Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) was one of the most important contributors to the development of abstract art in the early part of the 20th century. As time has moved on and new artistic approaches have challenged the way we view art, we can revisit Mondrian with a fresh approach and see why he was so important in the way he changed the face of modern art as a whole. This brand new exhibition, commemorates the 70th anniversary of the artist’s death and provides fresh insights into Mondrian’s practice. The exhibition is divided into specific times in his life and looks at the impact moving away to Paris from the Netherlands had upon him, his move towards non- representation and his journey towards abstraction and particularly his passion for architecture. In Paris he was observing architecture, looking at composition, a transition towards Neo-Plasticism.
This special exhibition considers the relationship between Mondrian’s artworks and the space around them. The entire exhibition is fascinating but it is Room 2, in particular that seems to draw immediate attention due to its reconstruction of Mondrian’s 1921 Paris studio of 26 rue du Depart. Key abstracts are shown alongside a life size reconstruction of his studio, explicitly connecting his painting with the environment in which it was produced. Mondrian had previously lived here in 1912 – 14 and 1919. He took over this new studio where he remained for almost fifteen years. Refurbishing it, he started to attach coloured panels to the walls, a practice he had developed in his previous studio. There was a close association with these panels and his own neo- plastic paintings.
The life size reconstruction of his Paris Studio at Tate Liverpool, allows visitors to immerse themselves in Mondrian’s world of creativity. Mondrian took his art to another level of abstraction, involving the space around him as well as exploring his relationship with architecture and urbanism. It was the continual adding to and deduction of his shapes and forms which show his studio as not only a space for his artwork to be created but as a continual performance consisting of colour and spacial relationships. Mondrian’s studio in Paris is used as a canvas where he moved the colours around constantly, revolving and changing, extending beyond the paintings and invading our surroundings.
Art historians at Tate Liverpool spoke about his studio, that It developed as his work developed integrating between both his individual artworks and transferring into the studio so that both became part of the spacial plane, I was intrigued to walk through the reconstruction of his studio, to reflect upon him living and working there, observing the colours and the way he composed this space, the contrast of dynamic colour against quite ‘ordinary’ things, the people that came and visited, the conversations that took place there and Mondrian. It certainly is an experience! This studio was an important part of Mondrian’s life for fifteen years. The room was modern and could have easily been created in a contemporary context if it had not been for the historical appliances, such as the heater which belonged to its time or possibly even earlier. It was a curious experience as it does occur to you after a while that actually you are walking through the beginnings of a new way in which we interpret modern art.
Mondrian is an artist whose works have stretched to such a capacity in terms of their change of style from his earlier years to his later works. I wanted to find out more about this artist who I had always admired from an early age. He was the first artist I associated with pure abstraction and yet I always found him a mystery.
It occurred to me that I was dealing with something very special throughout this exhibition. There was something more going on. I did not find myself asking their meaning or content. I found I was viewing them with a means to understand something that felt to do with relationships in terms of colour, space and harmony as well as expansion and contraction. I was pending on the idea that perhaps I could be in for a surprise at any moment which does happen throughout, as we are challenged continually on our preconceived ideas of colour, harmony, composition and space. When you suddenly realise that the works are mutable and more to do with spacial relationships within the artwork and also part of the surrounding space, it is a liberating and exciting feeling.
The exhibition consists of seven rooms, each depicting his time throughout his life and work before and in Paris, London and New York. Room 1: Neo-Plasticism, Room 2: Paris, Room 3:Nature and Architecture, Room 4: Dynamic Equilibrium, Room 5: London, Room 6:New York, Room 7:Transatlantic
As I entered the large white room of the exhibition on The Tate’s fourth floor, my immediate reaction was one of awe. The space and whiteness of the room was immediately evident, the light bleaching the walls and Mondrian’s pure, minimal paintings with their clean geometric compositions. I stood for a short while taking it all in, the history of modern art before me. I wandered for a while, curious, aware that I had not known as much as I would have liked to have known about Mondrian. It suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at his abstract paintings and that there was a story here and a progression towards something new and ahead of its time.
It is interesting to discover that Mondrian had a significant link with Liverpool. Due to the outbreak of the second world war, Mondrian left London for the USA on 23rd September, 1940 from Liverpool to New York. Tate Liverpool has exhibited a facsimile of the original Cunard White Star Passenger list containing Piet Mondrian’s name as one of the passengers on that journey. Further letters to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth from Mondrian are also of interest. Mondrian’s 1914 series, ‘Pier and Ocean’ are exhibited alongside a view of the Liverpool waterfront. Mondrian’s painting, Composition No. 10: Pier and Ocean epitomizes all the previous stages of this composition. This rhythmic abstraction reduces the rhythm of the waves and their breaking to a pure and simple pattern of lines, each precisely determinate in length and interval, like notes in a musical score. Mondrian’s Transatlantic works were a continuation in terms of space and time extending from Paris, London and New York. His fascination with rhythm and duration that he had experienced looking at the waves of the ocean in earlier years was referenced in his passion for Jazz music while in New York, particularly the boogie woogie craze he discovered on arrival.
Continuing to browse through the rooms, I suddenly see his painting, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue,1927 . I looked closer and studied the colours the texture and atmosphere it evoked. I felt drawn towards it. It is interesting to discover that Mondrian worked intuitively and not by measurement. None of his compositions can be reduced to a mathematical calculation. He also rejected preconceived models of compositional harmony. This, I feel is the key to becoming involved in the artworks on a more intimate level. ”Just as he imagined his studio to be a dynamic environment, Mondrian rejected the idea of static forms of balance and harmony in his paintings. To reinforce this, in the early 1930s Mondrian began to use the seemingly contradictory phrase ‘dynamic equilibrium’, by which he expressed his view that art can reveal to us what he described as ‘the perpetual movement of changing oppositions’ instead of continually repeating established formulae.” Frequently he worked upon small series of paintings together and the most subtle difference between one painting and another can have a huge result on its overall effect. ‘It is a commonplace about the classic phase of Mondrian’s oeuvre that the artist achieves a subtle asymmetrical balance in his compositions.’
In September 1938 Mondrian left Paris and moved to London. Mondrian’s contemporary, Ben Nicholson found a room for Mondrian at 60, Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, next to his own studio. Already having exhibited in the UK, Mondrian sold paintings to British collectors and contributed to the British journal, ‘Circle’. The sculptor, Barbara, Hepworth said that his studio in London ‘resembled his Montparnasse studio and his wonderful squares of primary colours climbed up the walls.’
Mondrian only began to produce the paintings that we now most associate with his name, (those comprised of planes of red, yellow and blue in a framework of black lines) after his return from Paris in 1919. He reached his definitive style when he was close to the age of fifty, after a very long process of visual experimentation.” By 1916 he had suppressed any sense of a subject and later developed a new form of rigorous abstraction called Neo-Plasticism in which he limited himself to straight, horizontal and vertical lines and basic primary colours. The term Neo-Plasticism is a significant term and reflects on Mondrian’s belief that ”not only points towards the formative elements of painting, such as composition but also reflects his belief that his abstract art was manifesting a new spiritual world coming into being. Mondrian never felt comfortable with the single word ‘abstract’. Instead, he used the word, ‘Neo Plasticism’ or ‘abstract real’. Neo-Plasticism was in fact an ideal art in which the basic elements of painting – colour, line form – were used only in their purest, most fundamental state: only primary colours and non-colours, only squares and rectangles, only straight and horizontal or vertical lines.
Neo-Plasticism is entwined with Mondrian’s earlier work with the group De Stijl. In 1917 Mondrian and three other painters—Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck and Vilmos Huszar founded the art periodical and the movement of De Stijl. De Stijl simply means “The Style”. Mondrian,came up with the official name of this new style of art: he called it Neo-Plasticism. Neo means “new” and Plasticism refers to the “form” that art takes.
This philosophy advocated the complete rejection of visually perceived reality as subject matter and the restriction of a pictorial language to its most basic elements of the straight line, primary colours, and the neutrals of black, white, and grey. ”The scope of this new style of line and colour, for which Mondrian coined the name Neo-Plasticism, was to free the work of art from representing a momentary visual perception and from being guided by the personal temperament of the artist.”
‘The strict use of horizontal and vertical lines and primary colours with black and grey is characteristic of Mondrian’s aim to evoke a spiritual equilibrium influenced by the mysticism of Theosophy, which sought universal order. He had been working with chequerboard grids before he began this painting, which introduced greater variety. He told van Doesburg: ‘now I do not always keep to the proportianal division’.’
Piet Mondrian,No. VI / Composition No.II1920
Mondrian’s use of spacial patterns during this time were very subtle, thinking and sending his works into groups as well as creating harmonies of balance to create a different sense of space and sensation, vertical and concertina lines pull towards another direction within intricate spacial patterns.
Mondrian’s vision that he had moved toward for so long now seemed to be within reach: ‘ he could now render “a true vision of reality” in his painting, which meant deriving a composition not from a fragment of reality but rather from an overall abstract view of the harmony of the universe. A painting no longer had to begin from an abstracted view of nature; rather, a painting could emerge out of purely abstract rules of geometry and colour, since he found that this was the most effective language through which to convey his spiritual message.’
Piet Mondrian: Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42
Composition in Yellow, Blue and Red represents a mature stage of Mondrian’s abstraction. There are differences in the texture of different elements. While the black stripes are the flattest of the paintings, in the areas with colour are clear the brush strokes, all in the same direction. The white spaces are, on the contrary, painted in layers, using brush strokes that are put in different directions. And all of these produce a depth that, to the naked eye, cannot be appreciated. As in some of his paintings with black lines, he creates unusual tensions and harmonies depending on their subtle changes of composition and balance.
‘Mondrian’s art goes beyond merely aesthetic considerations: his search for harmony through his painting has an ethical significance, inspired by his theosophical beliefs, he continually strove for purity during his long career, a purity best explained by the double meaning of the Dutch word schoon, which means both “clean” and “beautiful.” Mondrian chose the strict and rigid language of straight line and pure colour to produce first of all an extreme purity, and on another level, a Utopia of superb clarity and force.’
Another important exhibition to see which occupies the same floor of Mondrian is the exhibition, ‘Drawing Space’ by the Indian artist, Nasreen Mohamedi, considered to be one of the most significant artists within the modernist tradition. Much of her work emphasised unity and function, a philosophical approach, inspired by Bauhaus and Kandinsky. Having been raised in Mumbai, she moved to England where she studied at Central St Martins in London and then in Paris. In the 1970s she moved to Baruda to teach art. It was during this time that she began to produce small- scale abstract geometric drawings. Her lineage can be traced back to an earlier generation of Indian artists engaged with abstraction. Her works gradually departed from references in the external world to re-vision three dimensional space.
Through complex line interactions. Similar to Mondrian, her works encourage a reconsideration of the meaning of abstraction, where the departure from a figurative style, runs in parallel with a journey away from physical objects and into the realm of ideas. The two complimentary exhibitions share Tate Liverpool’s fourth floor space and are an interesting link to their ideas on developing their own unique approach to abstraction. The exhibition of works by Mohamedi is one of the largest solo exhibition of the artist’s works in the UK to date. ‘Tracing the careers of Piet Mondrian and Nasreen Mohamedi—artists working in different eras and continents—the season explores how each arrived at similar non-figurative styles, suggesting correspondences between their practices and a parallel interest in bringing abstraction into reality…Bringing plentiful archival material, drawing, photography and painting together, the exhibition demonstrates Mohamedi’s desire to obtain “the maximum of the minimum”, and “the limitless of limits”.’
Mondrian accompanied by the exhibition by Nasreen Mohamedi is an exhibition that I feel brings the significance of abstraction and how it has affected our lives to a more profound and comprehensible platform. I highly recommend this exhibition which is now showing at:
Tate Liverpool, 6 June – 5 October 2014. **** stars
Words: by Alice Lenkiewicz © Artlyst 2014
Image: Reconstruction of 26 Rue du Départ, Paris based on 1926 photo by Paul Delbo. Photograph © 2014 STAM, Research and Production: Frans Postma Delft-NL. Photo: Fas Keuzenkamp © 2014 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International USA.