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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