Certain works of art embed themselves in the international consciousness, in a way that eclipses the artist’s life and transcends the circumstances of their making. In Piet Mondrian’s case, it isn’t so much one painting that does this as the ‘look’ of his mature oeuvre.
His legacy could be seen not so much as one of a painter but of a design style – appropriate given his affiliation with the De Stijl (Dutch for ‘the style’) group in the early decades of the twentieth century. This makes him stand out, even when compared to other extremely well known artists associated with one work, such as Edvard Munch and The Scream or Leonardo da Vinci and The Mona Lisa.
Much of what is written about Mondrian can be traced back to his essay Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art, which was first published serially in the Die Stijl journal in the 1920s. The term ‘Neo Plasticism’ loosely translates as ‘new art’, and refers to Mondrian’s pure abstract style and use of black lines and blocks of primary colour.
Perhaps the more interesting story here has been identified by art historians such as Nancy J. Troy, who says that to study Mondrian is to shine a light on the relationship between popular culture and the canonisation of art. However, for someone who had such a massive impact on the visual vocabulary of the 20thcentury – what do we really know about him? And what do we know about his art?
Mondrian’s paintings appear smooth, flat and graphic, but in the flesh even the white areas are textured with brushstrokes. His work appears to have a unifying look, but it was constantly evolving over his lifetime – earlier works demonstrate the influence of other modernist heavy-weights, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Later work, whilst seemingly abstract, does contain references to the ‘real’ world.
The painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, produced in in the last years of his life, refers to the grid-like formation of the New York streets and boogie woogie music. For an artist whose vision seemed so clear, his work can be traced by both his country of residence and various friendships and associations. Notably, towards the end of his fifty-year career, he became a mentor to the younger British artist Ben Nicholson, and he lived for a period in London.
His abstract paintings appear simple, but his extensive writings (first published together in an anthology called The New Art The New Life in 1993) reveal artistic aims and theories that are staggeringly complex. In an early conversation between Mondrian and a critic, the artist explains that all painting is about ‘relationships’ and his neoplastic work simply expressed relationships using only colour and line.
His earlier work was similarly about relationships but focused on those within nature – the problem with this, he said, is that “in the capriciousness of nature, form and colour are weakened by the curvature and by the corporeality of things.” He went so far in the end as to object to the very presence of nature, and even to the colour green, which is entirely absent from his later work.
Unbelievably, considering how well known he is now, Mondrian was not successful in his lifetime. It wasn’t until his 70s that he began to sell out exhibitions; before then he often considered quitting and taking up a more ordinary and stable profession. His perseverance won out, and by the time he died in 1944, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Peggy Guggenheim had both purchased pieces directly from his shows – a little over twenty years later his work was immortalized as a dress by the legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent and his influence on broader design culture was secured. Fast-forward to 2014, and Mondrian’s paintings are reproduced on iPhone covers, trays, sandals, candles, duvet covers, t-shirts and cake, whilst the originals sell at auction for millions.
What Piet Mondrian demonstrates is that an artist who seems very familiar can have a lot more going on beneath the (seemingly smooth) surface. The story of Mondrian that we know really started after the artist died – when he transitioned from an artist on the fringe, steeped in theory, to an artist whose name is attached to any combination of primary coloured blocks and black outlines.
How exactly this occurred is a question that is difficult to answer, and as a phenomenon it is as mysterious and fascinating as the artist himself.
Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool continues until 5 October 2014
Image: ”Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965, Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936). Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow. Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art