Friday, 21 February 2014

Seventieth Anniversary of the Death of Piet Mondrian

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, a pioneer of abstract painting. To commemorate this milestone, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, which boasts the largest Mondrian collection in the world, is holding two exhibitions simultaneously: “Mondrian and Cubism – Paris 1912-1914” and the permanent exhibit “Mondrian and De Stijl”.

Mondrian was deeply impressed by a 1911 exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam that introduced the new French art movement of Cubism. At the time, approaching 40 years of age, Mondrian had been searching for a new artistic direction. Struck by the works of Picasso and other Cubists from the exhibit, he was convinced he should relocate to Paris to further his career and moved there in January of 1912.

fig.1 Piet Mondriaan, Evening; The red Tree,1908-1910, oil on canvas, 70 x 99 cm.
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
© 2007 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International, Warrenton (VA, USA)
Mondrian only lived in Paris for two years, but during that time his works were transformed by Cubism and shifted to plain and geometric forms. This transition can be seen in his paintings of trees in the permanent exhibition room: Evening: The Red Tree (1908-1910, fig. 1), The Gray Tree (1912) and The Flowering Apple Tree (1913). The bold red with a vitality reminiscent of Van Gogh changes into a predominantly gray color while the concrete and exquisitely depicted branches are gradually abbreviated and abstracted into horizontal and vertical lines.

In one room are displayed the 16 works of Composition I through XVI (fig.2) which Mondrian exhibited in The Hague in 1914. Composition is a French labeling of Mondrian’s paintings of straight lines and colors. The numbers I through XVI are not chronological but rather arbitrary classifications by the painter. The numbers I through VI are given to completely abstract renderings, with the subsequent numbers given to depictions of their original sources of abstraction such as trees and buildings. It is hard to visualize the link between the earlier and later paintings however, without the aid of the small displays of the drawings of the trees and buildings placed next to their abstract renderings.

fig.2 Piet Mondriaan, Composition no. IV,
1914. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
1In 1917, Mondrian returned to the Netherlands due to the illness of his father and remained there for the duration of World War I. Spared involvement in the war due to its neutrality, the Dutch art world grew beyond the French influence and flourished in its own. Together with Theo van Doesburg, Mondrian launched the magazine De Stijl. Mondrian was aiming for a universal, essential art through his works of horizontal and vertical lines and the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue as well as black and white. Other painters, sculptors, architects and designers joined this artistic movement, creating not just paintings but furniture and buildings. Mondrian’s principles had wide influence, extending even to urban planning.

During World War II, Mondrian sought asylum in the United States and spent the rest of his life in New York City. In the permanent exhibit room is the painting Victory Boogie-Woogie (unfinished) which Mondrian was still working on at the time of his death at age 72. Several pieces of square tape pasted on the lines of oil can be seen from close up, revealing how Mondrian worked with trial and error up to his final days.

Those who enjoy the Gemeentemuseum exhibit may want to visit other sites related to the life of Mondrian such as his birthplace, Mondriaanhuis in Ameersfoort, and Villa Mondriaan in Winterwijk near the German border where the artist spent his youth. Visitors can tour inside the buildings.

Mondriaan and Cubism – Paris 1912-1914 runs through May 11, 2014 (closed Monday)

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Stadhouderslaan 41
2517 HV Den Haag
The Netherlands
Opening times:
Tuesday to Sunday: 11:00-17:00
Closed on Mondays