With her cropped hair, cravat and jodphurs, Moss looked like she had stepped straight from a cabaret in the Weimar republic. And if the locals had ventured into her small studio, what they would have seen would have been incomprehensible. Even in the 1940s, very few people in Britain would have been familiar with De Stijl (Nicholson and his first wife Winifred were virtually alone in actually owning a Mondrian) and yet here was Moss making sharp, pared-down, elegant Neo-Plastic constructions and paintings in a small wood-lined studio by the sea.
Moss's epiphany as an artist had occurred in Paris in 1927 when she first saw a work by Mondrian in person. Two years later, when she made her first Neo-Plastic painting (two lines crossing at right angles on a white ground), she met the 'Master' himself and would keep in regular touch with him until he left Paris in 1938. It was Mondrian who put Moss's name forward to join Abstraction-Création, a loosely affiliated group, led by Van Doesberg, Herbin, Helion and Vantongerloo (and to which both Nicholson and Hepworth had been associated) that was set up to counter the influence of Surrealism through purist abstraction.
That Marlow Moss is little known in comparison to her peers from Abstraction Création or Groupe Espace may well have something to do with the exile of her final years, at the westernmost tip of an island already at one remove from the Continent and not altogether sympathetic to geometric abstract art. But it is also a factor of her work being so rare. In 1944 the house that she had been forced to abandon at the outbreak of the War was shelled, destroying much of her oeuvre. The tiny but beautiful catalogue that accompanied the 1975 retrospective exhibition at Gimpel & Hanover Gallery in Zurich – the gallery where the Swiss collector Branco Weiss acquired the present work – offers a tantalising glimpse of what remained, but even these works have rarely been seen since. As such the story of Marlow Moss has almost faded out, to white. The current exhibition at Tate St Ives however, with what little there is to hand, may well encourage a wider appreciation of a unique artist.
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