When the art critic Charles Darwent travelled to north London to look at the house where the great Dutch painter Piet Mondrian had stayed for two years, he was disappointed to find that there was virtually no remaining trace of the high priest of abstractionism. In particular, there was nothing left of Mondrian’s studio, the destruction of which, writes Darwent, is ‘an art historical disaster’. Mondrian’s studio was of vital importance to his work: the artist strived to eliminate the boundaries between the painting and the space in which it hung. His studios, in Paris, New York and, during his brief sojourn, in London, were always places of absolute order. In Paris, the floors and some of the furniture were painted black; in London his studio was filled with white-painted old orange-boxes. Pilgrims were impressed by the presence of a single tulip in a vase. The Daily Express critic, who in 1936 dismissed Mondrian’s paintings as a ‘house-painter’s job’, hit on something important about Mondrian’s work without remotely understanding it.
This marvellous, readable and stimulating book is a kind of detective history, unearthing two crucial years in Mondrian’s life that in turn illuminate the life of British art during the middle years of the twentieth century. It came as a complete surprise to Darwent to learn that Mondrian had lived in Belsize Park from 1938 to 1940. It was impossible even to trace the work that he might have done here as Mondrian was painstaking and slow and each painting was worked and reworked over the years. Nonetheless, his stay coincided with a foment of English artistic activity, much of it centring around his friend and London neighbour Ben Nicholson and his second wife, Barbara Hepworth.
Mondrian attracted friendships of a somewhat devotional nature. He was often reverently described as a ‘hermit’ or an ‘anchorite’, and he was an odd figure, hard to pin down: austere, bespectacled, dressed always in a clerkly suit, and an inveterate hypochondriac who maintained a strict adherence to the Hay Diet, living mainly on carrots and macaroni. He was also an enthusiast for jazz, dancing, Mae West and Walt Disney cartoons. He loathed nature with a passion, trees in particular, and banished green from his palette. Although Peggy Guggenheim claimed that he had snogged her in a taxi, he was widely thought to be sexless, an unthreatening impression that doubtless helped nurture his many friendships with married women.
Darwent begins his exploration of Mondrian’s London spell by describing the now almost forgotten English painter whose work hung with Mondrian’s in a 1929 exhibition in Paris. This was Marlow Moss, the Dutch master’s longest-serving and most devoted English disciple. Born Marjorie Moss, the crop-haired Marlow – who customarily dressed as a jockey – visited Mondrian’s studio in the mid-1920s and the experience changed her life. She was to give the rest of her career to Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian’s school of absolute form and colour, of the denial of all things representational and the visualisation of those intractable opposites (horizontal and vertical, line and plane, white and colour) that are at the heart of his work. It was Moss who claimed to have introduced Mondrian to the possibility of the double line in 1932 – a momentous turning point for him. Darwent describes the double line as the introduction of some atonal note of ambiguity into the formula – something like adding a fifteenth line to a sonnet. It is a tribute to his sparkling and entirely jargon-free prose that the reader really shares his excitement about the double line.
There are many interesting avenues explored in Mondrian in London: the role, for example, of the ideas of Madame Blavatsky and her group of Theosophists, of which Mondrian counted himself a member; and the influential magazine Axis, which was founded and edited by Myfanwy Piper and ran from 1935 to 1937. English artists of the Thirties, excited as so many were by the modernist developments on the Continent, found the representational urge hard to obliterate. The quasi-devotional commitment required of pure abstraction did not come easily: as Darwent puts it, ‘Abstraction is a creed not an omission.’ Finely calibrated divisions of style and ideology are sometimes hard to sort out: John Piper wryly described himself in 1939 as ‘a Cubist, Abstract, Constructivist, Surrealist independent’, which covered just some of the bases. Darwent is trenchant on the damaging role of Sir Kenneth Clark, who had become the arbiter of public taste: Clark’s dismissal of abstract art (the ‘fatal defect of purity’) squashed its development here until after the war.
There is much here of friendship, about the sharing of concepts and experience; about artists, often (mostly) impoverished, alight with the passion of new ideas. Charles Darwent’s secondary characters – eccentrics, obsessives and oddballs – come to life quite as much as his main protagonists. This is a marvellous book: erudite, fascinating and oddly moving.