Abstract Critical

Mondrian // Nicholson: In Parallel

Written by Alan Gouk


Mondrian’s is an art that invites paradox, polarisation, both in any account of its qualities, and in affective response.  Its advocates speak of a reconciliation of opposites, “dynamic equilibrium,” the clashing and resolution of opposing forces.  Though encouraging a projection into our perceptual space, his pictures also resist empathy; at least they do to me.  His devotees speak of an ultimate “freedom” from adopting his aesthetic, even as they are bound to the astringencies of his method.  He “transformed my life in art and gave me discipline and the goal which leads to freedom.” C.V. Wiegand.

Mondrian seems to me to be an extreme case of an artist whose avowed intentions honed by experience into mature absolutist convictions, and scrupulous habits of craftsmanship (technique subordinated to conception but inseparably bound together) are contradicted by the unruly perceptual ambiguities, the optical puzzles and accidents engendered by his adherence to strict ideas at odds with the sensual reality which his drivenness has created.


Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935 Oil on canvas, 56.2 x 55.1 cm Private collection, on loan to Tate © 2012 Mondrian/ Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Washington DC

His invented world of absolute control, however hard he tried to control it, is in constant danger of sabotage from within by the conflicting pull of optical tensions created by his love of extremes of contrast, the stern rectilinear cage within which his anti-spatial planes threaten to release into space, both fictively and projectively, and by the binocular biases of habituated vision when confronted with an insistently flat planar unity that contains such ambiguities.

Compulsive rather than impulsive, his structures and strictures run away from him in jagged pulses of optical pinball wizardry.  Did Mondrian invite these, in order to overcome them? I doubt it. I think he struggled to contain them within the logic of his intellectual commitment, his intuitions sometimes supporting, but sometimes conflicting, an uneasy truce between dogmatic assertiveness (the boldly declared black bars) and a more sensuous effusion (the luminosity of the whites).

His pictures invite a close scrutiny, very close, of the way his edges are achieved, of the layers of overpainting required to “equalise” the black bars or bands with the white “windows” (as I temporarily assign them) whose textures vary from silky-smooth ivory white to semi-translucent grey/white in which underlayers (possibly including pencil or charcoal dust) are just perceptible through the hair strokes of a fine brush. Yet it is clear that this, though of great technical interest in itself, is not the primary mode of perception with which the pictures are intended to be taken in.

They are not intended (initially) to be scrutinised in detail bifocally, the eye running along and across bars and gaps.  In order for the coloured areas (where present) to be seen and to interact simultaneously, synchronistically  with the whites and blacks, one needs to look “through” the picture as if looking absent-mindedly “through” window bars at a lowering grey omnipresent sky (such as is a regular occurrence in lowland Holland, inland at Uden, where Mondrian lived in retreat from 1904-8, aged 32, at Arnhem, where his father lived and Domburg, on the coast at Zeeland, which he visited every year from 1908 to 1912).

But of course, one is not permitted to look “through”: the presentness of the white areas (“rectangles” is too Euclidean a concept, “panes” too transparent- what is one to call them?) prohibits one from seeing them as anything other than positive pulsing pressures, which burn themselves on the retina as bleached obtrusions, neither optical illusion nor material surface but a fusion of both.

However one looks at them the harsh insistence with which the black bars strike across one another, setting up modes of potentially disruptive energy at their intersections (and some incontrollable optical pulsations too), create lateral tensions that are hard to reconcile with a notion of equilibrium.  And hard to reconcile is a continuing motif in one’s response to these paintings.

Once engaged with these black bars, the eye tends to become trapped within them, to race up and down, and across them, bumping into the perimeters of the rectangle of the canvas, ricocheting back along the bars, some of which seem to lie on top, others to lie fractionally underneath one another, despite the painter’s best efforts to prevent this.  Similarly, when two vertical black bars come close to one another, they create a lift-shaft of white which the eye plunges down and up again, leaving awareness of the unifying dialogue of the bars out of contention for the duration of that episode.

It was clearly the constant struggle to control these movements and accommodate them to the desired equilibrium for the whole which led Mondrian to the innovations of his later years in New York (perhaps in response to feedback from observers), the replacing of the black bars with coloured ones, the interweaving of colours across the gaps between bars, etc etc. Though here too a new set of perceptual dilemmas ensued, which, however, take us outside to scope of the Courtauld exhibition, which confines itself to the ‘transitional’ phase of the paintings associated with his dialogue with Ben Nicholson, and those painted during his stay in London i.e. the period from 1932 to 1939.

Luminosity, Space

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) 1937 (painting) Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 91 cm The Courtauld Gallery, London, Samuel Courtauld Trust (Alastair Hunter Bequest, 1984) © Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Our ever-incompetent purblind journalistic hacks and soi-disant art critics have almost to a man responded to this pairing by describing Nicholson as a disciple, fellow-traveller and diluter of Mondrian’s high-modernist achievement (which of course they would have been the first to condemn had they been presented with it unsanctioned by the weight of the canonical authority in which Mondrian’s art now basks).

This has not been my impression.  For some time (especially since the appearance of Norbert Lynton’s excellent book on Nicholson in 1993), I have been looking at and digesting (admittedly in photographs only) the remarkable mural which Nicholson made (as well as painted) on the occasion of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Also the equally remarkable Mycenae – axe – blue Oct 1961 and the Tate’s large relief  Ice off Blue 1960 which I consider to be among the finest achievements by any 20th Century British painter.  This is a conviction which has come upon me gradually, since on the face of it, Nicholson’s art would seem to be almost the antithesis of my own concerns as a painter.  What unites us, however, is a preoccupation with the strategies by which spatial experience can be generated on a surface which retains its planar character, frontality and integrity. (i)

This is what distinguishes Nicholson from Mondrian, who is reputed to have been “against space.  His ideas were very clear.  He thought a painting must be flat, and that colour should not show any indication of space.” (Naum Gabo). Hence colour had to be confined, trapped within a bounded, rectilinear armature and hence my former antipathy to his pictures.

Of the Nicholsons, at least those in this pairing, purged of direct reference to still-life objects, cups, jugs, which feature elsewhere in his art, I think previous authors, including contributors to the accompanying catalogue to this show, are right to stress nonetheless their affinity to a kind of purified still-life. Nicholson employs a tipped-up table-top format purified of all volumetric or tactile suggestions, where the emphasis is placed on the intersection of coloured planes and where his favoured incised drawn lines are reduced to a minimum – subliminal still-life if you like.

That this is so is confirmed if in reproduction one turns the images upside down.  The correct orientation is weighted towards the bottom edge of the canvas (or board) or would do if steps were not taken to prevent it.  The darker, heavier colours tend to drop and this is countered by a light, luminous surround which underscores and counteracts the gravitational pull.  Sometimes this “ground” colour encloses the tipped-up table-like main plane on three or four sides, but appears to subtly change colour towards the base as it does so.  (Whereas the Mondrian’s can be inverted sacrilegiously without these sensations arising – although Composition in Red, Blue and White II, 1937 is clearly weighted towards the bottom by its horizontal bars).  Another way of saying this is that Nicholson is less anxious to banish evocation of naturalistic light than Mondrian.  Indeed he wants to encourage it, without ceding to recession of his planes behind the overall picture plane.

If one applies to the Nicholsons the same unscrutinising mode of vision, looking “through” that I suggested for the Mondrians, encouraging simultaneity of perception of the dispersed coloured planes, what tends to happen, precisely because the two-dimensional unity of the picture-plane is so convincingly maintained, is that the more strongly hued planes begin to present themselves in a sequence, first one, then an instant later another across the mediant, tertiary, spatially more luminous surfaces, in a sequential rhythm, one that is indeed, as Nicholson felt, akin to a musical experience, all this helped by the relatively small size of the pictures, so that one can take them in without head-movements.

On a purely technical level, Nicholson’s edges, where one rectilinear section meets another are, if anything, even more a marvel of craftsmanship that Mondrian’s (given that they are entirely hand-done in both directions as say, an olive green meets a scarlet), and the planes themselves have greater subtlety of texture, two black areas in the same painting having a different degree of viscosity and “blackness.”

In short, Nicholson’s pictures are more sensuous, more open to the texture of surface luminosity in daily life, and less forbidding, less dictatorial, less rigidly “against nature” than Mondrian’s.

When one does begin to pay closer attention to such differences in Nicholson, one finds oneself asking such questions as,- are those two olive greens at a distance the same hue precisely, are they subtly different, or is this just an effect of the reciprocal influence of the colours surrounding them, changing their apparent colour from the “actual.”  Often it is quite hard to tell, even on close scrutiny, but usually, they are indeed subtly different in hue. I am reminded of the notorious but understandable gaffe of Clement Greenberg in first writing of his response to the first sighting of Broadway Boogie Woogie in New York, when he thought he had seen the introduction of violet into Mondrian’s favoured triumvirate of red, yellow and blue, but had to concede in a later article (or letter) that this was in fact an illusion created by the kinds of optical bleeding exploited by the Divisionist painters, Seurat and company in the 1880s and 90s.

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) 1940-43 (two forms) Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 59.5 cm National Museum, Cardiff Angela Verren Taunt. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Nicholson is careful to so adjust his colour areas that no such op-flicker or after-image confusions arise (he is too much of a classicist to allow that), and yet the reciprocal influence of colour on colour, even in these relatively muted combinations, still results in the subtle changes I have described and adds to the sensuous qualities of the paintings.

The key painting here is the small picture from Cardiff, where the gravitational pull of the black areas is so distanced from the bottom edge by an enveloping pale grey and a broad band of white below the grey.  The broad band of bluish grey at the top of the picture which could be felt to be slightly ‘behind’  the central forms is led into them by two slightly warmer grey areas (are they the same grey?), all of which makes the scarlet square atop the right band “form” glow, and to begin to chime in a sequence with the blue square enclosed by black at the bottom of the left “form,” and hence to the yellow bar at the bottom right- a roundalay which is contained and echoed by the grey and suede/ochre areas.  The whites, greys, and blue grey form a kind of ground-bass.

Do I prefer the Nicholsons to the Mondrians? Yes, I do, for reasons which have emerged during the foregoing.  Do I think Nicholsons aesthetic carries greater potential for the future/present of painting?  In its openness to sensuous experience and the light of the natural world, in its sublimated cursiveness (in these particular pictures), in its “carving” of space (see Christopher Green’s essay in the catalogue), in its improvisory fusion of the physicality of making with the optics of planar construction, certainly.

The one quality which Mondrian has over Nicholson, is projection into the space of the room, which he emphasises by the way his pictures are framed; Nicholson is more reticent, more self-constrained, internalised.  Mondrian is more adamantine.  Is this a virtue?  Probably not, but it appeals to me!

ALAN GOUK, 23rd February 2012
(i). And the mediator with Nicholson is the Nicholson-influenced phase of Patrick Heron (the early 1960s – he took over Nicholson’s studio in St Ives in 1958).

  1. Robert Linsley said…

    Mr. Gouk, I don’t know if you read T.J.Clark’s piece in the LRB (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n06/tj-clark/false-moderacy) comparing Nicholson and Picasso, but he says exactly the same thing as you do in your final remark. I’m wondering what you would think about Clark’s position on this particular matter.

    • Patrick Jones said…

      Hello Bob,I enjoyed T.j. Clarks piece about Englands relationship to Modernism,which I beleive was limited and disappointing.The exception was David Bomberg who to me speaks with an authentically modern voice.Obviously he must have made himself really unpopular with the establishment to be so ignored.Two of my teachers,John Epstein and Dennis Creffield, who attended the Borough group, were inspirational and I beleive modelled themselves on his passion.I met John Walker in Cork street and he took me on a tour of the galleries,pointing out a Nicholson,which he said he would love to own.I find them very dry but Mondrian in the Sidney Janis collection absolutely riveting.

  2. jenny meehan said…

    Thank you for directing my eyes so precisely around those paintings! I saw the exhibition, but I will need to go back now and look and think a bit more thoroughly!

    This has given me some further thinking:

    “In its openness to sensuous experience and the light of the natural world, in its sublimated cursiveness (in these particular pictures), in its “carving” of space (see Christopher Green’s essay in the catalogue), in its improvisory fusion of the physicality of making with the optics of planar construction, certainly.”

    Thanks abstractcritical.com for some more brainfodder.
    The heart and brain are intertwined, and I felt this clearly, following the journey Alan took me on in this article. Thank you for writing it.

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    This has to be the best article to appear on abstractcritical to date.