The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) is regarded as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. His characteristic canvases made up of bold grids of vertical and horizontal black lines interspersed with a narrow range of coloured rectangles and squares influenced generations of artists and designers. However, less well known is the two years that he lived in London between 1938 and 1940, where as well as making new paintings, he developed a private passion for Walt Disney
A little blue plaque at 60 Parkhill Road, London NW3, is all that remains to remind us of Piet Mondrian’s two years in London. Mondrian had travelled from Paris (where he had been living since 1912) to England in September 1938, aged 66, accompanied by fellow artist Winifred Nicholson. He came primarily to escape the looming threat of war in Europe, but also because he regarded the art scene in Paris as “a stalemate”. He viewed London as a useful staging post on the way to New York, and never guessed he would end up staying for so long.
Mondrian also sent his brother a whole series of uncharacteristically light-hearted postcards of Disney’s Snow White (which he had seen with him in Paris in early 1938). In a tone that he doesn’t reveal anywhere else, his letters are full of parallels with characters in the film and people who helped him in his new home. In one he writes how the “landlord has had my room cleaned by Snow White and the squirrel has whitewashed the walls with his tail”. He signs the card “Sleepy” (he calls Carel “Sneezy”). In another, he writes that the “dwarves don’t have enough time to help me themselves, but send squirrels and birds” – a reference to the artists who had befriended him.
He never mentioned his quirky passion for Snow White to his London friends, but had, as he wrote, “a record with the music of the dwarfs on it, and [I] quite often play it”. And he told his brother he had seen the plaster versions (garden gnomes) in the London shops. (He was less impressed by Pinocchio when he saw it in spring 1940.)