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From windmills to modernism: Piet Mondrian’s long journey towards a true style

The new exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery explores the artist's 25-year development from unremarkable Dutch landscapist to cerebral star of rectilinear cubism.

Mondrian and Colour
Turner Contemporary, Margate

The latest exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate has one of those statement titles so favoured by curators, “Mondrian and Colour”, but it would perhaps be better called “How He Got That Way”. Before Piet Mondrian became the cerebral international artist of black grids and rectilinear blocks of colour he was an unremarkable Dutch landscapist. This exhibition of roughly 50 paintings lays out the magpie path that took him from stolid burgher to ascetic modernist and his paintings from depicting farmyards and stands of trees by the Amstel and Gein rivers to pure geometrical abstracts.

The show works retrospectively. It is the knowledge of what he was to become that makes the bulk of these often workaday pictures interesting. In Farmhouse with Wash on the Line (circa 1897), for example, it is only hindsight that allows the terracotta reds and slate blues of the roofs or the white of the drying linen to be seen as precursors of the reds, whites and blues of the “lozenge” paintings of the 1920s, in which each colour was isolated, reduced to a primary shade and freed from representational duties. The pictures here are containers of clues or markers, ticking off a remarkable transformation along the way.

It was, though, a transition that took a long time: the exhibition covers a period of nearly 25 years, during which he drew on a bewildering number of other artists’ works as he tried to find a style of his own. Especially before 1911, when Mondrian moved to Paris, his paintings are a checklist of contemporary movements. There are touches of the rural naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage and of Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school; his trees suggest Corot; there is both the fraught symbolism of Munch and the colour dashes of the Fauves. All these influences were grafted on to a discrete set of motifs: churches, windmills, rivers, dunes, copses. There’s a bit of everyone in there except for Mondrian. Changing his name from Mondriaan to Mondrian was an admission that he was not yet who or what he wanted to be.

His journey towards abstraction accelerated after 1908 when he became interested in theosophy and, in particular, colour theory. He came to believe that painting could simultaneously embody nature and spirituality. After reading Goethe’s Theory of Colours he saw this union as best captured in blue (representing darkness) and yellow (representing light), with red intensifying each colour. “To approach the spiritual in art,” he wrote, “one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.”

As a result he began to pare down his paintings, reducing panoramas to broad sweeps of sky, water and land and minimising detail. As he noted: “The emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object.” He also started to keep direct sunlight out of the landscapes, preferring the charged atmospherics of twilight, when the temporal and the spiritual start to blend.

Initially Mondrian’s experiments are gentle affairs and their effect is muted. It is not so much heightened emotion that predominates as a watercolour genteelness. It is when he starts to be properly bold that the pictures become interesting in their own right. His paintings of a Zeeland church tower of 1909-10 and 1911 and The Red Mill (1911) have great power and a palpable sense of objects reaching upwards, straining from the earthbound towards the transcendent. The Red Mill in particular, painted only in shades of blue and red, has a Rothko-like throb to it. The mill with its sails may be recognisable but it has become a totem rather than an agricultural building.

It was when Mondrian encountered cubism that he finally saw the way to break with representation altogether. Unlike Braque and Picasso, however, he was interested not in showing the third dimension but in using “lines and colour combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness”. The black outlines of cubism’s fractured planes became a way for him to organise his universal colour harmonies. Although he was stuck in Holland during the war, he returned to Paris in 1919 and pressed on with his geometrical abstractions and by 1920-21 he was, at last, painting recognisable Mondrians.

It is at this point in his career that the Margate show stops and Tate Liverpool takes over with “Mondrian and His Studios”. This exhibition shows how, having found a style, he set out not just to paint in it but to live it, turning his studio at 26 rue du Départ into a giant artwork – architecture as a painting for living rather than Le Corbusier’s “machine for living”.

By the early 1920s both his life and his art seem such a logical and coherent response to the immediate postwar world that it is easy to forget how he arrived there. Is there any other painter whose style changed so much?

“Mondrian and Colour” runs until 21 September (turnercontemporary.org)

“Mondrian and His Studios” opens at Tate Liverpool on 6 June and runs until 5 October (tate.org.uk)

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser