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Marlow Moss

Marlow Moss.

Marlow Moss rediscovered

It is not surprising if Marlow Moss is not an immediately recognisable name. Acclaimed in the 1920s to 1950s, she was a woman who has been largely marginalised and forgotten. Yet she was painting quite avant-garde, abstract pictures in the 1920s, she was part of the Constructivist European movement and exhibited in Paris, London and the Netherlands. HOT reporter Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went along to the Jerwood for a look at this neglected artist.

Walking into the small interior room at the Jerwood there is an explosion of light and colour. The colours are a limited palette, white, black, red, yellow and blue, yet it feels, in these images, they are the only colours required. There is a definite precision in the composition as blocks of colour, some constrained within black grids, others the colours unrestrained, express a lyrical freedom. In all there is a beauty of form, balance and calmness.

Marlow Moss, White, Black, Yellow and Blue, 1954. Private Collection. © Offer Waterman and Co, London

Marlow Moss, White, Black, Yellow and Blue, 1954. Private Collection. © Offer Waterman and Co, London.

She was interested in maths and geometry to express something of her world.  Compositions would be mathematically drafted out before she began to paint.  In one picture you can actually see the pencil lines drawn directly onto the canvas.

As I look around the exhibition I note from the descriptions that Moss’s paintings, sculpture and reliefs were concerned with space, movement and light. The movement I don’t completely understand – the paintings feel quite rigid ­– space and light, I certainly do.  But all becomes clearer when it is explained that Moss related the lines of drawing to sounds; the geometrical figure as the musical key in the “art of combining sounds with a view to ‘beauty of form’”. And there most certainly is a beauty of form in its perfect simplicity.

Her work has been compared to Piet Mondrian who she knew in Paris when she lived there in 1927. Lucy Howarth, the show’s curator, points out that, “Moss had spent a great many years trying to find a mode of expression that suited her, and when she first saw Mondrian’s work in Paris, probably in 1928, it made a huge impact on her, and she adopted his ‘rules (black structural grid / white ground / red, yellow, blue etc).’ And she began making her own ‘Constructivist’ works in 1928/1929.”

Marlow Moss, Composition in Yellow, Black and White, 1949 © Tate

Marlow Moss, Composition in Yellow, Black and White, 1949 © Tate.

However, Mondrian was not her only influence.  She was also a pupil of Fernand Leger who Moss attributes to teaching her about Constructivist art.  And Mondrian also introduced her into the loose collective, the Association of Abstraction-Création artists, a group of non figurative artists, alongside Jean Arp, Naum Gabo and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. She, in turn, influenced Mondrian with the double-line. Howarth explains that, “Within the strict criteria that Mondrian defined Neo-Plasticism, any small deviation could seem extreme”: some artists criticised Mondrian for not giving Moss the credit for the invention of the double-line.

At the outbreak of World War II Moss moved back to England, to Lamorna near St Ives in Cornwall – joined later by her long-term partner, the novelist AH Nijhoff. Moss had always worked collectively with other artists in Paris and she tried to connect with the Cornish artists. At Mondrian’s suggestion she wrote to Ben Nicholson, who lived nearby, inviting him and Barbara Hepworth over to spend the day with her and discuss their work.  Sadly he never replied to her letter. A year later she wrote again, politely wondering if he had received her first missive. But it seems he never travelled the fifteen miles to visit her.

Moss was a prolific artist; however, many of her paintings were lost when her French studio was destroyed in bombing raids in the 1940s. So this exhibition is important to reinstate her reputation. Besides the primary coloured grid pictured, she also painted peaceful white on white, textured reliefs. And her sculptures that, in spite of being made of robust materials, have a delicacy to them. The positioning of two globes and a conical shape balancing on Cornish granite, with a gap, negative space, separating the two spheres, give the sculpture a poignant feel.

MM under Lamorna sign

MM under Lamorna sign

Moss went to the Slade, and later attended classes at the Penzance School of Art. In 1919 she changed her name from Marjorie to Marlow. And at that time she adopted a masculine appearance, cropping her hair and wearing cravats and jodhpurs. She was a handsome woman – her short hair emphasising her strong, sculpted features. She was certainly an individual figure. Although she did feel somewhat isolated in Cornwall, she did forge links with other European artists. However, after she heard a BBC programme, The Critics, about Ben Nicholsons’s 1955 Tate Retrospective Exhibition, she wrote to her friend, the artist Paule Vézelay, “From them we would conclude that no other Abstract Artist existed in the whole of Great Britain. It’s pitiful.”

Moss died of cancer  in 1958,  her ashes were scattered on the sea near Lamorna. So it is not before time that Marlow Moss is being at last recognised in her own country as one of the most important Constructivist artists.

In Focus: Marlow Moss until 23 April. Jerwood Gallery, Tuesday-Friday 11am-5pm, Saturday & Sunday 11am-6pm.  On Wednesday 19 February, at 2pm, exhibition curator Lucy Howarth will give a talk on Marlow Moss, her life and work, at the Jerwood.

A touring exhibition, also curated by Lucy Howarth, has been organised by Tate St Ives in association with the Jerwood Gallery, the Leeds Art Gallery and Tate Britain.

Posted 16:51 Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 In: Visual Arts

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