Mondrian and his Studios

Tate Liverpool
6th June - 5th October 2014
Adults: £11 or £10 without donation. Concessions: £8.25 or £7.50 without donation

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

“I don’t want pictures, I want to find things out,” Mondrian

“Any sight is the sum of different glimpses,” Robert Hughes

The pristine orderliness of Mondrian’s paintings had always led me to believe that they were created by some obsessive adherence to a formula but this was not so. It is possible to follow the evolution of his style, from his early impressionistic or naturalistic work, through the influences he met in Paris: meticulous Pointillism; Fauvism’s use of non-representational colour; Cubism’s repudiation of illusionist techniques like perspective, to the emergence of Neo-Plasticism - the name he gave to the work characterised by geometric shapes, straight lines and primary colours we all recognise so well. It was a developmental process of discovery, rather than a pre-conceived, formulaic method, and it was imbued with his spiritual beliefs. Like Kandinsky, that other great proponent of abstraction, he believed that spirituality was the force underlying all appearance and that for art to express this, it must develop its own language: “The emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object. Therefore the object must be eliminated from the picture”.

And that elimination is what Mondrian did, not in a calculated way, but intuitively, though meticulously.

Mondrian wrote to H P Bremmer in 1914: “I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.” Of course, he went further than this.

The experience of looking at Mondrian’s paintings and of entering his world by spending time in his Paris studio - re-created for the exhibition from a 1926 photograph by Paul Delbo - is one of balance and harmony and that is why I would refute Hannah Hoch’s somewhat superficial comment about the artist: “Everything in his life was reasoned or calculated. He was a compulsive neurotic and could never bear to see anything disordered or untidy”. Perhaps in his daily suit-wearing life he was like that, but his art is not permeated by neurosis; there is no sign of the nocturnal sleep-deprived struggles that left him with blistered fingers, in the finished works. Being in the Tate facsimile is like inhabiting a three-dimensional Mondrian painting: a tranquil, nourishing experience which illustrates the degree to which art and living became one for the artist. The room would change to reflect the paintings he was working on and rectangles of colour would creep across Mondrian’s walls, so the space was always contemporary, never static: “It retards the development of a new concept of beauty if the artist turns his studio into a kind of museum of ancient art”.

It was logical to find jazz and boogie-woogie records in his studio, given that he loved this music, so contemporary to the times, and that music is an abstract art form. This is how he drew a parallel in 1941: “True Boogie-Woogie I conceive as homogenous in intention with mine in painting; destruction of melody, which is the equivalent of destruction of natural appearance, and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means – dynamic rhythm”.

The immersive experience Mondrian offered - there were many visitors to his studio - links with Whistler’s attitude, currently addressed in the Bluecoat exhibition; but whereas Whistler had an aesthetic aspiration, with Mondrian it was spiritual. One of the exhibits at Tate Liverpool shows a maquette for a stage set of the play, The Ephemeral is Eternal (1926 - reconstructed 1964 ) by Michel Seuphor. It was designed as an inhabitable Mondrian but the play was not produced.

Even in the earlier works Mondrian was moving towards a balanced duality in which object and space existed in equality. The linear certainty in his charcoal lines heightens the existence of the spaces between, giving a balanced serenity to paintings such as The Tree A (1913) and it is this co-existence that Rachel Whiteread was to highlight so spectacularly decades later.

If you eliminate what is conventionally referred to as “Nature” from painting, what is possible? “More and more I excluded from my painting all curved lines … Observing sea, sky and stars, I sought to indicate their plastic function through a multiplicity of crossing verticals and horizontals”. The vertical and horizontal lines that became the essence of Mondrian’s work are meant to represent the dual elements of negative/positive, active/passive, order/ randomness, symmetry/ asymmetry, female/male, dynamic/static, yin/yang, which he is seeking to balance in perfect harmony: “We must free ourselves from our attachment to the external for only then do we transcend the tragic, and are enabled consciously to contemplate the repose which is in all things”.

Composition 10, Pier and Ocean 1915 marks the developmental point at which Mondrian frees himself from the “external”, moving towards abstraction: pier and ocean have been reduced to a pattern of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines, within an overall spherical shape.

There are areas in Mondrian’s paintings in which the lines are about containment - of a square or of a rectangle - and there are other lines, sometimes parallel lines, that are heading beyond the edge of the picture plane towards infinity. I am reminded of the ancient Chinese system of hexagrams known as the I Ching, in which the static and the dynamic lines are in a constant state of change and balance, movement and restraint. Seeing the number of Mondrians on display at the Tate it was tempting to wave a dismissive hand, but closer study revealed subtle variations. Colours go to the edge of the painting plane in some works, as if they might escape. Some colours continue on the side of the canvas. In others, you are aware that there are two framing lines to a work. Sometimes the painting stands proud of its backing which is then mounted on another backing, giving a three dimensional tendency. Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (1927) has, in addition to the customary white, black and primaries, a grey rectangle: an area of neutral tranquillity. In Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red, (1937) the red square is contained within black lines, whereas the yellow rectangle at the top right hand side has no restraining lines where it meets the edges of the painting, giving it more dynamism than the static red. The sets of intersecting horizontal and vertical parallel lines create a dominating grid system. Visually repetitive, they create a dynamic stability.

Mondrian was an important pioneer of abstract art. Working at a time in which the world had acquired a new aerial perspective: “Neo-Plasticism prefers the Eiffel Tower to Mont Blanc”, he was a key figure in the de Stijl and Bauhaus movements; he influenced the Abstract Expressionists, the minimalists and the colour field artists. His presence was even felt in the world of fashion: Yves St Laurent designed a day dress incorporating colour blocks. He was also a good representative of art as an expression of modernity, which accepted the artist’s intellectual and emotional journey as a valid subject for art. That is why I found it important to try to understand what the artist was trying to do - other than worrying about the symmetry of his table settings and quarrelling with van Doesburg about the use of diagonals.

Born in 1873 into Victorian times, what Mondrian achieved by 1944 is stupendous.

You don’t need to know all the esoteric stuff to enjoy Mondrian’s work though. I just found it important because it eliminated a misunderstanding I had harboured with regard to it. The important thing is the experience; it’s the intellectual part of the mind that craves understanding and certainty, that hasn’t transcended the ‘tragic’. In the Tate studio, amongst the pristine, crisp-edged objects, I found a round raffia mat that appeared so incongruous I thought it was there by mistake. It wasn’t - I found the same non-angled object in the photographs of Mondrian’s studios. Was this an errant intruder from the world of the ‘tragic’ - there to remind us?

The Mondrian exhibition at Tate Liverpool is a must - he’s a crucially important artist and in my opinion, it’s worth making an extra, non-visual effort to understand the underlying ideas. Or you can just sit in his studio and be grateful it isn’t Francis Bacon’s studio they’ve recreated. If you live with a teenager, you’ll know what I mean.

Printer friendly page

Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by nobody on 26th September, 2014 at 4:06
Great review. I am going to view this exhibition before it closes and, if it's Ok I will comment further then.