The National Gallery Uncovers Evolution Of Mondrian's Art

On the way to geometric abstraction, the Dutch painter dipped into styles ranging from Realism to Cubism

PIET MONDRIAN'S works are ubiquitous. The red, blue, and yellow geometrics encased in black grids have been styled into everything from book covers to bed sheets and summer dresses. Those familiar with the Dutch artist's paintings can always spot his abstractions from the easily recognizable style.

Now at the National Gallery of Art's East Wing, an unprecedented Mondrian retrospective finally brings to the public eye what art critics have long known: There is more, a lot more, to this man's work. Commonly held in high regard for his influence on sterile design and architecture, he was actually a dazzling contributor to the most important movements of 20th-century art.

This rich display of 171 paintings, spanning more than 50 years and eight distinct periods in Mondrian's life (1872-1944), is a study in evolution.

From his earliest days of painting realist landscapes of the Holland countryside, through his most contemporary New York City creations inspired by American jazz, Mondrian's hand was precise. After formal training at the Amsterdam Academy, he traversed Realism, Pointillism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and Abstraction with seeming ease. And, he created his own movement, which he coined "neo-plasticism," an odd translation for "new form," or "new image."

The National Gallery show, which came from The Hague and is bound for New York, is the most comprehensive collection of Mondrian's work ever shown. Assembled over a 2-1/2-year period by a team of experts led by curator Angelica Zander Rudenstine, the pieces came from private and public collections in Europe, the United States, and Asia.

As Ms. Rudenstine scoured museums, homes, and artists' studios for Mondrian's best works, she says she "had to do a lot of arm twisting." Borrowing masterpieces is never easy, no matter how professional the care that's promised.

But Rudenstine's pleas were persuasive. "We had a staggering rate of success," she says. Ninety-five percent of prospective lenders agreed to put their pieces on loan once they realized that the goal was to showcase Mondrian's development. "Some of the most extraordinary pictures are hanging due to the generosity of people who were from families in which the parents bought pictures from Mondrian himself, when he was an impoverished artist living in Paris during the 1920s."

Throughout his working life, Mondrian relied on friends and admirers to sustain him with the simplest support such as food and clothing. Often he asked for advances on sales he hoped to make, in order to pay a month's rent or tide him over until the next installment. In turn, he gave others enrichment.

"I see this every day in my studio, it nourishes me. I'm a very old man. Why should I let this out of my sight?" protested an elderly European painter, after Rudenstine approached him about borrowing one of Mondrian's superb color compositions. She visited him three times, she recalls. "Finally, he said: 'I decided to lend you this picture because I believe what you're doing is something good for Mondrian.'"

Appropriately, the first piece in the show, displayed on a wall by itself, is the artist's "Self Portrait: Eyes c. 1908-1909." Using charcoal on paper, Mondrian depicts himself from the nose up, and the strokes of color, as much as the white space in between, provide contour to his face. A set of dark eyes is the unmistakable focal point. The placement of objects in a space with linear perspective is a technique he would use for the rest of his creative years.

After dabbling in seascapes with a Pointillist touch, the painter was drawn by the abstraction of Cubism. By 1912, he studied Picasso's and Braque's breakdown of objects into chunks and angled forms. That year, he painted "Still Life with Gingerpot II," which he began in Amsterdam and completed after he moved to Paris. With this and other works at the time, the artist added new dimensions to his unusual way of both putting things into place and breaking them out of limited space. As ever, his use of dark lines sharpened the perspective.

Mondrian made a brief foray into removing boundaries by merging objects and background with floating pastel squares on a light canvas.

But in 1920s Paris, the artist entered a stark world by embarking on his famous "neo-plasticism" works in which he set red, yellow, blue, black, and gray rectangles in irregular black grids. Soon thereafter, Mondrian allowed white shapes to gradually absorb most of the space within the black lines, allowing bright colors to become more pronounced. By the 1930s, Mondrian began to abandon the black line in favor of further brightening his pictures, but he quickly returned to it.

Mondrian arrived in the US in the fall of 1940 during Nazi Germany's bombing of London, where he spent two years before he could flee the war. Escaping the blitz, he immersed himself in energetic New York City, where he discovered a passion for boogie-woogie and jazz. His love of the unstructured music, art observers said at the time, seemed to support his claim that his art was spontaneous rather than systematic.

Soon, Mondrian made the transition from black grids and primary-colored blocks to colored lines, which he found "liberating."

But the painter was never trapped in a process. An exceptional finale to the two floors and 15 rooms of Mondrian works at the National Gallery is a space devoted entirely to the painter's unfinished projects.

By showing his sketches and half-completed canvases, a sort of works-in-progress display, Rudenstine intends to debunk the notion that Mondrian was a geometric designer who put together his paintings based on calculations. Far from mathematics, she says, the artist acted on his intuitions. Perhaps that's why he maneuvered so well through the history of modern art.

* "Piet Mondrian 1872-1944," at the National Gallery of Art's East Wing through Sept.4, opens at New York's Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 1 and will run through Jan. 23, 1996.

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