The Fondation Beyeler unveils an unexpected Mondrian

A peasant woman in clogs and a traditional white hat sits in a dark corner of the kitchen, busy with her table (spindle woman, 1893-1896); in front of her, a Composition in black and white (1934) is reduced to eight lines, one rhythm, one sketch. From the very first room, the slopes intrigue and unsettle. on it Forest near Oele (1908)—the dense web of trunks of a pine forest that burst into flames in the setting sun and seem to drown in its reflection—stands next to a grid canvas of bands of yellow, red, and blue that evoke the verticality of New York (New York City 11941).

The essentially chronological tour that the Fondation Beyeler dedicates to Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) plays with contrasts to show a development that is anything but linear. evolutionthe subtitle of the most important presentation that Switzerland has dedicated to him in fifty years thus takes us from the period of the artist’s training, in the pure tradition of the Dutch landscape painters of the 19th century, to the most radical abstraction in the 1920s. Mondrian also went through phases influenced by symbolism and cubism.

Also read: Intim Mondrian: The paintings of a master painter reveal their secrets

Trees, a recurring motif

Posterity has preserved the purity and simplicity of his geometric compositions, his white canvases are streaked with rare straight lines that delimit large flat areas of pure colors. This fundamental message has inspired not only design and pop culture, but also architecture and fashion for a century. yet what he himself defines as neoplasticism is the culmination of a long quest.

Who knows that red cloud (1907), an ephemeral and magical moment in which the setting sun ignites a fluffy form? Or this one mill in the sun (1908), executed with bold brushwork and whose dazzling palette shocked his contemporaries? Above all, these works evoke the influence of van Gogh, who came from the same environment and was also shaped by a strictly Calvinist upbringing. And what about the beaches of Domburg, those dunes with moving shapes, pink, orange, pastel tones that also reveal Mondrian’s interest in Goethe’s theory of opposite colors…

Another recurring motif are the trees, which the museum presents in their endless variety. We depart from the glowing beauty of it red tree (1908-1910), here striking foliage on an intense blue background apple blossom (1912), whose flower is summed up in a network of black lines and pink and light blue tones in the manner of faceted cubism; Mondrian then settled in Paris, where he rubbed shoulders with Braque and Picasso.

Absolute purity

Other works from the same period (1912-1914) and in the same direction are still soberly named tree or already Composition No. XII, which reflects the gradual departure from figuration. While later oils depict a still deeply realistic landscape reflected in a body of water (Farm near Duivendrecht, 1916). Ten rooms for as many themes and almost a hundred works; the last room represents only the radically nonrepresentational phase commonly associated with Mondrian.

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From his beginnings in the realist movement of the so-called “Hague” School to the cross-influences of Symbolism and Cubism, his influence is critical in the transition from figuration to abstraction. It was not until he was approaching fifty that Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan – then living in Paris, he shortened his surname and first name – achieved the absolute purity that brought him his fame. It was not until the early 1920s, after the war, that Mondrian turned fully to abstraction.

The juxtaposition of figurative and abstract works born from the same concern for geometry is instructive; it reveals the artist’s path to attain purity. A search characterized by spirituality and the artist’s fascination with Rudolf Steiner’s theosophy and anthroposophy. But also a story of constant questioning, of incessant questioning throughout his career as an artist.

In search of pure reality

La paysanne debut already refers to the orthogonal grid on which its composition is based. Hence the interest of his confrontation with much later abstract compositions that seem to be ordered according to the same grammar. That Forest near Oele creates an illusion of spatial depth found in New York City 1whose succession of colored ribbons recalls the architecture of the metropolis and its rhythm, its music scene, reminds Mondrian, who was then under the spell of boogie-woogie.

Likewise the Bell tower of the Domburg Church (1911), painted at any time of the day, picks up on this Composition No. 1; white and blue from 1936, characterized by the same verticality. Curiously, the center of the canvas is never the starting point of Mondrian’s compositions; By avoiding them, he instead creates “a dynamic asymmetry characteristic of his neoplasticism: the origin of the rhythm of Mondrian’s work does not lie in lines or surfaces, but in the tension between different visual elements,” notes Ulf Küster, curator of the Exhibition, in the catalogue.

Unlike Kandinsky in particular, Mondrian is not looking for emotion or poetry, but “pure reality”, which he defines as balance, as the resonance of opposites and their harmonization. This process, which combines intuition and a sense of symmetry, is so personal to him that experts would have no trouble immediately distinguishing a fake from a genuine Mondrian…

Read again: Piet Mondrian at the last point of abstraction

Born in Amersfoort near Utrecht in 1872, Piet Mondrian came into contact with the art at a very early age, taught by his father, a teacher, and practiced by his uncle, a talented amateur. He also trained as a teacher of fine arts at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. After an initial stay in Paris and encounter with Cubism, the war brought him back to the countryside in 1911, where a group of avant-garde artists published the magazine DeStijl, to which he is close in his intention to reformulate the pictorial expression. Paris, London, New York: Mondrian will spend the last 25 years of his life in these three metropolises.


«Mondrian Evolution», Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, until October 9th.

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