Have British artists been beaten on their own turf?

Feb 16th, 2012 | By | Category: London News

There is currently a buzz with the arrival of two huge shows at The Tate Britain and Courtauld Gallery respectively. Both shows examine the influence noted European painters Picasso and Piet Mondrian had on British artists during their time in the country, and the effect Britain had on their work. Picasso and Mondrian are two of the most iconic painters of the 20th century, so the chance to see some of their most well known works will undoubtedly draw the crowds, but already it seems that these shows are receiving less than flattering critique from some corners.


Early reviews of ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ have stated that the British artists on show, some of the most respected names in the industry, including David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, ‘wilt’ when compared to the Spanish master and there are fears that Mondrian’s work will dwarf his London contemporary Ben Nicholson’s pieces. Nicholson was a close friend of Mondrain’s who invited him to stay with him in London during the war. Mondrian’s work had been exhibited at the Nazi’s infamous exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ and he felt his position in Europe was unstable, so even bomb-ravaged London seemed favourable. The war did eventually drive Mondrian out of London in 1940 after his windows were blown in during a blitz raid, after which he moved to New York, a city his work became synonymous with. However, during his time in London, he was very influential on emerging artists, Nicholson in particular, whose work during this time became less colourful and frenetic, morphing into austere white reliefs, clearly influenced by Mondrian’s strict colour palette and restrained use of detail; a characteristic that made him an important component of the De Stijl movement.


The curator of the Mondrian and Nicholson show, Dr Barnaby Wright, has stated that “The shows are not some kind of boxing match, they’re about how inventive, in relation to European artists, British artists are.” and whilst the shows may invite comparison, these comments from detractors seem unfair. First one should consider that these European artists themselves, whilst they were masters of their field, were in turn influenced by the arrival of artifacts of African art into Europe after centuries of being dismissed as primitive, compared to which, European art of the time looked less bold and much more stagnant. One should also take into account that whatever influence these artists had on specific artists of the time, their influence on British artists paved the way for a new wave of art, which would give way to the vibrant and decidedly British movement of Pop Art. It may be that anyone’s work held up to such a genius as Picasso or Mondrian will pale by comparison, but to deny that these works lack inventiveness neglects their wider influence on modern art, let’s hope the Mondrian show goes some way towards setting the detractors correct.


If you would like to visit the Mondrian and Nicholson show to decide for yourself. The Courtauld Gallery is near The Strand and there are many elegant and affordable places to stay nearby. If you want to treat yourself to a few nights immersed in the glamour of turn of the century London, book into the Royal Horseguards for a very luxurious rest. The Radisson Edwardian Leicester Square offers a more contemporary style with the convenience of a very central location and reliably good service. The Royal Trafalgar Hotel is also very close to the gallery and enjoys chic modern rooms, which seems a suitable style option considering Mondrian’s work. Or if you want to show your solidarity with our native artists, choose the most British accommodation of all, a pub, The Wellington offers tastefully decorated rooms in a Londoner’s favourite location, so you will definitely pick up some of the local colour.

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