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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 (

“Mondrian and His Studios” opens at Tate Liverpool on 6 June and runs until 5 October (

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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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.