From the early years of the twentieth century artists wondered if they could create paintings that, like music, could be composed without referring to a subject, relying instead upon patterns of colour, line and form. This approach, often called Constructivist, was particularly popular in Revolutionary Russia, and was driven by the desire to create a new art for the future of humanity.

There were many variants of geometrical abstraction in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, not all of which shared Constructivism’s socially utopian ideology. Piet Mondrian’s pared-down simplicity of horizontal and vertical black lines containing squares of white, red, blue or yellow paint, were the ultimate in abstract refinement, but they were underpinned by spiritual beliefs rather than revolutionary theory. Mondrian’s impact on abstract art between the wars was huge, not just stylistically but also in terms of instilling a purist ethos. Ben Nicholson and other British artists owed him a considerable debt.