The latest exhibition at the Tate Liverpool is in two parts devoted to artists from opposite sides of the world – Piet Mondrian from the Netherlands and Nasreem Mohaidi from India. I’m going to concentrate on the better known of the two in this post and return to Nasreem in the near future as she is well worth a post of her own.
Mondrian was a leader of the De Stijl movement that advocated pure abstraction and universality by a reduction to the essentials of form and colour. He is best known for his “neoplastic” paintings with a grid of straight black lines on a white background with some of the rectangles coloured in using a palette of three primary colours.
Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red (1937-42)
The exhibition, which marks the 70th anniversary of his death, was a survey of his work from his early days as an artist in the Netherlands, moving with him to Paris, London and New York. It
considers not only Mondrian’s significance, but also the circumstances (in both life and painting) that led him to make the switch from successful figurative artist in his homeland to international radical innovator. Taking visitors through Paris, London and eventually New York, the exhibition tracks Mondrian’s personal and aesthetic journey, and finds threads between the two (exhibition website)
In his early work he depicted landscapes, trees and buildings, adopting an abstract cubist style as in this painting that featured in the exhibition.
The Tree A (c.1913)
As we moved through the rooms we could see how his style evolved gradually moving toward the characteristic grids.
No. VI / Composition No.II (1920)
It obviously took a little time to reach his “final destination” but once he’d arrived there he clearly didn’t want to go anywhere else – artistically that is as he moved from France to Britain and then on to America once the Second World War broke out.
Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (1927)
Yet, although his basic approach didn’t change, he did experiment and introduce variations, albeit subtle (e.g. different thickness of the lines, different sized shapes), that we could see as we progressed through the rooms.
The title of the exhibition reflects the focus on his studio. There’s a mockup / reconstruction of his Paris studio in the Rue du Départ where he worked in the 1920’s and 1930’s
With brightly coloured rectangles carefully positioned on the white walls, it’s almost like a three dimensional version of one of his works.
‘It is as difficult to paint a room as to make a painting. It is not enough to set a red, a blue, a yellow, a gray, etc., next to each other. That would be mere decoration… It is all in the how: how the elements are placed, how the dimensions are worked out, how the colours of the various elements are interrelated…’
It was a lot tidier and cleaner than other artist’s studios I’ve seen before (particularly Francis Bacon’s in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin).
His London studio was also recreated, “virtually” in this instance, with computer mock ups displayed on a TV.
Mondrian influenced many artists working in the 1930’s and 40’s, notably, Ben Nicholson.
His paintings with the grid structure is very architectural, reflecting his early interest in buildings, and Mondrian and De Stijl in general with it’s emphasis on primary colours, rectangular forms and straight, horizontal and vertical (never diagonal) lines, had a significant influence on the Bauhaus. This was apparent during our trip to Dessau in March where the importance of primary colours was quite clear in both the school building and the Masters’ houses.
One criticism of exhibitions focusing on one artist, particularly one like Mondrian where his work, once he had settled on his style, is somewhat “samey”, is that visitors can lose interest after seeing so many similar paintings. There was a risk wok that with this exhibition but rather than occupy all the space on the fourth floor with Mondrian’s work, the Tate had a second exhibition occupying the last of the large rooms. This was devoted to another artist who developed an interest in grids and structure in her work. Someone I’d never encountered before but whose work made an impression on me. More about that in another post.