“Calm isn’t a quality you expect to knock you sideways. But when Ben Nicholson first visited Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1934, he was so struck by the mood of serenity he had to repair to a café afterwards, to sit down and try to digest what he had seen: not just in the cool, geometric paintings, but the whole ambience of the place.
The Dutch abstractionist’s studio stood next to a dance studio, right above the tracks leading into Montparnasse railway station, so this sense of peace was clearly something he carried within himself. Nicholson, meanwhile, 20 years younger and searching for his own path in abstract art, could only look on in awe.
If Mondrian’s status as one of art’s key innovators is now unassailable, Nicholson, along with most of his British Modernist contemporaries, has tended to be seen as a brave, but secondary figure – an artist who flew in the face of British hostility to modern art, but lacked the killer instinct of the European greats. Now, however, with British art flying higher than ever before, there’s a desire to think the best of British art in a period when it has generally been considered to have been shamefully behind the rest of Europe.
This modest-sized, but fascinating exhibition presents Nicholson and Mondrian’s friendship as one of equals, almost a partnership. If the letters exhibited attest that it was far more than a matter of adoration on Nicholson’s part, it is the careful selection of works that really tells the story of their relationship: from that first meeting in Paris, to Mondrian’s flight to London in 1938, when he became Nicholson’s next-door neighbour in Hampstead, and his departure for New York in 1940.
Among a number of choice works, we see a Mondrian that probably hung in his studio at the time of Nicholson’s visit, a painting owned by Nicholson’s first wife, Winifred, the first Briton to buy his work, when he was still virtually unknown here, and a painting by Nicholson, a photograph of which hung prominently in Mondrian’s studio.”
On a practical note both Sandy and I were amazed to realise that those Mondrian black lines are not painted on a flat surface. The surface has obviously been thickly primed and then a very shallow channel has been gouged out to receive the black paint.