Marlow Moss and the quest for ‘space, movement and light’
The British artist was a radical and influential figure among the Paris avant-garde of the 1930s, greatly admired by Piet Mondrian. Yet since much of Moss’s work was lost in the shelling of the artist’s Normandy home in 1944, it is rarely seen at auction
There are only a few photographs of Marlow Moss, and those that do survive were mainly taken in the 1930s by Stephen Storm, an apprentice of Man Ray and the son of Moss’s partner, Netty Nijhoff.
In one of these images, Moss is in her early forties; her hair is closely cropped. She wears a cravat and a beautifully tailored jacket and holds a thin cigarette between her long fingers. She is slightly reminiscent of the sleekly androgynous journalist Sylvia von Harden in Otto Dix’s homage to Weimar decadence — except there is a cool economy about Moss, an austerity that is very much in evidence in her paintings.
The photographs were taken in Paris, where Moss was a key member of Abstraction-Création, the daring modern art movement that sought to refashion human perception as geometry. Moss joined the group at the invitation of Piet Mondrian, who recognised in her a fellow pioneer of abstraction.
For the next decade, Moss socialised and exhibited with a close-knit group of Constructivists, among them Georges Vantongerloo, Theo van Doesburg, Auguste Herbin, Fausto Melotti and Jean Arp — all dedicated to reducing a fast-paced, technologically revolutionary modern world to primary colours and straight lines.
Despite being a part of this rarefied circle, Moss was all but forgotten by the 1970s — so much so that when her paintings were exhibited at Tate St Ives in 1997, one critic wondered if she had ever really existed.
‘I think people found it implausible that a British female artist was at the centre of European Modernism and influenced Mondrian,’ says Christie’s specialist Angus Granlund.
On 19 October, Moss’s 1948 painting White and Black will be offered in the Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London.
‘I destroyed my old personality and created a new one’
Marjorie Jewel Moss was born in London in 1889 to a prosperous Jewish family. Had she not contracted tuberculosis as a child, she might have become a musician; however, in 1916 she went to study art, first in St John’s Wood, and later at the Slade.
It has been suggested that she abandoned her studies when she discovered Cubism (the Slade was, at the time, opposed to any form of modern art), or after some form of nervous breakdown. Whatever the reason, in 1919 she left London for Penzance in the southwest of England, where she cut her hair, took to wearing riding clothes, and changed her name to Marlow. ‘I destroyed my old personality and created a new one,’ she said.
‘In the context of today’s use of pronouns, I suspect Moss might have chosen to be referred to as “they” — but that is only an assumption,’ says Granlund.
In 1927 Moss moved to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Moderne under Fernand Léger. For a time, she knew everybody: she met Amédée Ozenfant, the architect Le Corbusier, Van Doesburg and the Swedish painter Otto Gustaf Carlsund, and became friends with Vantongerloo and his wife Poema, as well as Suzanne and Jean Gorin.
Moss and Mondrian
Moss shone in the combative atmosphere of the Parisian avant-garde, an environment the sculptor Naum Gabo described as ‘violent, gossipy and full of intrigue and jealousies’. Her studio on Boulevard Raspail was a couple of doors down from Mondrian’s, and there were lively discussions between them. According to Netty Nijhoff, Moss understood Mondrian ‘very well and vice versa, they were well matched. They were a pair of extraordinary lone wolves.’
There was, however, a fundamental difference in their artistic approach. Mondrian was a mystic, fascinated by the occult and the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky. Moss, on the other hand, was a theoretician, organising her compositions according to a set of mathematical and geometric rules. ‘Science, in revealing another aspect of the universe, has enlarged our vision,’ she wrote. ‘Technical perfection has tuned up all our senses.’
Moss’s great contribution to the movement came in 1932, when she introduced a double line in an attempt to break with the constraints of Neoplasticism. Inspired, Mondrian also adopted the double line.
‘There was some controversy,’ says Granlund. ‘Georges Vantongerloo accused Mondrian of not giving Moss enough credit for the double line. I think it damaged their relationship for a time.’
The feud did not last long, and was overtaken by world events. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Moss, being Jewish, was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Europe for England on a fishing trawler. Mondrian tried to persuade her to emigrate to New York, with the prophetic warning, ‘You can either come with me, or you can stay in England and be doomed to [obscurity and] failure.’ She chose to remain, renting a small cottage in the Cornish village of Lamorna.
Rejection by the St Ives artists
There she stayed, cut off from her lover Nijhoff, who had remained in Zeeland to be close to her son. In 1944, Moss’s home in Normandy was shelled and she lost the work she had left behind. ‘As a result, a great deal of her output was tragically lost and her work very rarely appears at auction,’ says Granlund. ‘The last painting we sold [at Christie’s in London] was in 2014.’
Moss had hoped to come into contact with the progressive abstractionists living nearby in St Ives, among them Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. However, her overtures were rebuffed. ‘I have seen Ben Nicholson just once, things aren’t going well between the two of us, I don’t know why,’ she wrote.
The rejection was hard, and in 1945 Moss wrote to Vantongerloo, ‘I am very much on my own here.’
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However, she continued to paint and make sculptures, and the critics took notice, even if her works were occasionally misattributed to others — she once had to point out to Max Bill that paintings he believed to be by Mondrian were her own.
She exhibited widely and kept abreast of the developments in modern art. Her last exhibition was at the Hanover Gallery in London in 1958, the year of her death, with one reviewer observing, ‘The sculptures are superb, objects of austere, calculated beauty.’
According to Granlund, the painting being offered at Christie’s was originally owned by Moss’s partner, Nijhoff, and is one of only two monochromes from this period, the other being in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Moss described her art as a ‘quest for space, movement and light’, and in the short lines of White and Black it is possible to see her search for this universal language — one that could be embraced by everybody.