I’d forgotten what a beautiful collection of paintings there is at the Courtauld Gallery. The tag-line on its website reads ‘one of the finest small museums in the world'; and I can vouch that in my small experience of small museums it comes pretty near the top. Do pay a visit if you have never been (information here). It’s housed in Somerset House on the Strand in central London.
It was the Mondrian-Nicholson exhibition that took me there on Friday. I’ve always enjoyed the Mondrian grid paintings, but I came away with a much greater admiration for Ben Nicholson.
The Mondrian paintings feel like studies, ideas, or speculative essays. They make you think about balance, harmony, relation and discord; how a particular colour and shape relates to another; and there is certainly an aesthetic response. But it feels more like thinking than seeing, as if you are somehow detached from your own experience.
[The two pictures here are not from the current exhibition.]
I think it’s the thickness of the black grid lines. It’s as if Mondrian is saying, ‘I’m telling you how the colours relate’, instead of just letting the relationships speak for themselves. I’m not criticising the project – I’m sure he knew what he was doing. I’m just responding to it.
Nicholson’s geometric abstractions, as well using a greater variety of colours, and daring to incorporate the odd circle here and there, are without the black grid lines; so the patches of colour and space touch each other and seem to grow out of each other. The paintings seem more alive, more organic. They seem to have greater presence.
There is an incredible beauty about two or three of the canvases here, and it helps you to understand the significance of the whole abstract movement in art. The relationship between abstraction and realism is like that between metaphysics and the world. In Nicholson’s geometric paintings you can see what it is for something to be there and not here, to be what it is and not what something else is, to support or oppose or surround or frustrate or liberate or oppress – but all of this now without content. It’s like a dance without the dancers.
It’s not just the art itself that becomes abstract; it’s a means of contemplating in abstraction so much that takes place within human experience and so much that is experienced of the world. One painting took my breath away, and held me there almost in suspension – Painting, Version I, 1938 – heartbroken that it is from an anonymous private collection and I may never see it again in my life. I wish I could find an image to show, but it wouldn’t capture it. You will have to go yourself.
It’s wonderful that the two rooms of this temporary exhibition lead into the small but exquisite selection of early German expressionist paintings in the Courtauld collection. You see artists like Jawlensky and Kandinsky around 1910/11 almost slipping into abstraction, seeing the possibilities of actually breaking free from representation and leaving themselves with form alone – the formality of colour, shape and space. And seeing how much could still be ‘said’ and expressed solely with the formal elements.
It’s just a short step from Kandinsky’s Improvisation on Mohogany, 1910, to the Mondrian-Nicholson paintings of the 1930s next door.
This is the wall commentary from that painting:
By 1910 Kandinsky has developed his art to the brink of abstraction… emphasising the sensation of colour, line and form, freed from their descriptive functions. Here, isolated details can be identified, such as the figure of a woman and the outlines of a walled city to the right. However, the textured patches of brilliant colour generate their own energy and harmony.
So I am now a huge Ben Nicholson fan. Does anyone know where I can see some of his other paintings?