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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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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