Andrew Lambirth

Shape shifters

Shape shifters
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Someone asked me recently whether I actually liked Mondrian’s paintings. The implication being that his form of geometrical abstraction was too pure — or too antiseptic — to contain the necessary germ of human warmth required to engage the emotions; and that though one could admire his work intellectually, it was difficult to be passionate about it. There’s plenty of passion in Mondrian, but it is controlled fire, banked down to burn with a white-hot flame. Perhaps it should be termed the Higher Passion, as it does not immediately affect the ordinary emotions, but inspires instead to the spiritual ecstasy of the saint. Looking at a handful of his pictures is a remarkably uplifting experience, as can be determined from a visit to the Courtauld’s excellent exhibition. And when juxtaposed with the paintings and reliefs of Ben Nicholson, the effect is doubled rather than halved.

The trouble is — as T.S. Eliot pointed out — humanity cannot take too much perfection, and is apt to find it dull. Perfection is regarded as a dead end, a state of grace ill suited to daily existence. Yet the Modernist project was very much involved with reforming (or improving) man’s brute nature with shiny buildings of regular and unblemished form, and for a time abstract art followed suit. Mondrian’s geometrical abstraction, though never made simply by calculation and ruler but always by means of intuition, was regarded as a high point in this urge towards a supposedly improved version of human nature. His work was even admired by architects who would normally have had conniptions at the mere thought of untidy paintings sullying the purity of their walls. But Modernism itself changed and developed, and by 1935 some curators saw Mondrian’s hard-edged idiom as old-fashioned. For them, biomorphic abstraction (the curvy shapes of Arp, for example) was the way forward. Mondrian was, for a time, out of fashion.

It was at this low point in his career that Mondrian found an enthusiastic disciple in Ben Nicholson (1894–1982). Tall, thin and austere, Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) always wore a pin-stripe suit and patent leather shoes. He avoided intimate relationships with people, though friends were important to him. In his studio-sanctuary he kept panels of primary colours (red, blue, yellow) which he moved around the white walls as he developed his compositions. The floor was painted black. Nicholson visited Mondrian at his Paris studio in April 1934. It’s difficult now to envisage the effect on the younger man of Mondrian’s new work, but it was clearly electrifying, and delivered with the force of a revelation. Nicholson’s work was transformed, and the two artists became firm allies.

In 1938, with the world on the brink of war, Mondrian came to London at Nicholson’s invitation and moved into a neighbouring studio in Parkhill Road, Hampstead. Nicholson was of material help to his friend: arranging for his work to be exhibited and urging others to buy it. Mondrian had the cast of mind to set his ideas out in a disciplined manner as a cogent philosophy of art. This was Neo-Plasticism, which he wanted to promote as an international style of universal appeal and relevance. But who wants nowadays to wade through these manifestos? Better to forget about the term altogether and concentrate on looking attentively at the art. After all, that’s what Nicholson himself did. As he noted in retrospect, ‘I could not be bothered to read Mondrian’s theories. What I got from him — and it was a great deal — I got direct from the experience of his paintings.’

The exhibition begins with Nicholson’s painted relief ‘1933 (six circles)’. There is a pleasing and sensual informality to this work: the circles aren’t exact, the differentiating paint overlaps their edges, and the arrangement of straight and curved lines has a slightly haphazard aspect. The vertical format enhances the resemblance to some form of board game — bagatelle, perhaps — and reminds us that what may look haphazard is actually very skilfully done. Placing is crucial, and Nicholson (a passionate tennis player) is a master of it. Hanging next to this beautiful and subtle piece is a small Mondrian canvas, ‘Composition with Yellow and Blue’ (1932). Precision is offset by the unusualness of placing: the grid is subverted and played with (note the double thickness of the lower horizontal at the extreme right), and the colour comes with fresh surprise upon the retina. Next to it is Nicholson’s ‘1934 (painting)’, much neater and more controlled, though he plays the wild card of colour (pink and mauve as well as grey and taupe) to unsettle his new Mondrian-inspired rectilinearity. And texture, the scoring of the surface that was to become such a feature of Nicholson’s approach, is also present, though in a minor way.

Besides the obvious difference that Nicholson includes circles and Mondrian doesn’t, there is as much common ground as variance between these two artists. Look at the next Mondrian, a marvellously simple painting, originally bought by Nicholson’s first wife Winifred, and now in the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. ‘Composition with Double Line and Yellow’ (1932) reduces colour to one lambent passage, concentrating the picture’s impetus on white segmented by black lines. Mondrian uses his lines with radical emphasis, doubling up the top horizontal to great effect and moving the lower one to the extreme bottom edge of the canvas. Nicholson takes the process of simplification even further, to the carved and painted all-white relief, though still very hand-made in appearance with its different surface textures and tool marks.

A little further along the wall in this first room of the exhibition is the large Nicholson the Courtauld owns ‘1937 (painting)’, a canvas of colour-filled clarity that seems to radiate outwards in blocks from a near-central red rectangle. There are no textures in evidence here, no visible brushstrokes even, and all the natural flow of ‘1933 (six circles)’ would appear to have been suppressed or eliminated. This is my least favourite kind of Nicholson; thankfully there’s another immaculate but vital white relief on the other side of it. The shadows cast by the relief create a subtle but insistent equivalent to Mondrian’s pulsing black lines.

What is it that makes a Mondrian so effective? Take ‘Composition B/ (No. 11), with Red’, of 1935. Try removing the half-thickness black vertical on the extreme left of the central register. Without it, the structure of this painting would be altogether less remarkable and affecting. Mondrian worked hard to create these dissonances and key variations, adjusting the grid of his black lines intuitively over months and sometimes years. Up or down, left or right, before finding its point of total rightness. If you look closely at the surface of these paintings you will notice the depth of paint, and how the black looks burnt in — as if sitting at a lower level than the layers of white built up around it.

The exhibition extends into a second room, where a beautiful small work by Nicholson, ‘1936 (Painting)’, holds the wall successfully against his much larger, and less interesting, ‘1938 (painting — version 1)’. The latter is perhaps Nicholson at his most Mondrian-like, and it’s revealing to compare it to Mondrian’s radical, minimal ‘Composition No 1, with Red’ (1939), hanging adjacent. Nicholson’s picture has none of Mondrian’s satisfying density of paint, for a start. Mondrian’s severely barred pictorial structure is almost entirely black and white, with a small rectangle of red at the bottom, almost as an afterthought. But of course an afterthought is just what it isn’t, and this element of colour proves absolutely essential to the effectiveness of the painting. Nicholson’s ‘1938 (white relief)’ nearby is differently radical and extreme, its rectilinear shadow-lines played off against the circle drawn in pencil.

This is a beautiful and serene exhibition, full of dynamic energies. For those who wish to know more about a fascinating episode in English and international art, the Courtauld has produced an exemplary illustrated catalogue (£25). There’s also the very readable and opinionated Mondrian in London: How British Art Nearly Became Modern by Charles Darwent (Double-Barrelled Books, £16.95). But start with the show.