The Fondation Beyeler unveils an unsuspected Mondrian

The Fondation Beyeler unveils an unsuspected Mondrian

A peasant woman in clogs and a traditional white headdress sits in a dark corner of the kitchen, busy at her table (spindle woman, 1893-1896); in front of her, a Composition in black and white (1934) comes down to eight lines, a rhythm, a sketch. From the first room, the hanging intrigues and disconcerts. On this, a Forest near Oele (1908) – the dense network of trunks of a pine forest which set ablaze in the setting sun and seem to drown in its reflection – stands next to a grid canvas of yellow, red and blue bands, evoking the verticality of New York (New York City 11941).

Essentially chronological, the itinerary devoted by the Fondation Beyeler to Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) plays on contrasts to show an evolution that is anything but linear. Evolutionthe subtitle of the most important presentation that Switzerland has devoted to him for fifty years, thus takes us from the period of the artist’s training, in the pure tradition of Dutch landscape painters of the 19th century, to the most radical abstraction. , from the 1920s. In the meantime, Mondrian also went through phases marked by Symbolism and Cubism.

Read also: Intimate Mondrian: The Paintings of a Master Painter Reveal Their Secrets

Trees, a recurring motif

Posterity has retained the purity and stripping of his geometric compositions, his white canvases streaked with rare straight lines, delimiting large flat areas of pure colors. This essential message has not ceased to inspire design and pop culture for a century, but also architecture and fashion; yet what he himself defines as neoplasticism is the culmination of a long quest.

Who knows this red cloud (1907), an ephemeral and magical moment where the setting sun ignites a cottony form? Or this mill in the sun (1908), produced with sweeping brushstrokes and whose dazzling palette shocked his contemporaries? These works above all evoke the influence of van Gogh, who came from the same milieu and was also marked by a strict Calvinist education. And what about the beaches of Domburg, these dunes deploying moving shapes, pink, orange, pastel tones, also revealing Mondrian’s interest in Goethe’s theory of opposite colors…

Another recurring motif are the trees, which the museum presents in their endless diversity. We pass from the incandescent beauty of this red tree (1908-1910), flamboyant foliage on an intense blue background at this apple blossom (1912) whose flowering is summed up in a network of black lines and pink and pale blue notes, 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 vein are still soberly named Tree or already Composition No. XII, reflecting the gradual move away 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 nearly a hundred works; the last space presents only the radically non-figurative phase that one generally associates 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 decisive in the transition from figuration to abstraction. It was not until he approached fifty that Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan – then living in Paris, he shortened his surname and first name – achieved this absolute purity that would earn him his notoriety. It was not until the dawn of the 1920s, in the aftermath of the war, that Mondrian fully embraced abstraction.

The juxtaposition of figurative and abstract works born from the same concern for geometry is enlightening; it reveals the path of the artist to achieve purity. A quest marked by spirituality and the artist’s fascination with theosophy and anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. 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 that underlies its composition. Hence the interest of its confrontation with much later abstract compositions, which seem ordered by the same grammar. The Forest near Oele creates an illusion of spatial depth found in New York City 1whose succession of colored bands evokes the architecture of the metropolis and its rhythm, its musical scene, Mondrian being then under the spell of boogie-woogie.

Likewise, the Bell tower of the Domburg church (1911), painted at all hours of the day, echoes this Composition No. 1; White and Blue of 1936, marked by the same verticality. Strangely perhaps, the center of the canvas is never the starting point of Mondrian’s compositions; by avoiding it, he instead creates “a dynamic asymmetry characteristic of his neoplasticism: the origin of the rhythm of Mondrian’s work lies not in line or surfaces, but in the tension between different visual elements”, notes in substance Ulf Küster, curator of the exhibition, in the catalogue.

Unlike Kandinsky in particular, Mondrian does not seek emotion or lyricism, but “pure reality”, which he defines as a balance, the resonance of opposites and their harmonization. This process combining intuition and a sense of symmetry is so personal to him that experts would have no trouble, it is said, in immediately distinguishing a fake from an authentic Mondrian…

Read again: Piet Mondrian at the ultimate point of abstraction

Born in 1872 in Amersfoort near Utrecht, Piet Mondrian was very early in contact with art, which his father, a teacher, taught and his uncle, a talented amateur, practiced. He also trained to teach fine arts at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. After a first stay in Paris and the encounter with cubism, in 1911, the war brought him back to the country, where a group of avant-garde artists published the magazine DeStijl, to which he is close in his intention of reformulating pictorial expression. Paris, London, New York: Mondrian will spend the last 25 years of his life in these three metropolises, the last consecrating him from the 1920s as a herald of abstraction.


“Mondrian Evolution”Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, until 9 October.

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