by Shraddha NairApr 28, 2021
In a recent exhibition, Museo Reina Sofia paid tribute to the legacy left behind by Piet Mondrian, a 19th century Dutch painter. The exhibition, Mondrian and De Stijl, which ended on March 2, was part of the museum’s 30th anniversary celebration. Coincidentally, March 7 was also Mondrian’s 149th birth anniversary. In collaboration with the Stichting Kunstmuseum den Haag and Comunidad de Madrid, the museum details the artist’s engagement with the De Stijl movement. The De Stijl movement originated in the Netherlands, as a result of art critic Theo van Doesburg’s publishing endeavour - a magazine named De Stijl. The publication attempted to break past traditional notions of visual art in post-world war Netherlands, running for almost 15 years. The artists of this movement sought to break past boundaries between various creative fields, advocating a multidisciplinary approach instead, which was a rather radical idea at the time.
The curator of the exhibition, Hans Janssen, speaks with STIR about the continued pertinence of Mondrian’s artistic practice. “I think the work of Mondrian is extremely relevant today, in a world that is literally drowned in images in such a way even that we hardly understand the difference anymore between image and reality, fact and fiction. Mondrian was raised as a landscape painter in the Dutch tradition, a tradition in which the image as both, a game of form and colour in and for itself and a mirroring of a piece of reality played a decisive role. So, Mondrian was well versed by 1911 in the peculiarities of the image, and he decided to take both poles to their limits, creating an abstract-real image, or an abstract-real reality that speaks for itself because of the sheer power of the result, the image. This was a project that took him almost 10 years. Not starting from a theoretical standpoint - as is often thought - but from the experience of the image, the result. This is in the artistic practice of today very often forgotten: the power of the result as the only guideline for the visual arts. Mondrian in this still is an example,” he says.
Born in 1872, Mondrian was raised in an environment which encouraged his creative practice. The artist participated in an annual exhibition in Utrecht when he was only 20-years-old. While studying fine arts in Amsterdam, he was trained as a traditional landscape painter. In 1907, he was introduced to the work of post-impressionist painters, which was a significant step in his journey to understand colour. In the following years he experimented with Pointilist techniques before fully embracing Cubism in 1911. This took him to Paris. When the first World War broke out, he was unable to return to Paris. This circumstance forced the artist to create an outlet for his abstract approach to painting, which made De Stijl (The style) the perfect space for him to grow. Mondrian’s geometric style borders an almost spiritual relationship to space and colour, an aesthetic which has come to be known commonly as Neo-plasticism.
Although the showcase pointed a spotlight on Mondrian’s repertoire, it also included other works which resulted from this movement. Janssen shares, “It is not quintessential to adopt the stylistic idiom to be influenced, or feel influenced, by the artists of De Stijl. A more important characteristic is the power of the image, to change the environment we live in, to influence our social attitudes, to make a better society. The artists of De Stijl were also very much in connection. If they would have lived today, they would have used and improved the social media we are working with. The best artists of today (take Bridget Riley, Richard Serra, Peter Doig, Mark Bradford, Damien Hirst, Nicole Eisenman, who not) feel obliged to Mondrian, even if they not admit it (like Willem de Kooning and Donald Judd, who treated Mondrian as their father, feeling urged to play a Freudian murdergame)”.
The museum offered the viewers a curation of more than 90 artworks across nine galleries, including 35 by Mondrian. The rest of the collection comprised the creations of Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, Georges Vantongerloo and Vilmos Huszár, as well as archived magazines, letters, photographs and catalogues, providing the viewer with a more complete understanding of the zeitgeist of that period in history.
Janssen shares some highlights from the exhibition, in purview of the narrative surrounding Mondrian and De Stijl. “There are many favourites as far as I am concerned, but a painting that particularly strikes me is Composition B (No.II) with Red, a painting which is in a remarkably good condition. That is important with Mondrian, because the conservation methods that have been applied to the works of the artist have been more like torturing, understanding the aesthetics more like a white-cube, sterile, kitchen appliances like attitude, and not like the concentrated result of sheer intuition”.
The exhibition was on display at Museo Reina Sofia from November 11, 2020 up till March 1, 2021.