Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Could Corbyn's El Gato kick Larry out of Downing Street?

The No 10 cat fight.

A rolling revolt is gathering speed, as the suspicion grows that Theresa May called her snap poll to escape potential by-elections, should the Crown Prosecution Service find that her MPs were involved in electoral fraud during the 2015 campaign.

A growing number of Tory MPs are informing HQ that they don’t want a battle bus visit. Driving the rebellion is the hard-boiled Andrew Bridgen, who made his cash by selling prewashed spuds to supermarkets. “I’m going to post party workers on every route into my constituency,” growled the veg baron, who is defending an 11,373 majority in Leicestershire, “with orders not to let any bloody bus on to our patch.” Here’s an opportunity for Tory command to raise a few bob: flog tyre-bursting spike strips to candidates.

Fur would fly in the unlikely event that Jeremy Corbyn moves into No 10. The more optimistic among his entourage fret over whether the moggy El Gato could cohabit with Larry the Downing Street cat. Corbyn muses that El Gato is a socialist, sharing food with a stray that turned up in his north London garden. If Labour wins, I understand that El Gato is the top cat or Larry is out with May. Jezza’s first call wouldn’t be to Donald Trump or Angela Merkel but to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

George Osborne’s £650,000 BlackRock sinecure is jeopardised, I hear, by his London Evening Standard editorship. An impeccable source whispers that the world’s largest investment fund, controlling £4trn of loot, anguishes over possible conflicts of interest. BlackRock hired Osborne to nurture high-net-worth clients, who are suddenly wary of divulging secrets to an ambitious hack. Perhaps the super-rich should relax. He is incapable of recognising a story, even missing Standard deadlines with his resignation as a Tory MP.

The word is that Ukip’s seven-time loser Nigel Farage declined the chance to risk an eighth loss to retain his £800-per-hour LBC radio gig. The Brexit elites’ Don Farageone needs the money – a chauffeur-driven Range Rover with tinted windows won’t be cheap.

Corbyn’s war on dandelions is on hold during the campaign, with green-fingered comrades tending his allotment. Cherie Blair was accused 20 years ago of mentally measuring up curtains for No 10. Corbyn quipped that he is tempted to measure flower borders to plant runner beans. Labour’s No 10 would certainly be no bed of roses.

What will retiring MPs do? Middlesbrough South’s Tom Blenkinsop informed colleagues that he might join the army. My hunch is that at 36, with a Peaky Blinders haircut, the general secretaryship of the Community trade union is more likely.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496