Piet Mondrian – the Dutch painter who is synonymous with tightly gridded abstractions— never used a ruler, it turns out.
That was one of numerous revelations emphasized by curators at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, which has a multi-year research project that preceded a retrospective by the famous artist, now on display through October.
Mondrian “made marks on the edges and then painted these lines very slowly. They look precise, but are based on intuition,” says Ulf Kuster, who organized the exhibition. For the Dutch artist, painting was a ‘long process of looking, composing, erasing’, the curator explained.
The neoplasticist’s greatest hits abound with countless right angles and intersecting lines, so it’s hard to believe he didn’t use a tool. But Mondrian’s reluctance to use a ruler says more about his dogmatic — and often laborious — approach to art, Kuster noted.
“I really learned that [Mondrian] was a painter who was always in control of what he did,” the curator said of his experience working on the show. “I didn’t realize how meticulous this painting process must have been for him and how thoughtfully he looked at things and how much he thought about painting.”
‘Mondrian Evolution’ is the name of Kuster’s exhibition, which marks the 150th birthday of the artist. It’s also a description of what viewers can expect from de Beyeler: an overview of Mondrian’s career, starting with his younger endeavors in portraiture and landscape.
Those early paintings, completed in the Netherlands just before and after the 19th century, bear no resemblance to the paintings he would later become known for. But it is also not difficult to recognize shared DNA strands. See, for example, his many studies of whirling windmills and multi-branched trees: it is clear that the artist was already trying to translate into oil paint the geometry that dominates the world around us.
“He was looking for harmony, but harmony is never symmetry,” Kuster said. “Harmony should have tension over time.”
With exposure to painters such as Picasso and Braqueand a period of several years in Paris, abstraction began to permeate Mondrian’s canvases around 1911. Its once-representative scenes of Dutch waterways dissolved into cubist abstractions that, while still living in civilizationprioritized form over substance.
Within the next decade, he returned to the Netherlands and then went back to Paris. His loosely painted cubes turned into hard rectangles; his cool, Fauvist-inspired palette was replaced by solid bands of color. The style that would come to be known as “De Stijl” was born.
From classical figuration to cutting-edge abstraction, the entire trajectory of Mondrian’s work on display in de Beyeler reflects the evolution of modernism itself. But the Dutch artist also shows us how important it is to look beyond that well-known story, Kuster emphasized.
“Mondriaan is someone who teaches you a lot about painting,” said the curator, showing his own affection for the artist. “The art historical – and in many ways useful – idea that modern art is a development from figuration to abstraction is okay, but it’s not really interesting for artists.”
‘For an artist,’ Kuster continued, ‘it is not important whether it is representative or non-representative, because it is always abstract. It is always abstract, because painting is abstraction.”
Check out some highlights of “Mondrian Evolution” below:
†Mondrian Evolution” is now on display until October 9, 2022 at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland.
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