By Sam Phillips
Two shows shine a new light on the Dutch modern master's work.
Like proverbial London buses, two Mondrian exhibitions have arrived in quick succession, pulling up at two important institutions outside the capital, Tate Liverpool and Turner Contemporary in Margate. The question is, if you had to take an actual bus (or car, coach or train) to visit one of the venues, which exhibition should it be?
Well, the idea is that you’d go to both. The organisers have avoided repetition across the two shows, ensuring that each examine a distinct aspect of the Dutchman’s art. The Tate show, ‘Mondrian and his Studios’, studies the significance of the atelier in the development of his highly influential, highly pared-down painting style, and – in sheer number of works – represents the most comprehensive show of Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, the label he and other members of the De Stijl movement gave to their mode of non-representational art. In contrast, Turner Contemporary presents the first ever focus on the way Mondrian experimented with colour, with an emphasis on his earlier work.
The Liverpool show has one major draw that makes it a must for anyone interested in Mondrian: an exact reconstruction of the painter’s 1920s Paris studio. Wonderfully, you can walk inside. What one discovers is that, rather than just confining his yellow, red, blue and black squares to his canvases, Mondrian spread them out across the room, a garret rather small by today’s standards of famous artist’s studios. Mondrian wrote to British artist Winifred Nicholson that ‘the studio is also part of my painting’, and these coloured shapes – paper card instead of paint – are carefully pasted on walls so that they create visual tensions with the other quadrilaterals in the room, such as the frame of a window or door, or the artist’s easels.
The room’s furniture reinforces the sense that you’re walking through one of his paintings, in the form of rectangular rugs dynamically arranged on the black-painted floor, cuboid tables without a hint of ornament, and an angular light fixture that juts out from the wall. The latter’s bulb has a floral design on its surface, one of the only clues to the wider tastes of the time to which the ascetic Mondrian was turning his back.
The experience of the room is reason enough to visit the show, and the most convincing evidence in the exhibition that, as the curators explain in interpretative material, Mondrian’s abstraction was influenced by architecture. There is a film of his New York studio and slide-show visualisation of his London studio, both of which also appear like art works in themselves. Other insights are offered by some of his early Cubist works, in which the artist’s geometric marks riffed on his sight of scaffolding in the city. The late works, their lines coming together, create vibrations in the viewer’s eyes, as if the grids are pulsing and extending outwards beyond the frame, on to the walls, across the building and out into the world.
Perhaps in order to focus fully on architecture, the show does not examine why he reduced his paintings to such minimal elements in the first place. That’s fine for me, as I know a fair bit about the artist’s outlook already and have read Simon Wilson’s recent article for RA Magazine in which he describes how Mondrian ‘wanted to go beyond nature to create what he called a “cosmic, universal” beauty.’ Unfortunately, I fear, that many might be baffled by Mondrian’s motivation without this background.
A remedy could be to visit the Turner Contemporary, where we encounter a younger Mondrian painting landscapes, learning a little more about what carried him on his artistic trip. His journey in the exhibition is mapped through colour, from his muddy tones of farmhouses and trees in the late 19th century to his representations of dunes or windmills in blazing, absolutely unnatural shades of colour – red wood, blue ground, orange plants. He turns full-blown Fauve in some eye-poppingly kaleidoscopic portraits.
But when it comes to the key transitions for Mondrian, the move onwards through Cubism to the revelations of Neo-Plasticism, during and after the First World War, the Turner only presents a small selection of works. Some canvases from the Tate Liverpool show might have helped here, such as Composite No.5 with Colour Planes (1917), a canvas of floating pink, orange and grey squares that reincarnates the colours of earlier landscapes in quadrilateral form. Without a larger selection of these later pieces, the show’s centre of gravity is solidly set in Mondrian’s earlier years – and colour in his late works seems estranged from what came before.