to come by). In Britain by far the most important of these was Ben Nicholson, who became his friend. Now, the Courtauld Gallery has had the brilliant idea of basing an exhibition around this relationship, incidentally adding yet another gem to the string of superb small shows it has staged in recent years.
‘Mondrian || Nicholson: In Parallel’ invites a comparison of Mondrian’s achievement with Nicholson’s. Piet Mondrian was one of two artists who, in the years about 1915-20, took painting into the realm of pure geometric abstraction, in which there was no longer any apparent reference to observable reality. The other was the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, who actually got there first with Black Square, shown in St Petersburg in December, 1915. Mondrian’s evolution towards pure abstraction was slower and more complex. More complex too, was his mature art which he named Nieuwe Beelding or Neo-Plasticism – ‘new art’.
Composition C (No. III) with Red, Yellow and Blue (1935) dates from early in the period of Mondrian and Nicholson’s friendship and is a perfect example of Neo-Plasticism. The basic principles of this were set out by Mondrian in his essay ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’ published in the journal De Stijl in 1917: ‘As a pure expression of the human mind art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say abstract form... in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour.’ On this basis, Mondrian reduced painting to its fundamental essence – its absolute zero one might say. The four elements of painting – line, form, colour, space – were to be used only in their most irreducible form: only straight lines and only horizontal or vertical; only rectangular forms, only primary colours and non-colours (black, white and grey, and he soon dropped grey). And no spatial illusion: ‘Colour remains flat on a flat surface’. The famous story that Mondrian broke with his close colleague Theo van Doesburg when the latter started to include diagonal lines in his paintings in 1923, shows how important these rules were for him. All these elements had to be brought into balance – what Mondrian called ‘equilibrium’, in which each had equal weight, or ‘equivalence’, in the composition. He often spent months or even years achieving this.
Ben Nicholson,'1936' (White Relief), 1936. Private collection/©The Estate of Ben Nicholson All Rights Reserved, DACS 2011. But this absolute art was also the vehicle of a distinctive vision. He saw his paintings as emblematic of an egalitarian society: ‘Neo-Plasticism stands for equity because the equivalence of the means in the composition demonstrates that it is possible for each, despite differences, to have the same value as others.’ The crossing of the lines, again in equilibrium, he saw as representing the union of opposites, masculine/feminine, positive/negative, into a universal expression of harmony and unity.
Ben Nicholson met Mondrian in Paris in 1934 and visited his studio, later recording the sense of almost healing calm he experienced there. Nicholson was already moving towards abstraction and Mondrian gave him the final push. In the mid-1930s he produced the famous series of abstract paintings and pure white reliefs, key examples of which are in the Courtauld exhibition. They are shown with choice examples of Mondrian’s paintings of the same period, drawn from those that Nicholson had helped Mondrian exhibit in England or sell to English collectors. The exhibition offers a concentrated experience of great abstract art at the idealistic apogee of classic modernism before the Second World War.
Nicholson shared Mondrian’s utopian, egalitarian vision of an ideal art and ideal society. What he did not share was the extreme rigour and originality of Mondrian’s artistic means, nor the intellectual underpinnings. His abstract works, such as 1937 (Painting) and the white reliefs, shown at the Courtauld, are very beautiful. Indeed they are almost too beautiful in their refined elegance. Significantly, the paintings include overlapping forms in space as well as a range of ravishingly delicate colours beyond the primaries. In the reliefs circles appear and the layering of the space means the surface is no longer unified. All this would have been anathema to Mondrian and is in fact traditional picture making, however abstract, of a kind that Mondrian had simply abandoned, to invent something totally new. Nicholson was a radical and brilliant artist who perhaps never quite managed to escape the bounds of English good taste and go that extra mile down the road of excess.