Mondrian Evolution, Fondation Beyeler magazine — a masterful line-up from the master of lines

The old woman is seated upright in front of a table, her head bent towards her hands which are busy on her knees. The cream gray tiles framing his white beanie fail to uplift the mood of this drab little painting. Executed between 1893 and 1896, it appears to be just another unremarkable 19th century Dutch interior.

What makes “Woman with Spindle” fascinating is its neighbour, an austere, off-center cross constructed of black vertical and horizontal parallel bars, which repeat in the lower right square to intensify the asymmetry. The cold and oblique rhythms of “Composition in black and white with double lines” (1934) make it unmistakably the work of Piet Mondrian. To see it next to “Woman with Spindle”, which Mondrian also painted, is to guess the leap of his imagination in between. Look again and the straight back of the old lady and the neat tiles become the ancestors of this airtight grid.

Opening with these two works, Mondrian Evolution at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel meticulously reveals how the Dutch artist went from A to B. Organized jointly by the Beyeler and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, with substantial loans from the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, the exhibition is nurtured by the link between Ernst Beyeler, the art dealer behind the founding of Basel, and Werner Schmalenbach, Beyeler’s friend since adolescence and founder of the Düsseldorf museum. For the first time, the seven works by Mondrian from the Beyeler collection are brought together alongside four from the Düsseldorf museum, including three purchased by Schmalenbach from the Beyeler gallery.

“Woman with a spindle” (1893-96) by Piet Mondrian © Pace Gallery/Mondrian/Holtzman Trust

While it is a powerful core of Mondrian’s signature geometries, curators focus on unraveling the threads of his journey to those final, great reductions.

Born in 1872 in Amersfoort, near Utrecht, Mondrian grew up with soggy plains and wide, rainy skies. Perhaps the desire to fracture such unpromising meadows drove him to use strong lines from the start. A wall of small landscapes – windmills, rivers, groves, all painted before 1907 – shows him carving an open space with tree trunks and windmill blades.

Had Mondrian clung to convention, his philosophy would have been Calvinistic—spiritually Puritanical, avoiding the melodrama of mysticism. But his compatriot Van Gogh had set a precedent by separating the theological intensity from the organic and the everyday. Like the painter of “The Starry Night”, Mondrian began to enhance colors and exaggerate forms. In 1908, his painting “Mill in Sunlight”, exhibited here, caused a scandal when he exhibited it at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Mondrian’s Windmill is an infernal temple, worthy of Blake’s Jerusalem, its bloody cone towering over fields scorched by the sun. One reviewer called it “soaked in blood.” . . against a yellow sky riddled with cheese.

A painting of a red windmill against a yellow sky

‘Mill in the Sun’ (1908) © Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Shown alongside the silvery, shimmering matrixes that were Mondrian’s answer to Cubism in the early 1910s, “Mill in Sunlight” explodes on our retinas, justifying the curators’ decision to disrupt Mondrian’s timeline by appearing in the odd early work among the last and vice versa. Yet witnessing certain sequences illustrates how Mondrian developed his vision, thinking as he painted, forging his way to revealing new thoughts.

Trees were pots of possibility. In Room 5, the dissolution process begins with “(Evening) The Red Tree” (1908-10). More burning bush than verdant forest dweller, this fiery, leafless tangle blends with the spare thatched cross of “Tree” (c1912) and fractures further into a shoal of delicate fish-like figures swimming at through “Flowering Apple Tree” (1912) before finally breaking into the milky, shimmering trellises of “Composition No VI” (1912-13) and “Composition No VIII” (1913).

Mondrian’s journey into abstraction includes several turning points. Esoteric at first sight, he discovered theosophy in 1908. Potpourri of Eastern and Western mysticism which proclaims the faith in an absolute divine, of which the material world is only the reflection, it propels it towards antirealism. But it was the molecular dismantling of the Cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, alongside whom Mondrian exhibited in Amsterdam in 1911, that showed him how to renounce the figure entirely.

A painting of a leafless tree against a dark blue sku

‘(Evening) The Red Tree’ (1908-10) © Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Painting of an abstract tree against a sky of tiled blue shapes

‘Tree’ (circa 1912) © bpk/Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute/Art Resource, NY

Abstract shapes suggest the shape of a tree

‘Apple tree in blossom’ (1912) © Alice de Groot

Abstract rectangular shapes

‘Composition No. II’ (1913) © Rik Klein Gotink/Kröller-Müller Museum

One of Mondrian’s earliest true summaries is “Composition No IX(1913). On loan from New York’s MoMA, this gray and ocher puzzle of interlocking shapes – rectangles, hemispheres, trapezoids – is rendered ethereal by wobbly orthogonals, overlapping lines and evanescent hues that fade towards the edges. Rather than being on a flat plane like classical geometric abstraction, the image appears suspended in space, a subtle flirtation with an illusory depth that Mondrian pursued throughout his career.

In early 1914, while living in Paris, Mondrian’s vision gained clarity. In a letter to his gallery owner and patron Hendricus Petrus Bremmer, he wrote: “Nature (or what I see) inspires me. . . but I want to get as close as possible to the truth, to abstract everything until I come to the foundation—yet an external foundation! – things.”

Yet he always came back to face. A 1917 windmill sequence shows him exploring the limbo hues – bruised indigos, moody purples, watery grays – of twilight. Influenced by Goethe’s theory that the blue hour was a moment of transformation, Mondrian also drew himself at this time of day – in “Self-Portrait (Isolated Face)” (1908) – his eyes crossing the plane of the image with messianic force.

Painting of tall trees in a dark wood, with a yellow sun behind them
‘Wood near Oele’ (1908) © Alice de Groot

Even as he painted these satanic grainiers, Mondrian approached non-objective purity. In 1917, he sketched out his manifesto for an art he called neo-plasticism, “this new plastic idea [which] should find expression. . . in a straight line and the primary color clearly defined”.

In the mid-1920s, back in Paris after the war had forced him to return to the Netherlands, Mondrian was living his dream. Both monk and bon vivant, he slept in a cramped bedroom but decorated the rest of his Montparnasse apartment according to his spartan and vibrant principles, ensuring that it became a magnet for the avant-garde of town. A lover of jazz and electronic music – he compared red, yellow and blue to musical notes – he adored Josephine Baker and was no average dancer himself.

At the Beyeler, the last spacious gallery celebrates Mondrian’s last epiphanic canvases. Paintings from the early 1920s show how he initially avoided self-imposed chromatic limitations. Instead of simple primary colors, there are blocks of orange or gray.

An abstract composition of white, blue and yellow rectangles with black borders

‘Composition with yellow and blue’ (1932) © foto,robert bayer,bildpunkt AG 4142 münchenstein

A diamond shape with black vertical and horizontal lines

‘Rhombus composition with eight lines and red (image no. III)’ (1938) © foto,robert bayer,bildpunkt AG 4142 münchenstein

Ten years later, he had regained the courage of his convictions. Shown without their glass to allow the colors to pop and sing, paintings from Beyeler’s own collection include “Composition with Yellow and Blue” (1932) and “Composition with Double Line and Blue” (1935). The first feels a big slab of yellow in the upper left corner, then cools the mood with a small oblong pout blue lower right. The second needs only a square of ultramarine, the color used by Renaissance painters for the Madonna’s mantle here placed low and off-center under the sharp black lines of the railroad tracks. Against the blinding white ground – his friend Ben Nicholson said, “No one could make white whiter than Mondrian” – it’s a minimalist homage to a higher world, Nirvana boned and threaded to its exultant core.

In 1938, at Nicholson’s request, Mondrian moved to London. Two years later, he moved to New York. From the boogie-woogie of his dance halls – artist Lee Krasner said he was a terrible partner because he kept inventing new steps – to the traffic-packed but metrically accurate streets, Mondrian s found himself fascinated by the cowardly rigor of the Big Apple. With its jagged black frame and uneven pair of blue and yellow rectangles, “Rhythm in Straight Lines (Composition with Blue, Red, and Yellow)” (1937/1942) encapsulates the understated, funky music of those swansong years.

In 1944, aged 71, Mondrian died of pneumonia. Its legacy lives on through generations of global culture, from Yves Saint Laurent’s clothing designs to a Coldplay album cover. With its vast window grilles opening onto a park planted with leafy trees, the Fondation Beyeler is the ideal setting for his work. He always dances.

As of October 9, foundationbeyeler.ch

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