Mondrian: The Artist’s Studio

Piet Mondrian: The Studios edited by Cees W de Jong review – Mondrian’s modernist meccas

From a damp hut in the Netherlands to a quiet haven in Paris, the great painter’s many studios were laboratories for his artistic ideas
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Mondrian in his studio at 42 Sarphatipark in Amsterdam, where he worked between 1908 and 1911.

“It breathes your ideas”, Mondrian once said of the artist’s studio, with his own very much in mind. Visits to these private dens, which can range from the creatively cluttered to the bleakly austere, are always instructive. The popularity of “Open Studios” attests to the excitement experienced by non-artists at being allowed inside. Very few are ever preserved. Scant hint of a studio can be found in Hogarth’s summer retreat at Chiswick or Gainsborough’s house in Sudbury. Lord Leighton’s studio, in his Holland Park house, has lost out to the commercial need to let out rooms for functions. More authentic is Sir Alfred Munnings’s studio in the garden of his house at Dedham, in Essex, and still better is the studio at Charleston, the Bloomsbury house in Sussex. Here, though the artists have long since gone, ephemera is still pinned to the mantelpiece and the atmosphere of concentrated endeavour remains.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is said to have occupied approximately 14 studios in the course of his career. Most of these were also his home, his limited financial resources making it necessary to live and work in the same place. He had arrived in Amsterdam from a sleepy provincial town in 1892, to study at the Rijksakademie, and over the next 19 years he worked at 10 different addresses, often over cafes and in attics.

From the start he recognised the importance of the studio, which, for him, was a place set apart, purified by solitary work and remote from mundane distractions. An early photograph of him at work, taken in around 1905 in the attic of 10 Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam, is purposively staged to convey dedication. Everything is tellingly positioned: the easel angled so as to display its painting; the artist, seated, with palette and brush in hand, as if ready to spring into action. By this date Mondrian had begun to turn his back on Amsterdam and The Hague school; his use of simplified forms and brighter colours signalled his allegiance to the avant garde, and in January 1912 he moved to Paris to learn  about cubism. So keen was he to assimilate new ideas that he popped up regularly at gallery openings, acquiring the nickname “Piet-zie-je-me niet” (Piet-can’t-you-see-me). He also found a studio near the Gare Montparnasse, at 26 Rue du Départ, which, in time, became his most famous workplace.

This new book, a compilation of texts and images, explores the connection between Mondrian’s experiments with colour and space and his use of his studios as laboratories for these experiments. The studios become statements of his artistic and philosophical ideas. The project builds upon Frans Postma’s reconstruction of the Rue du Départ studio, as it was in 1926, and expands on the investigations previously encountered through the 2014 Tate Liverpool exhibition, Mondrian and His Studios.

In the summer of 1914 Mondrian made what he thought was a temporary return to the Netherlands. His father was ill and he needed to oversee an exhibition of his work. Trapped there by the onset of war, he assumed, like many others, that the conflict would not last long, and for a considerable period he went on paying rent on his Parisian studio. But another five years passed before he could return. This unexpected confinement, spent mostly in an artists’ colony in Laren, proved to be extremely productive. Without this period, it is argued, he would never have become the world-renowned artist he is today.

In Laren his studios were mostly wooden huts. One was so damp that his colours could not dry properly. But he resumed his interest in theosophy. He had first joined Amsterdam’s Theosophical Society in 1909. Now he pursued this interest through the local Gooische Lodge. He met the artists Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck, and his own artistic philosophy evolved further. Soon, lofty theosophical ideas meshed with the modernist style associated with the De Stijl movement. One objective of the lodge was to “form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour”, while Mondrian and Van Doesburg wanted to arrive at neoplasticism, an abstract universal language of art that would transcend barriers of class, education or nationality. Sadly, when Mondrian delivered a lecture to the lodge on “Neoplasticism in Painting” it met with complete incomprehension.

Back in Paris in 1919, he found a workplace in the Rue de Coulmiers. But in 1921 his former studio in the Rue du Départ became available again and he moved back in. Believing that the aesthetic associated with neoplasticism, with its use of primary colours and straight lines, would lead to an all-encompassing unity within the arts and architecture, he wanted his studio to form a quiet haven, a harmonious whole. The positioning of furniture was, in his eyes, as important as its colour and shape. He cleverly used a large plain black cupboard with a white easel next to it to form a partition. This created the illusion that the space was rectangular when it was in fact polygonal. The contents of the room were stripped down to basic needs. Its ornamentation was mostly confined to painted squares and rectangles of primary colours hung on the walls, echoing the coloured shapes in his now purely abstract paintings. The floor was black but the light, bouncing off the white ceiling, made the room seem light and airy. “Paris is good for me,” Mondrian wrote in 1922, “and my studio pleases me.” Elsewhere he referred to it as his “small sanctuary”.

Again he brought in a photographer, and publicised the studio through a magazine. From then on he received an array of international visitors and it became a modernist mecca. Although a very private man, he was not a recluse, and loved to go to dance halls. He had briefly been engaged, and when he moved from Laren to Paris a female friend had wanted to accompany him, but he forbade it. He formed no lasting relationship except with his art. And it was for the safety of his art that he eventually agreed to subsequent moves: first to London in 1938, after he learned that some of his work had been shown in Hitler’s degenerate artexhibition; and then, after the blitz began in London, to America, his pictures travelling there ahead of him.

He was 68 when he arrived in Manhattan in September 1940. He spent his first three years living and working in a small narrow room. In September 1943 he moved to 15 East 59th Street and gained more space – a separate kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, in addition to the studio room. Again he created an environment closely related to his work, decorating the walls, as he had done before, with coloured boards and making much of the furniture himself out of wooden crates. He claimed that this final studio was the most agreeable and stimulating environment he had ever lived in. He only enjoyed it for five months, as he died of untreated pneumonia on 1 February 1944.

by Frances Spalding

Source: The Guardian

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Visit Villa Mondriaan Winterswijk

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Piet Mondriaan, nowadays a worldwide renowned and admired artist, spent his youth (1880 to 1892) in his parental home on Zonnebrink 4 in Winterswijk. His father had acquired a position as the Director of the School of Christian National Instruction and lived with his family in the villa directly next to the school building. Piet’s father and uncle Frits Mondriaan taught Piet basic knowledge on drawing and painting.

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The former home of the Mondriaan family provided the basis for today’s museum and forms one wing of the museum’s building. The villa still exists thanks to Jan Nijhuis and his wife Elizabeth, who purchased the old villa on Zonnebrink 4 in 1984, just in time to prevent it from being demolished. The Nijhuis family renovated it and while they lived on the upper floors of the Villa, the ground floor was used for the purposes of an art gallery – just in accordance with the artistic tradition of the “Mondriaanhuis”. In 1991 they bought the former school building next door and transferred the gallery to the new facilities. Since then, Elizabeth Nijhuis had the vision of establishing an arts museum.

Thanks to the commitment of several citizens of Winterswijk and to one supporter in particular, who bought the former Mondriaan-Residence from the Nijhuis-Familiy and who provided the building to the Mondriaan Foundation, the dream finally became reality. Under the supervision of Wim van Krimpen (former director of the Gemeentemuseum and the Kunsthal in Rotterdam), a new and modern extension building was built, which merges the old Villa and the former school building into one big museum. Villa Mondriaan was officially opened in May 2013.
The museum is financially supported by the community of Winterswijk as well as by the province of Gelderland.

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Reconstructions of Mondrian’s studios awarded best art book of 2015

‘Cell for theosophical work’: a reconstruction of Mondrian’s Paris studio.
‘Cell for theosophical work’: a reconstruction of Mondrian’s Paris studio.

The artist, as Antony Gormley says of his fellow sculptor Brancusi, is someone who “tries to remake the world on his own terms in his own studio”. This definition, at once cosmic and domestic, is beautifully exemplified in Piet Mondrian: The Studios (Thames & Hudson), edited by Cees W de Jong. In Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York, Mondrian lived inside modular, rectangular spaces like those on the canvases he painted – cells for a theosophical monk, who believed that a studio should be “a small sanctuary”. He preferred the Paris Métro to Notre Dame, and objected to the garden behind his studio in Hampstead because it contained too many distracting, ungeometrical trees: the world, remade by him, was a paradise for aesthetes with OCD.

Gormley himself is what he calls a “post-studio artist”, whose ambitions extend beyond such clean, well-lit places. In Antony Gormley on Sculpture (Thames & Hudson), he conducts a tour of the work he has installed on Austrian mountains and in the Australian desert, in the Hermitage museum, St Petersburg, and on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. His commentaries on his own creations tend to float off into metaphysics; he is best when poetically extolling the work of others – Jacob Epstein’s sea-washed pebbles, Joseph Beuys’s fuzzy, absorbent figures made of felt, and Richard Serra’s palaeolithic-looking steel plates.

Although Hayden Herrera’s biography of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is titled Listening to Stone (Thames & Hudson), the materials Noguchi listened to were not only marble, granite and basalt. He also used paper, rubber, wood and – to the disgust of a snobbish dealer – aluminium. Sometimes his forms were uterine and earthy, but his hollow statuettes also illustrated the levity and emptiness of Zen. Herrera is brilliant on the work, and acute about the man – his schizophrenic cultural heritage, his nubile muses and his bossy clients, one of whom, an American socialite, insisted after having cosmetic surgery that he rechisel the nose on his marble portrait bust of her to bring it up to date.

Noguchi sculpted water in a series of monumental fountains; the medium of the video artist Bill Viola is light, and – for instance in the tableaux of martyrdom he installed at St Paul’s Cathedral – he reimagines religious miracles for an unbelieving age. The text in John Hanhardt’s Bill Viola (Thames & Hudson) is clouded by electronic jargon and quotes from fashionable savants, but the images are glorious.

Mystics such as Viola seek to transform the world; artists with a political agenda try to change it, and generally fail. InDiego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit (Yale), Mark Rosenthal describes one such quixotic campaign, when in 1932 the Mexican muralist Rivera was hired to design a “Sistine Chapel of industrialism” for the garden court of a new museum. Rivera thought he could “promote a communist message in a capitalist land”, although police had recently fired tear gas at striking labourers from the local automobile factory. Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, practised subversion in her own way by declaring Americans to be ugly and stupid, or by innocently asking the viciously antisemitic Henry Ford if he happened to be Jewish. The citadel may not have crumbled when Rivera painted on its walls, but his grandiose frescoes have survived, while post-industrial Detroit decays around them.

In Derek Boshier: Rethink/Re-entry (Thames & Hudson), Paul Gorman introduces another ingrate immigrant who, like Rivera, questions American sanctities. Boshier attended the Royal College of Art with David Hockney and they remain friends, although their visions have diverged. Hockney moved to California as a passionate pilgrim, liberated by its paganism. Boshier’s images of Texas cowboys and transsexual LA prostitutes are more sourly satirical, yet he understands, as Rivera didn’t, the futility of his own protests, which diverts the anger in his work into witty frustration. One of his ink drawings assembles a pile of art magazines, presumably full of radical diatribes, and entitles the job lot How to Make Leftwing Jewellery: art, after all is decor, co-opted by the consumer economy it derides.

Giles Waterfield in The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain 1800-1914 (Yale) recalls a time when art, while not wanting to change the world, at least made earnest efforts to improve it. Waterfield’s engaging, anecdotal book about the public galleries of Victorian Britain emphasises their mission to enlighten and uplift a weary, dispirited populace. The worthies who founded these institutions were impelled by a gospel of civic altruism, which Waterfield defends against dreary contemporary assaults on museums as agents of social control and colonial oppression or “mausolea for the vanities of the wealthy”.

It’s a noble story and – now that museums pass themselves off as retail outlets while historic houses left to the nation are “reduced”, as Waterfield remarks with a sniff, “to functioning as wedding venues” – its retelling has a sharply cautionary intent.

by Peter Conrad

Source: The Guardian