Museum press release, February 2005
This extensive retrospective presents the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) for the first time in Austria. The exhibition documents the work of one of the most outstanding pioneers of the Modern era with over 90 paintings and large format drawings, drawn from over 30 museums and collections throughout the world – among them the Gemeent Museum The Hague, the New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice and the Stedelijk Museum – exemplifying the artistic development from the realistic image world to geometric abstraction.
The selection focuses on the central work and essential themes in Mondrian’s creative journey: “Apple Tree”, “Ginger Pot”, “Facades”, “Lighthouses” as well as landscapes. These leading themes help to understand the step by step stages of Mondrian’s subsequent development to abstraction, stemming from the early realism that was still influenced by Impressionism and Symbolism.
Focusing on individual topics, the exhibition displays the significant impressions, influences and changing locations that marked his development such as his time in Paris when Mondrian, influenced by Cubism, gains new impulses for his future style.The exhibition emphasises particularly on the years prior to the First World War: the time when the influential De Stijl Movement was founded.
Mondrian’s work is considered the prime example for the connection and reciprocal influence between drawing and painting. For the first time this particular aspect is presented in the Albertina exhibition.
The comparison with his rarely displayed large format drawings impressively clarifies the developmentally relevant connections between the study of nature and abstraction. This becomes especially obvious, following the journey from the linear drawing to the painting itself. Only this comparison makes Mondrian’s creation, strongly developed from the graphic elements of lines and surfaces, truly understandable. The unification of all of the creative stages shows the early work’s latent, strongly vertical and horizontal design structure, revealing this as Mondrian’s artistic development from the beginning.
The fact that Piet Mondrian always used to work on his paintings for a very long time and later over painted many of them again as well as the realisation that his fragile works require extremely careful conservation make the bringing together of a retrospect of this dimension a rare event indeed.
Piet Mondrian – a retrospective
Strictly conceptualised rectangular pictures with black lines on white background, colour fields painted in primary colours: Mondrian’s late work has long since become popularised and trivialised. Everything he completed before he introduced the so called neo-plastic works – and this applies to the majority of his works – has, until recent years, been considered at best a mere preliminary stage. For a long time the designs of this, next to Rembrandt and Van Gogh, most influential of Dutch artists has only had a limited reception, focussing on the “actual” Mondrian – which is to say the creator of the late works.
It wasn’t until the exhibitions in Paris and Fort Worth in 2002 that Mondrian’s artistic developmental journey to abstraction had been visualised. Here not only the works between the years 1907 and 1914 were displayed, but also his creations that had their roots in the tradition of 19th Century Dutch painting. The Albertina exhibition integrates each phase (from 1900 to 1940) and each genre – drawing, water colour and painting – which is vital for an understanding of Mondrian’s artistic development. The four decades in which Mondrian, unlike anybody before him, changed the art of the 20th Century will be shown in their chronologically correct order, as if put under a magnifier and in a density that has so far been unknown.
Amsterdam and Brabant
Up until 1940 Piet Mondrian’s work with its significant light-dark contrasts follows the tradition of Symbolism. However, the more realistic and factual approach already hints at the naturalist period to come. Mondrian already plays in his early works with the field of tension of upwards striving, broad compositions as well as with the effect of individually chosen picture formats. He adopts these dense, atmospheric moods from the Hague School.
In 1900 Mondrian buys himself a bicycle with which he rides along the small Het Gein River in the southern parts of Amsterdam, finding his image subjects. In 1904 he moves to Brabant where, inspired by the entirely different landscape of heath and arable land, detaches himself from the Dutch painting tradition and the palette of atmospheric painting. After his return to Amsterdam Mondrian begins a form of serial work that was absolutely common in the Hague School: the achievement of absolute virtuosity through repetition of the subject.
Reflections and series
After 1905 Mondrian integrates mirror effects into his landscape paintings. Thus the relation between image details, colours and shapes becomes the actual picture theme. Next to this balance between surface and shape the image detail gains an equally significant importance. The artist begins to determine both format and detail only after he has already largely decided on the subject. This method of stating the internal pictorial relationships more precisely continues up until his neo-plastic period in the 1920’s. In 1909 an exhibition is held in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam where Mondrian presents the results of his recent artistic developments from naturalistic atmospheric painting to the latest post impressionist expressive art.
After the Amsterdam exhibition Mondrian retreats to the seaside Resort of Domburg in Zeeland where his palette significantly lightens up. Dunes, sea, churches and lighthouses become the central themes of that time wherein the artist detaches the subject from their contextual landscapes. His deserted landscapes don’t reveal any spatial depth. At this time he develops the series of the Westkappelle lighthouse, a former gothic church tower, which had been converted into a lighthouse. Mondrian emphasises the heaviness and strictness of the building and focuses on the power of the vertical.
The discovery of Cubism
In 1911 the artist moves to Paris where he has the opportunity to study the works of Gleizes, Delaunay, Léger, Cézanne, Braque and Picasso. This influence leads to a turning point in his work, marked by Still life with Ginger pot 2. Mondrian lets go of all the stylistic features he had developed in previous years. At the same time with this new found contrast of colour and line going one step further than Picasso whose analytical Cubism was Mondrian’s role model.
In 1912 Mondrian eventually begins for the first time to entirely dematerialise the subject. The linear structure of a tree which he had previously studied accurately is now slowly translated into its last version, showing the tree with only curved lines. This example of the five trees symbolises Mondrian’s way into abstract art. In these five versions, which were completed over four years, the gradual change in Mondrian’s image understanding becomes obvious: from the window of the visual world to a self-contained image space.
Up until 1914 Mondrian primarily experiments with differing techniques in order to examine certain aspects of the subject, concentrating on colours such as grey and ochre that allow him to focus exclusively on the use of the line as an independent, motion and rhythm expressing creative tool. In Paris he is particularly fascinated by architectural elements such as gables, walls of demolished buildings or fire walls with bill boards, focussing on the surfaces, lines and rhythm of it all: “I construct lines and colour combinations on a surface with the aim of depicting the general beauty. Nature inspires me to create something: however, I want to get as close to the truth as possible and therefore I abstract all concrete until I get to the foundation of things.”
Mondrian develops, inspired by Picasso, a preference for oval shapes. Lines and colours concentrate in the image’s centre. In the oval the composition remained compact and did not disperse into the corners. In order to emphasise and lend the picture a kind of pulse Mondrian also uses curved lines and diagonals.
The First World War
In 1914 Mondrian visits his ill father in Amsterdam. The First World War prevents his returning to Paris. In the Netherlands he does not have a studio, neither any painting materials nor any source of income. Forced by these circumstances Mondrian restricts himself to drawing for more than a year. Eventually he finds the sea at high tide as a subject, an entirely horizontal image and the sea at low tide, due to the interplay of the sea and breakwaters an entirely rectangular subject. With these themes he gradually reinforced abstraction, slowly approaching his goal of the spiritualization of nature and the depiction of its universal laws. The lack of paint also offered him the opportunity to plumb the depths of the problem of the “Design of the true relations”.
In 1917 Mondrian painted a group of pictures in which he could try painting on coloured surfaces that which he had so far only been examining in line fragments. From now on he no longer referred to an abstraction of reality. He would now exclusively focus on the visually effective relation of the balance between colour and shape that determines the image without any compositional hierarchy. The coloured surfaces and the background receive equal weight, creating the impression of a floating without any sense of direction. Almost obsessively Mondrian kept on striving for the elimination of an internal pictorial hierarchy that had been learnt for centuries. Black lines divided the white background into separate surfaces: however the compositional weight of the lines dominated the effect of the colours.
Return to Paris
After 1919 Mondrian speaks of a “deconstruction of the Natural” and of a “reconstruction emerging from the spirit”. In this sense his compositions no longer refer to the objects in the world but exclusively to metaphysics of light.
At the beginning of the 1920’s architectural and sculpting circles showed a great interest in Mondrian’s ideas of a new world. Convinced of the idea that the new design had to be realised in architecture as well, he painted his studio floor black, the walls white and attached rectangular coloured cartoons in changing configurations to them.
In 1925 Mondrian published his programmatic text The New Design in which he stated how an equal relation between vertical and horizontal lines, between lying and standing surfaces as well as between the colours red, yellow and blue, the non colours, black and grey could be explained, based on the most elementary contrasts of position, measurement and value.
The right angle
After 1929 the right angle becomes the central compositional tool: the crossing of a low horizontal and vertical, shifted to the left dominates the painting from now on. To emphasise the relevance of the outer border Mondrian adds a broad white background frame to the white trim.
After 1932 Mondrian was driven by the question as to how rhythm as a characteristic of light and colour could become visual in a painting. After his experience with the modular compositions of 1917/18 Mondrian at first shied away from allowing “repletion” in his work. Only later, by modulating the distances between the horizontal and the vertical lines did he begin to introduce the principle of “repetition”.
London and New York
After his emigration to London Mondrian completed, during the two years of his stay, a large number of works in which he played out the rhythmical possibilities of the line structure against the effect of a single colour.
As the war reaches London Mondrian sees his art threatened and emigrates to New York. Impressed by New York’s overwhelming atmosphere, Mondrian reworks many of his London paintings with colour accents that are independent from the line structure. This freeing of the colour marks Mondrian’s last creative period that is introduced by the rhythmical complexity of Composition de Lignes et Colour II.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue: Klaus Albrecht Schröder and Hans Janssen, Piet Mondrian, Prestel Publishing House, Munich, Berlin, New York, 324 pages.