Mondrian | Nicholson - In Parallel (The Courtauld)

A record of a beautiful artistic friendship.

Mondrian | Nicholson - In Parallel

The Courtauld Gallery, London WC2

These days, you don't really associate London's Belsize Park with avant-garde visual arts. Washed-up Britpop stars and a nice branch of Daunt Books, yes, but not the epicentre of the international art scene. But for a while, in the 1930s, leafy NW3 was the Dalston of its day, with a colony of experimental artists that included Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nich­olson. In 1938, they were joined for two years by a pioneer of abstract geometric art, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.

The Courtauld's exquisite exhibition is a record of the period Mondrian and Nicholson spent working alongside each other. It shows the fruits of a creative relationship that began when Nicholson travelled to Paris to visit Mondrian in 1934, and which would last until the Dutchman's death in 1944.

For Nicholson, his visit to the older artist's studio was something of an epiphany. He compared the experience of entering its monastic, whitewashed interior - punctuated by squares of vivid primary colour - to the "feeling in one of those hermits' caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws".

The curators of "In Parallel" have created something similarly shrine-like in two top-floor rooms, the walls of which are hung with around two dozen key paintings and reliefs by Mondrian and Nicholson from the period. Intense, contemplative, ascetic, these are works that are in dialogue with each other yet are not derivative nor obviously the result of a master-disciple dynamic, despite a 20-year age gap.

We see Nicholson, who had already been exploring abstraction, being emboldened to become more angular and geometric. There is a clear progression from 1933 (Six Circles), a loosely carved relief rendered in soft, earthy neutral tones, to the pure and monochrome 1935 (White Relief) or the bold, confident 1937 (Painting), its blocks of muted colour centring inwards around a vivid scarlet square.

For Mondrian, being with Nicholson was an opportunity to take his painting in a subtle new direction, pushing his palette ever further towards white, his blocks of colour receding to the extremities of the canvas, and beginning to use double black lines instead of single. We see the last of Mondrian's "classic" series, Composition with Yellow and Blue, with its spare window-pane bisections of black, white and primary, contrasted with Composition in Red, Blue and White, in which the black lines have thickened and multiplied, almost evicting the colour.

Although Mondrian aimed for absolute abstraction, and flatness of paint, these works are anything but still and lifeless. The paintings pulsate with white dots where the planes meet, while the black lines dance on the canvas. There is simplicity and quiet but also fizzing, kinetic energy. In contrast, Nicholson's meditative reliefs are supposed to be 3D, different levels of painted wood creating subtle plays of light and shade, with gradations in tone where Mondrian uses thick black. They reach their pinnacle in 1936 (White Relief), a column-like oblong of delicately balanced blocks, topped with a perfect circle, crescent moons of shade and reflection outlining it. It looks like the proclamation of an aesthetic alliance and a profound friendship.

The exhibition runs until 20 May

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.