Kindred spirits in the frame

The friendship between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson inspired masterly art as the Courtauld's small but perfectly formed show proves

One learns all the time.

I'd always had Ben Nicholson figured as a Modernist in the image of Picasso (see the latest show at the Tate) with a passionate affair followed by marriage (his second) to the sculptor Barabara Hepworth, an artist who had retreated to St Ives in the war, where he remained, returning to figuration in his later art.

What I hadn't taken on board was his close friendship with Piet Mondrian through the Thirties and that he had brought over the great Dutch abstract artist to London as war broke out in 1939 and that the two had stayed painting side by side in Belsize Park until the bombs had forced Nicholson to Cornwall and Mondrian to New York .

Enlightenment has come in the form of a brilliant small show at the Courtauld, Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel, in which the relationship is recounted through 18 works, all of them masterly, from the moment when Nicholson visited Mondrian's studio in early 1934 to the time when the two went their separate geographical ways some seven years later.

The curators are at pains to explain that this is a study of parallel lines not a revelation of convergence. Both men were independent spirits as far as their art was concerned and both were well set on their own abstract courses when they met. The exhibition starts with two works from just before their first meeting. In 1933 (Six Circles), Nicholson is already embarked, rather roughly, on his excursion into squares and circles incised into wood, introducing shadow and the handmade into the purely geometric. Mondrian meanwhile is already far down the road with Composition with Double Line and Yellow, in his single-minded pursuit of "classic" squares of colour and line held in dynamic but still juxtaposition.

There is no doubting their differences. Stand back in the main gallery where their work is shown side by side and there is no doubting whose is whose, for all the similarity in geometric abstraction. Nicholson, even in his most Mondrian-like pursuit of the tension between shape and line, has colour at the centre of the picture, the fulcrum around which the squares and circles expand. Mondrian more and more pushes colour to the extremities of the picture, holding the composition in the dynamic of his lines and rectangles. Nicholson uses muted to Mondrian's absolute insistence on primary colours. Mondrian builds up his whites, as his colour, layer by layer to make them absolutely flat to the eye. Nicholson puts the paint on with a far freer brush. Most distinctly, Nicholson in his series of White Reliefs, in which he chiselled out the shapes into a plane of word, uses shadow and the presence of the handmade to give his pictures a quality of sculpture that the more purist Mondrian never sought.

And yet both artists were united in an exploration of what the abstract could achieve. And both were driven – embarrassing although it may be to declare now – by a profound sense in the spiritual capacity of art. Nicholson was a Christian Scientist, Mondrian had once signed up to theosophy. For them art, and the achievement of balance in it, was a calming and restorative process.

When Nicholson famously described himself on his first visit to Mondrian's studio in April 1934 as overwhelmed less by the works in progress than the atmosphere, he was speaking from the heart. The feeling in his studio, he reported, "must have been very like the feeling in one of those hermits' caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws."

And then there was friendship. It's an area too little explored in the creative process. The history of painting in particular has come to be written in terms of rivalries – Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso and Matisse. The best known friendship is the most spectacularly failed one, that of Van Gogh and Gauguin.

But creative friendship can be a supportive and refreshing factor even for the most different of temperaments. Looking at this flowering of talent, it's hard not to sense a feeling of mutual confidence in both artists. Nicholson, still in his thirties when they met, was growing frustrated with the Cubism he had espoused with such enthusiasm, and was still tempted by the figurative course he was later to follow. The support – and it was genuine respect from Mondrian, who pinned up photographs of his friend's work in his studio – of the well-established and respected (at least on the Continent) Mondrian must have been reassuring to him, particularly in following an abstract geometric abstract course.

Equally, Mondrian, a generation older, must have felt the energy and support of a younger artist whose work he approved and whose spontaneity and social connections he could warm to. Nicholson, a good socialiser, took his friend to where he could dance – a favourite pastime of Mondrian's although some partners derided his skills He also saw to it that he had a studio flat in Belsize Park close by Moore, Hepworth, Herbert Read and other like-minded artists. Mondrian, an urbanite by nature, liked London and its "bigness" and only left for New York when the bombs started to fall and St Ives and a retreat to the country seemed unappealing.

The exhibition ends with two supremely confident individual paintings by the friends, Nicholson's 1938 (White Relief) and Mondrian's Composition No 1, with Red. Both are studies of multiple vertical and horizontal lines, Nicholson's brought into relief by the shadow of his precise incisions, Mondrian's by the spacing and thickness of the black. The curators believe the two works may well have been completed concurrently in their respective and neighbouring studios.

One would like to think so. This is a warm as well as approachable show. The works, borrowed from a wide range of sources, may not prove a full dialogue between the two artists. But they certainly suggest a conversation and a mutual support which we can share. Another feather in the cap of a gallery that has made a consistent success of small shows centred on one of its own paintings (in this case the pitch-perfect 1937 (Painting) and building a concentrated theme around it.

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel, Courtauld Gallery, London WC2 (courtauld.ac.uk) to 20 May

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links