A Fuller Picture of Piet Mondrian

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A Fuller Picture of Piet Mondrian

Two of the great European modernist painters, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, have very full biographies. Thanks to John Richardson and Hilary Spurling, we now have extensive documentation of their lives, exhibitions, and economic affairs. Now it’s Piet Mondrian’s — the third great modernist — turn in the limelight.

It would have been surprising, at the time of his death, to place him alongside these two rivals. Mondrian had never been as famous, nor remotely as commercially successful. As Clement Greenberg noted in a review of Michel Seuphor’s Piet Mondrian: Life and work “one still gives something of a start, recognizing Mondrian’s greatness,” because his visual concerns were comparatively narrow. But in some ways, American 21st-century art owes as much to Mondrian as it does to Picasso or Matisse. 

In a biography of Piet Mondrian by curator Hans Janssen, the chapters are presented out of chronological order. Admitting in the book that “I am not entirely certain why I chose th(at) structure,” he suggests that this may be a way of avoiding any suggestion that Mondrian’s artistic development is chronological. While I appreciate the attempt to avoid a developmental account, this arrangement is unwieldy. 

Piet Mondrian in his studio, 1942 (photo by Fritz Glarner, courtesy Kunsthaus Zürich, Fritz Glarner Archiv)

In order to bring Mondrian to life, so Janssen says, the author creates what he admits are fictional dialogues, every word of which is sourced from Mondrian’s writing or letters. Sometimes, he admits, he has “deliberately fleshed out and colored events in a way that resembles a novel in the hope of drawing a clearer picture of the artist.” He presents, for example, a very detailed account of a walk taken by Mondrian in 1906. He looks at details of the Dutch landscape and is led to recall how much earlier, a teacher taught him about Kant and Schopenhauer so that “the materiality of the world before him . . . acquired something immaterial, which was pure of the spirit and of experience.” As the former chief curator at Kunstmuseum Den Haag, the museum which has the largest collection of Mondrian’s works, Janssen is, no questions asked, very familiar with his subject. Still, these interior monologues are uncanny, for no reader now can judge if they are true.  

Piet Mondrian: A Life (2022) gives a very good picture of the artist’s life. We learn, contrary to what earlier biographers claimed, that he was sociable. Never prosperous, he lived from the sale of his art, which often created financial uncertainties. He embraced life in the modern city, taking a real interest in contemporary fashion. The book also explains that in both Paris and Manhattan, Mondrian was inspired by the dance and jazz of African-American performers. Janssen traces Mondrian’s migrations between the Netherlands, Paris, London, and New York. We learn about his terrifying cross-Atlantic journey amid U-boat submarine attacks in 1940, and how he found safe refuge in New York where he responded to the novel and stimulating city. 

Piet Mondrian in his studio, sometime between June–October 1942. (image courtesy the National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC)

It is amazing to consider how Mondrian’s laborious work yielded such lucid pictures, and how a man who could never afford to marry never succumbed to loneliness or cynical despair. This book gives a convincing portrait of a generous, amazingly self-sufficient artist who valued his independence. It tells about his friendships with many art-world women and men, and the dialogue that this made possible. Basically apolitical, Mondrian was astute enough to see that both National Socialism and Soviet communism were enemies of Modernism. Until the end of his life, Mondrian remained an optimist. It’s apt that his last painting was titled “Victory Boogie Woogie” (1942–44).

The book succeeds in providing a great deal of new information about Mondrian’s everyday life, his relationships with his contemporaries, and the reception of his art. Even allowing for the problems with Janssen’s speculations, we get a plausible picture of the artist’s everyday life. But what’s missing is any explanation of how he found the basis for a radically original form of abstraction in Cubism. Compared with Picasso or Matisse, he was a very slow developer. Had Mondrian died in 1912 when he was 40, he would be remembered just as a minor Dutch landscape painter. But when he then enlarged the cubist planes and painted them in flat blues, reds, and yellows, bounded by thick black lines, he created non-figurative pictures. At least this is how his career can be understood in retrospect. But of course, it was more complicated than that because his visual thinking was not programmatic, but rather intuitive, which prolonged his development as an artist. And so the ultimate limitation of this book lies not in the eccentric form of its narrative, but in its refusal to link the story of Mondrian’s life to these art historical puzzles.  

Piet Mondrian. A life (2022) by Hans Janssen is published by Ridinghouse and is available online and in independent bookstores.

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