The Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale will be held 23 June at Sotheby's London.
LONDON - Seventy years after the artist’s death, Charles Darwent explores the importance and influence of Piet Mondrian’s instantly recognisable works not only on other artists, but also on designers of everything from furniture to fashion.
In 1911, the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan moved from Amsterdam to Paris and dropped an “a” from his surname. The two events were linked. Mondriaan, now Mondrian, had tired of hearing French tongues massacre the Dutch double-a. But the new name was also a declaration of intent. In his 40th year, Mondrian was no longer to be Dutch. Now he would be a Modernist.
In 1911, too, Mondrian painted a portrait-format canvas, a metre-and-a-half high, called The Red Mill. Usually in The Hague, you can see it this summer at Turner Contemporary in Margate, in one of a pair of British shows marking the 70th anniversary of Mondrian’s death. The other is at Tate Liverpool, the city from where, after two years in London, he sailed to New York in September 1940. Windmills are a quintessentially Dutch subject: this was to be Mondrian’s last. But The Red Mill is a farewell to more than just Dutch-ness. Where Mondriaan had trained as a Realist and worked as a Symbolist, Mondrian was to become an Abstractionist.
In the gridded sails and red-blue palette of this final windmill, you see elements of the works that would come to define him – those canvases known as Compositions. One, Composition with Red, Blue and Grey, is offered for sale at Sotheby’s London this June. If there is such a thing as a classic Mondrian, then this is it. In 1919, in his studio in the Rue du Départ, the painter had set out his ideas on art in a knotty essay called Le Neo-Plasticisme. (Mondrian’s friend Peggy Guggenheim, quipped that he was equally obscure in three languages.) There was, he said, to be “nothing specific, nothing human” in Neo-Plastic painting, which would reduce art to its elements: horizontals, verticals, the three primary colours; black, white and grey. In 1932, even grey would be dropped from the recipe, which makes Composition with Red, Blue and Grey not just classic, but rare.
It does not, on the face of it, seem a creed likely to attract disciples. To say that Neo-Plasticism was hardcore is not to exaggerate. In his lifetime, Mondrian had few followers, and no financial success – major canvases changed hands for £50, and he relied on the kindness of strangers. And yet his standing among artists today is as high as any painter’s of the mid-20th century, Picasso included. How come? Perhaps artists see that Mondrian’s drive to reduce, his obsessive paring-down, was all about beauty. “Beauty is obscured by the appearance of objects,” he said, steelily. “Therefore objects must be eliminated.”
In the same year as Le Neo-Plasticisme, he had co-published a journal that would give its name to a movement: De Stijl. This in turn shaped the Bauhaus, whose masters, like Josef Albers, moved to America in the 1930s. Borne on the quiet streams of influence, Mondrian, dead in 1944, began to appear in post-war American art. Hard-edged abstractionists like Ellsworth Kelly were considered Mondrianists, as was the British geometric Op artist Bridget Riley – Riley curated a show of Mondrian’s work at the Tate in the 1990s. Minimalists like Donald Judd appreciated Neo-Plasticism – Judd’s book, Some Aspects of Colour in General and Black and Red in Particular, is a love letter to it. And the descendants of this first wave – Mondrian’s grandchildren, as it were – carry on his work. Visit the Fondazione Giorgio Cini during the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale and you can take tea in The Glass Tea House ‘Mondrian,’ by Hiroshi Sugimoto. In the ritualisation of the Japanese tea ceremony, its timeless formalities, Sugimoto sees the lineaments of the Compositions, their complex simplicity.
If Mondrian’s influence on the fine arts has been great, then even greater was his impact on design. He himself saw no distinction between the two: in the Neo-Plastic utopia, art, architecture and design would be as one – “We can only be pure if we once again regard the art of building as art,” he wrote to his fellow De Stijl-er, JJP Oud. In other words, paintings and the walls they hung on were equals.
This democracy was seductive. From the beginning, Mondrian’s two-dimensional Compositions were translated into three-dimensional consumables by admiring designers – Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair from 1923, the 1930s Hermès bags of Lola Prusac. Couturiers, too, saw the potential. Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 Mondrian shift dress was echoed, half-a-century later, by Alexander McQueen’s 2014 Mondrian ballet flats. The same designer’s Spring/Summer collection this year also bears the influence of Mondrian. And the list goes on and on: Mondrian Rubik’s cubes, fridge magnets, fingernails, Nikes, cakes. Why?
Design historian Stephen Bayley ponders the question. “I think,” he says, slowly, “that Mondrian has come to mean Modernism. His name and his work sum up the High Modernist ideal. I don’t like the word ‘iconic’, so let’s say that he’s become totemic – a totem for everything Modernism set out to be. It’s a question, really, of purity.”
Charles Darwent is an art critic and author of Mondrian in London (2012).
Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Grey will be offered on 23 June in the Impressionist
& Modern Art Evening sale.