Witty Mondrian Hated Trees, Befriended Earthy Nicholson

``Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue''
``Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue'' (1935) by Piet Mondrian. The work is included in ``Mondrian Nicholson: In Parallel'' at the Courtauld Gallery in London through May 20. Source: Sue Bond PR via Bloomberg

It’s a half-forgotten fact that Piet Mondrian once lived in London.

This sojourn in Britain, for exactly two years between 1938 and 1940, and Mondrian’s links with a younger U.K. artist are the basis for a delightful small exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, “Mondrian Nicholson: In Parallel.”

Of the three current exhibitions devoted to comparing and contrasting British and non-British artists -- the others being “Picasso and Modern British Art” at Tate Britain, and Turner/Claude at the National Gallery -- this is the most successful and surprising. Its unexpected conclusion is that Mondrian (1872-1944) and Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) had less in common than you might have presumed.

It’s true that Nicholson was profoundly affected by Mondrian’s work. Moreover, the two of them were friends and for a while near-neighbors, and both were resolutely geometrical and abstract in their work during the late 1930s. Nonetheless, side by side on the wall their abstractions look very unalike. Nicholson exclaimed in a letter from 1968, “Mondrian’s & my development is astonishingly different!” He was right.

The reason for that difference can be found in Mondrian’s jokes. Ascetic as a man and almost fanatically minimalist as a painter, Mondrian isn’t generally noted for his humor. Yet he could be drily amusing, and the main subject of his wit was how much he didn’t like nature.

Flat White

At the entrance to his Paris studio there was famously a single, artificial tulip in a vase. Mondrian painted it white, stem and all. Looking out of a friend’s apartment in New York he noticed trees planted in the middle of the street at intervals of two or three hundred yards. “I didn’t know you lived in a rural district,” he commented disapprovingly.

Mondrian didn’t much like space, either. According to his fellow modernist, Naum Gabo, he painted and repainted a certain picture, complaining that “The white is not flat enough.”

These attitudes are evident in his classic abstractions of the late ‘30s, of which there are some prime examples in the exhibition. They are powerful and precise arrangements in white and black, with an addition of one or more in red, yellow and blue. Mondrian disapproved of other colors -- green and brown especially, which probably explains his terse, negative judgment on his native Netherlands: “Too many cows and too many fields.”

His art was all about delicate adjustments of visual rhythm and balance, over which he mulled sometimes for years.

Absent Circle

In contrast, though it would be an exaggeration to say that Nicholson’s works of this period were landscapes, they certainly remind you of nature. When he uses a circle -- absent from Mondrian’s vocabulary of shapes -- it recalls a moon or sun.

Where Mondrian tries to squeeze all the depth out of his works, many of Nicholson’s are actually carved out in space: wooden reliefs, painted all white. Nicholson, instead of just primary colors, used all manner of in-between shades of mauve, gray-green, beige and oatmeal. Looking at them, you think of air, sea, hills and caves.

All of which explains why, when the war broke out, Nicholson and his wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, headed for the Cornish resort of St. Ives, while Mondrian eventually booked passage for New York. When Nicholson and Hepworth wrote telling him they had found a house beside the sea, Mondrian replied, “I thought there was only water in St. Ives!”

It doesn’t sound as if he thought that was a recommendation.

“Mondrian Nicholson: In Parallel” is at the Courtauld Gallery, London, through May 20. Lead sponsor is ING Groep NV. Information: http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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