In 1998 the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag acquired Piet Mondrian’s last, unfinished painting Victory Boogie-Woogie. Starting in 2006, the large, complex painting has been subjected to an intensive study by the museum, the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage and the mobile laboratory MOLAB. The results of the study, which will serve as guidelines for the conservation of the vulnerable work in the future, are to be presented in a symposium on 29 August 2008.
Museum press release, 25 August 2008
Victory Boogie Woogie, the final and unfinished painting by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), has been the subject of two years of scientific investigation by a joint team from the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN), The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and the Mobile Laboratory (MOLAB) sponsored by Eu-Artech*. The study’s findings will be presented to an international audience of academics, curators, restorers and other art professionals at The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague on 29 August.
The aim of the three-phase study was to learn more about the history of the work’s creation. MOLAB performed microscopic and materials experiments on the painting in situ at the museum, whilst other researchers investigated the history of its creation and restoration. All of these aspects will be covered at the symposium.
The team’s findings dispel the idea that Mondrian worked according to predetermined plans, using strict geometrical patterns. In fact, the painting is highly complex. The viewer today sees almost six hundred individual compositional elements, but hardly any of these were present during the initial preparation phase. Each element actually consists of two, three or more layers of paint, often in different shades. In a few cases, as many as seven layers have been found. Then there are the hundreds of pieces of tape which Mondrian used to visualize his ideas about changes and adjustments to the composition. The complete work therefore consists of several thousand elements in either paint or tape.
Nevertheless, by combining research methods the investigators have succeeded in reconstructing the artist’s method. He began by painting a number of coloured lines on a white canvas, but then went on to considerably modify this composition as the work developed. The white background and some of the lines were changed by adding coloured, white and grey blocks. Although many of the larger ones comprise several layers of paint, Mondrian rarely changed their basic colour or moved them. This indicates that he created the composition of these larger blocks in a single effort and was happy with them first time. He did then make numerous subtle adjustments to the colours, however. His blue, for example, begins with a fairly dark shade, over which he applied a greyish blue, then a light cobalt blue and an ultramarine, before ending with a cobalt blue. We can also see that he made some of the elements larger or smaller over time. Others later had smaller blocks added in the middle.
Most of the changes are found in the small elements for which Mondrian used tape. The version without tape has been reconstructed and differs strikingly from the current one.
The CARTA system
The structure of the paint layers was revealed using CARTA, a computer program originally developed by the company CARIS for use in geological strata. This is the first time that the product has been used in artistic conservation, but it has proven highly effective as a documentation system. All of the research material – standard, microscopy, X-ray and obliquely illuminated images, old photographs and sketches and the MOLAB analysis results in the form of graphs – can be coupled to the sections of the painting under investigation, producing a more complete and accessible picture of the paint structure, the relationship between the compositional elements and the work as a whole.
The research results have been published in CARTA as a source of information for restorers and curators around the world, enabling them to use the knowledge acquired during this project to better conserve other works by Mondrian and similar valuable paintings, both modern and classical.