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It takes all sorts

03/10/2013

Mondrian

It’s perhaps unsurprising to find that the Dutch also take a Total Football approach to drinking hot chocolate. Fancy a warm chocolatey drink? Well, it’s no good just sitting there expecting the finished product to be served up on a silver platter. Here’s some milk. Here’s some chocolate. Go on, do it yourself.

The lovely town of Amersfoort is a short train journey from Utrecht and was the birthplace of the painter Piet Mondrian in 1872. We’ve come to visit the canalside Mondriaanhuis which was the artist’s first home and provides a retrospective of his career. But first we duck into a cafe to warm up on a bitterly cold, grey February day. Minutes later we’re wiggling lumps of chocolate on sticks around in large mugs of hot milk. It’s so good we have another before moving on.

There’s a bowl of liquorice allsorts on the reception desk at the Mondriaanhuis but it’s only when we’re half way round the house that I appreciate the significance.The first room we enter downstairs is a recreation of the sparsely furnished Parisian apartment where Mondrian lived in the 1920s close to the Gare Montparnasse. Then follows the main room that traces the development of his art from early landscape paintings to the distinctive geometric abstract style known as neoplasticism. It’s not really an exhibition of Mondrian’s work as such but more a history of how his painting developed during the course of his career using various bits of memorabilia.

His neoplastic style was characterised by thick black lines and rectangles of different sizes and colours against a white background. The horizontal and vertical black lines were influenced by the typical Dutch landscape of flat horizons and tall trees and a natural extension of his early, rather conservative paintings of meadows with cows and windmills. Sit on a Dutch intercity train for a while and stare out of the window at the passing countryside and you can begin to appreciate where he got his ideas from.

Even if you’ve never heard of Mondrian the chances are that you’ve seen something influenced by his art; the packaging of the L’Oreal Paris Studio hair care products, the old BBC test card or the distinctive lines and colours of liquorice allsorts to name but a few.

The exhibition shows how Mondrian’s work was influenced by the people he met and the places he lived. By the time he moved to Paris in 1912 he had already begun to be influenced by Cubism and started to remove any traces of figuration from his work to concentrate on horizontal and vertical lines. When he moved back to Holland later in the decade it was his friendship with Bart van der Leck that led him to using only the three primary colours. There’s a room upstairs in the house that recalls this friendship and looks at some of van der Leck’s work.

Mondrian moved back to Paris in 1919 and lived there until 1938 where his work continued to evolve. The literary and artistic melting pot of 1920s Paris had a great influence on Mondrian with opportunities to move in the same circles as the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali.

Mondrian became a leading light in Theo Van Doesburg’s De Stijl movement. Being a relative newcomer to modern art, I had never heard of De Stijl until the White Stripes named one of their early albums after it. Looking back now it’s clear to see the cross-cultural similarities in the White Stripes stripped back, pared down blues sound. Mondrian later fell out with Van Doesburg over the incorporation of diagonal lines into De Stijl. Ever the purist, Mondrian preferred his lines to be horizontal and vertical and left the movement.

The likelihood of war in 1938 forced Mondrian to move to London for a couple of years where he lived in Hampstead village and developed a friendship with the British artist Ben Nicholson. Later he moved to New York and the influence of the “jazz age” can be clearly seen in his later works where he begins to use coloured lines instead of black and often breaks them up into a multi-coloured mosaic. Mondrian died in New York in 1944.

It’s a wonderful exhibition that shows how fresh and modern much of Mondrian’s art looks even eighty or ninety years after it was painted. At the time it must have seemed as avant garde as chocolate on a stick.

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