The Courtauld Gallery’s latest exhibition is a perfect example of what their curating team does best: small-scale, intimate and nicely compact. Mondrian || Nicholson: In Parallel illustrates the creative friendship between two of the 20th century’s most celebrated abstract artists, and offers a welcome alternative to the usual gargantuan London blockbuster.

The serenely uncomplicated white cube display evokes feelings of peace and tranquillity, ideal for appreciating the subtle details of Mondrian and Nicholson’s characteristically pared-down abstractions. The space feels welcoming in contrast with the noise and traffic of the Strand, likening it to Nicholson’s first experience of visiting Mondrian’s Paris studio, described as an ‘astonishing space’: ‘I remember after this first visit sitting at a café table on the edge of a pavement … for a very long time with an astonishing feeling of quiet and repose’.

 …these paintings are by no means ‘mechanical’ or ‘impersonal’…

The display is organised into specific pairings of works by Mondrian and Nicholson, demonstrating key analytical points such as how Nicholson under Mondrian’s influence moved towards greater geometric precision in his work. With the close inspection of works that this exhibition affords, what becomes clear is that these paintings are by no means ‘mechanical’ or ‘impersonal’ in their making. Each work was carefully hand-made, registering the presence of the artist through brushwork, often visible and uneven. The designs of Mondrian and Nicholson range from the organic to the geometric, their ‘arbitrariness’ and experimental nature being indicative of a search for new modes of expression, and above all a willingness to innovate.

What this exhibition does not attempt to do is explain what abstraction was, thus assuming a degree of prior knowledge on the visitor’s behalf. For example, how did Mondrian and Nicholson’s work develop from conventionally figurative painting to abstraction, and, most importantly, why?

…making the space’s delicate serenity all the more extraordinary. 

The exhibition also mentions other artists in London in the 1930s, including Nicholson’s second wife Barbara Hepworth, yet the Hampstead avant-garde scene is decidedly not represented, and this seems a pity. Nonetheless, wall texts and captions are informative and engagingly written, and space is dedicated to a display of supplementary material, including manuscript letters, original photographs and a first edition of Circle edited by Nicholson in 1937. A sense of the artworks’ historical context is also conveyed, namely the Nazi storm-cloud darkening over a war-ravaged Europe, making the space’s delicate serenity all the more extraordinary.

In summary, an aesthetic experience to savour.

The exhibition continues at the Courtauld Gallery until 20 May

Admission: £6/£4.50/free for full-time UK students

4 Stars


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