When we mention Abstract Compositions, you’d be forgiven for thinking of Piet Mondrian as the first name to pop into your mind. He was undoubtedly the most famous practitioner and proponent of the movement, but as with every movement, there are its brighter stars, and then the slightly duller ones. Ben Nicholson is not a name often recognised outside art circles and even more so outside art circles outside England, but Mondrian and Nicholson were intimately linked and in many ways Nicholson exerted a significance influence on Mondrian. So who was Nicholson and what is the history between the artists?
This question is precisely what seeks to be answered in a new exhibition slated for the Courtauld Gallery from February 16 to May 20, 2012. Titled MONDRIAN || NICHOLSON: IN PARALLEL, it examines the time when Mondrian and Nicholson lived in close proximity together in the 1930s. The artists shared one important belief: that the potential of abstract art was largely untapped and that it held the highest spiritual and aesthetic power. In fact, Mondrian lived and worked for two years in London, and only three years in New York, yet hardly any recognition exists of his London period even though it was critical to his artistic development and the site of several significant Mondrian oil paintings. Since any reader of this blog can easily access our previous Mondrian posts and Mondrian biography we’ll focus more on Nicholson and his life.
Nicholson was born on April 10 in Denham, Buckinghamshire, to a family that boasted plenty of painting talent: his father was the noted and knighted Sir William Nicholson, and his mother Mabel Pryde; Sir William was the brother of artist Nancy Nicholson, noted architect Christopher Nicholson and Anthony Nicholson, an all round blue-blooded family of designers. In 1896 the family moved to London, where Nicholson eventually completed his artistic training at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1910-1914; he was friends and acquaintances with other artists such as Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Mark Gertler. Nicholson held his first exhibition of figurative works in London in 1922; at this stage he was increasingly absorbing the style of Synthetic Cubism and primitivism, which would then lead on to a wider acceptance of the neo-plastic style.
Nicholson became a true believer of Geometric Abstraction when he visited Paris and met Mondrian in his studio for the first time in 1934. Writing in his journal, he noted that Mondrian’s all white painted Paris studio had such an impact on him that he had to sit down and recover. He wrote that the atmosphere was similar to “one of those hermit’s caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws”. From that point on Nicholson helped to find buyers for Mondrian paintings, as well as write journal and newspaper articles about him. In 1937 Nicholson became one of the editors of Circle, a prominent publication on constructivism. Through that he spread his belief that the public should be able to enjoy abstract art – evidence of this was his creation of the Nicholson Wall, a mural he painted for the garden of Sutton Place in Guildford, Surrey. Mondrian’s and Nicholson’s relationship reached its zenith in 1938 when he persuaded Mondrian to come to London to escape an increasingly likely war on the continent – they lived closely for the next two years sharing ideas and mutually reinforcing one another before Mondrian moved to New York.