by Roderick Conway Morris

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Squaring up to Abstraction

By Roderick Conway Morris
THE HAGUE 2 September 2022
Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague
Composition with Red, Yellow, Black, Blue and Grey by Mondrian, 1921



'It is the task of art to express a clear vision of reality,' wrote the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, in his autobiographical essay of 1941, three years before he died in New York at the age of 71.

This may sound paradoxical coming from possibly the single most important abstract artist of the 20th century, although he himself disliked the term preferring to describe his later works as 'non-figurative'.

Mondrian was born in Amersfoort in the Netherlands in 1872. As he recalled in a brief memoir: 'I began to paint at an early age. My first teachers were my father, an amateur, and my uncle, a professional painter.' He was profoundly imbued with Dutch artistic traditions and took pride in the craftsmanship and quality of his works, yet his career was one of continual experimentation, which led him from being a highly respected landscape artist in his home country to becoming the most internationally influential abstract artist of the era of modernism.

That his artistic career, despite a series of sometimes gradual, sometimes radical changes in style, was in many ways all of a piece is revealingly unfolded by 'Mondrian Moves', a rich and lucidly presented special exhibition of the artist's works juxtaposed with those of others who influenced him at various stages in his career and of the many artists that fell under his spell. This special show, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Mondrian's birth, is curated by Benno Tempel and Caro Verbeek. The venue is the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, which also has an impressive permanent section devoted to Mondrian and De Stijl.

Indeed, the Kunstmuseum was remarkable as a public art gallery in acquiring early one of Mondrian's abstract pieces, 'Composition with Yellow Lines', which was bought by a group of friends and presented to the Haags Gemeentemuseum (renamed the Kunstmuseum in 2019) to mark the artist's 60th birthday. Since then, thanks to donations and acquisitions - including of Mondrian's last unfinished piece, 'Victory Boogie Woogie' - the museum, with over 300 pieces, has outstandingly the largest collection of the artist's works in the world.

Mondrian graduated from the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam in 1895. He was first drawn to the Hague School of landscape painters and especially influenced by Paul Joseph Constantin Garbiël, whose paintings were notable for their bold geometric structures. But Mondrian rapidly developed a style of his own, later writing: 'I preferred to paint landscapes in dark, grey weather, or in very strong sunlight, when the density of the atmosphere obscured detail of the view and accentuated the broad outlines of things.' After 1906, he went further, painting at sunset and on moonlit nights. Even at this stage, his compositions were notable for their strong horizontal and vertical lines, which would later become a trademark of his abstract works.

Mondrian's palette underwent a dramatic change as he abandoned darker colours and embraced brighter ones, such as magenta, pale pink, blue, red and light greens, a transformation evident in his 'Large Landscape' of 1907-8, 'The Red Mill' of 1911 and in the Symbolist-inspired compositions that he produced at the same time, such as his mystical 'Evolution'. Already some of his seascapes in particular tended towards abstraction.

In the meantime, the first Cubist works by Picasso and Braque were being exhibited in the Netherlands, and Mondrian was so struck by them that in 1912, at the age of 40, he decided to move to Paris.

Having established a studio there, between 1912 and 1914, he painted a series of Cubist works, some of which are enduring classics of the genre, such as 'Landscape with Trees' of 1912. However, he began to feel that the movement had not taken its ideas far enough, later writing: 'Gradually I became aware that Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction toward the ultimate goal, the expression of pure reality.'

The artist returned to his homeland on a family visit just before the outbreak of the First World War and found himself stranded there for the duration. In 1917 his friend Theo van Doesburg founded the periodical De Stijl, for which Mondrian, who always regarded himself as both a painter and a writer, contributed a series of articles explaining his ideas on art and, among other things, how it 'can accelerate the progress of humanity through the acquisition of a truer vision of reality'. This, he thought could only be achieved through abstraction. De Stijl also became the name of the movement of like-minded artists whose work was characterized by the playful use of geometric forms, grids and bold colours, which went on to be a major international influence on 20th-century art, design and architecture.

In 1919, Mondrian returned to Paris and continued to experiment with ways of painting that would finally be able fully to realize his idealistic vision of what the art of the future should be. As he later recorded: 'I began to determine forms: verticals and horizontals became rectangles. They still appeared as detached forms against a background. Their colours were impure. Feeling the lack of unity, I brought the the rectangles together: space became white, black or grey; form became red, blue or yellow.'

During the 1920s Mondrian's Paris studios became almost as idiosyncratic as his paintings. The artist meticulously designed these immersive environments, works of art in themselves, to optimize his creative conditions and to display his canvases in progress. W.F.A Röell, the correspondent for a Dutch newspaper in Paris, gave a detailed description of Mondrian's studio in rue du Départ in an article in 1920 in which he observed that 'the walls of the room with its pleasing stereometrical shapes are hung with unpainted, primed canvases, so that each wall is actually a kind of larger-scale painting with rectangular fields.'

Mondrian's dedication to his art became legendary and Röell represented him as grappling 'with his material in monk-like solitude in his quest for his lofty, highly controversial ideal'. However, when he revisited the artist in 1926, the same year in which an invaluable set of photographs documented the studio for posterity, the journalist also modified his austere image of his subject, noting that 'Mondrian is wild about jazz and modern dance. He is an ardent admirer of the Charleston.'

In his early years in Paris, Mondrian had struggled to make a living, but by the early 1930s he was managing to sell pictures at modest prices to collectors in the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Switzerland and, in 1936, his works crossed the Atlantic to be shown at the Cubism and Abstract Art show at MoMa in New York.

However, his paintings were also attracting the attention of the Nazis in Germany, who declared his abstract canvases 'Entartete Kunst' (Degenerate Art). Following the Munich Agreement in 1938, he wisely sought refuge in London, where with the help of English friends, including Ben and Winifred Nicolson, he found a studio in Belsize Park in London.

In 1940, the invasion of the Netherlands, the fall of Paris and the experience of bombs landing close to his London studio, prompted him to sail to New York, where he arrived in October. The American painter Harry Holtzman had struck up a lasting friendship with the Dutch painter on a visit to his Paris studio in 1934 and now found him a new studio, where Mondrian continued to finish works he had brought with him. His encounter with the intensely urbanized environment of new New York ('the furthest from nature'), where he was delighted to catch up with the latest trends on jazz, stimulated another change of direction. He returned to diamond-shaped canvases, about ten of which he had produced in Paris between 1925 and 1933, culminating in 'Composition with Yellow Lines'. Abandoning the black and grey dividing lines of previous works, he created a pattern of white, black, red, blue and yellow rectangles of various sizes arranged vertically and horizontally.

The result was a dynamic, almost flashing image reflecting the frenetic pace of his newly adopted city. He spent two years working on this canvas, using coloured strips of tape to indicate the areas of colour he intended later carefully to paint. What we have today is the result of several final days of intensive effort before the artist died on 1 February 1944, leaving the piece unfinished.

It is one of the mysteries of certain works of art that when we are actually in their presence they seem to have a distinct aura, a kind of added dimension. For Mondrian himself a great deal of theory and philosophical thought lay behind every image he made. But no understanding of this is required to appreciate them. It is a tribute to his genius as a painter that the experience of actually standing before his finest abstract works is a markedly more powerful experience than merely seeing them reproduced.

Mondrian Moves; Kunstmuseum, Den Haag, 2 April - 25 September 2022

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024