Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is that he didn’t begin making abstract art until he was almost fifty. He spent years working through different styles before finding the visual language that came to make his reputation. The National Gallery of Ireland exhibition spans five decades of Mondrian’s career. It highlights the work he made in his native Netherlands and in Paris up until 1937. While the focus is on Mondrian, the exhibition also includes examples of art and design by his De Stijl friends and associates.
The earliest painting in the exhibition dates from 1895. It is a small study of an Amsterdam candle factory. Set at the edge of the Boerenwetering canal, the blackened chimneys make a grid-like reflection on the grey water. From this industrial view we move to the Brabant countryside where Mondrian spent a quiet year immersed in nature. Here, chickens peck under apple trees and dense brown barns look like they might have been painted straight from the soil rather than in oils. Windmills feature again and again both in sunlight and in evening shadows. From every viewpoint we are gently reminded of this pioneer of international Modernism’s Dutch roots.
The exhibition takes us from 19th-century naturalism where grass is green and the sky is mostly greyish-blue into the 20th century where colour becomes a subject in itself. From 1908, Mondrian made regular trips to the Zeeland coast and began to saturate his scenes with pure colour. He used dots and dashes of orange, yellow, pink, and blue, to capture the glint of sun, gleam of water, and shimmering light on sand-dunes, churches, and mills. Here, intense colour is used to evoke emotion. Around this time Mondrian became interested in Theosophy. He joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909. This had a profound and enduring impact on his life and art. Artists engaged in Theosophy, like Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint, and George Russell, found expression in diverse ways. Mondrian embarked on an earnest pursuit of balance and harmony. Eliminating extraneous details he gradually began to focus on what he regarded as essential forms – verticals and horizontals.
In 1911 he saw an exhibition of Cubist art in Amsterdam and was so taken by it that he broke off a brief engagement, sold a lot of his art, packed up and moved to Paris. He was thirty-nine. In Paris he found inspiration in the skeleton structures of trees and derelict buildings. He experimented with oval compositions hoping that his paintings might appear untethered by the material limitations of the canvas. His art became more and more about ideas.
When World War One broke out Mondrian happened to be visiting the Netherlands. He was unable to return to Paris until 1919. Despite frustrations, this proved to be a time of experiment and innovation. In the exhibition we see him working in abstract and figurative styles in tandem. Cut off from Paris, Dutch artists formed new networks and communities. In 1917, Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg were among those who founded De Stijl in Leiden. They wanted to make a new art that was free from tradition and shaped by utopian values. While De Stijl members had distinct interests and objectives, in visual terms their work was characterised by geometric shapes, abstract forms, horizontal and vertical lines, primary colours, and the ‘non-colours’ black, white, and grey. Despite being short-lived, their art and ideas had an immense impact on 20th-century art and design worldwide.
In Paris, after the war, Mondrian focused on developing his abstract style. Although he used a pared visual language, he did not intend his work to be austere. He often compared his compositions to jazz. They are orchestrated yet open. The grid lines are not rigidly ruled. The surfaces are not flat but textured, layered, and luminous. In Paris, his studio became integral to the application of his ideas. He paid meticulous attention to the design and arrangement of his working and living spaces. In art as in life he aspired to create a coherent whole.
Mondrian is the perfect antidote to the 21st-century fetish for 30 under 30, 40 under 40, 50 under 50. He hadn’t even ventured into abstract paintings until he was in his fifties. A relatively late starter, he was derailed by two world wars, a close call with Spanish flu, hard times, bereavements, broken relationships, and weight of self-doubt. Still he kept going. He lived simply, packed light, and kept life uncomplicated. Friendships, family, art, music, dancing, jazz, snazzy-dressing, dinners of lentils when times were tough, living it up when money came in, going to the country to clear his head, walking the streets of Paris as a wide-eyed stranger, and those of London and New York as a refugee. Mondrian’s art gives hope to those who concentrate on their interests rather than the noise around them. He was curious and experimental. He occasionally took jobs he didn’t want to just to pay the bills but ultimately he kept going. He never made the 30 under 30, 40 under 40, or even the 50 under 50. His grid paintings are almost a century old yet still they are the essence of modernity.
Words: Janet McLean, Curator of European Art, 1850-1950, at the National Gallery of Ireland
Mondrian is at the National Gallery of Ireland until February 2021