Mondrian Evolution / Retrospective at Fondation Beyeler

Fondation Beyeler’s summer exhibition in Riehen (Basel, Switzerland) is dedicated to Piet Mondrian, one of the most famous artists of Modern Art. Titled “Mondrian Evolution”, the exhibition shows his way from landscape painter to pioneer of abstract art. Mondrian not only influenced the course of abstract art such as Color Field painting, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, but also design, architecture and fashion (e.g. Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s Fall 1965 Mondrian collection).

“Mondrian Evolution” at Fondation Beyeler marks the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The exhibition looks at Mondrian’s development as an artist up to the 1920s and the stylistic genesis of his later work. Separate sections deal with motifs such as windmills, dunes and seascapes, the farmstead reflected in water and plants in various states of abstraction. “Mondrian Evolution” at Fondation Beyeler runs until October 9, 2022.

Mondrian Evolution / Retrospective at Fondation Beyeler. Riehen (Basel, Switzerland), June 3, 2022.

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Exhibition text (excerpt):

Marking the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth, the Fondation Beyeler devotes a comprehensive exhibition to the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), bringing together works from its own collection and major international loans. As one of the most significant and multifaceted artists of the avant-garde, Mondrian decisively shaped the evolution of painting from figuration to abstraction. With 89 works from private and public collections in Europe and the United States, “Mondrian Evolution” tracks the artist’s striking development from 19th-century landscape painter to one of modern art’s leading protagonists. The exhibition provides a rare opportunity to take a fresh look at Mondrian, who not only significantly influenced 20th century art, but also other fields such as design, architecture, fashion and pop culture. It is the first solo exhibition devoted to the artist in Switzerland in 50 years.

While the Fondation Beyeler’s collection mainly features works from Mondrian’s later periods, the exhibition looks primarily at the development of Mondrian’s early work. Piet Mondrian was initially influenced by late 19th-century Dutch landscape painting, but Symbolism and Cubism also played a major role in his artistic development. It was only in the early 1920s that he shifted to a wholly non-representational pictorial idiom consisting solely of rectilinear arrangements of black lines and areas of white and the three primary colours blue, red and yellow. Mondrian’s abstract paintings are the outcome of a long process of wrestling between intuition and precision, as well as unceasing, intense self-questioning. He viewed abstraction as a process of closing in on absolute truth and beauty, which he strove for as an artist. Mondrian’s stylistic versatility derived from his ongoing quest for the unity and the very essence of the image. He used the term “evolution” himself – not, however, in the sense of Charles Darwin. For Mondrian, “evolution” meant the accumulation of experiences, on which a new phase of artistic development could build, in turn leading to further insights.

The exhibition is largely chronological, yet it draws its vividness from the confrontation of early and late works, which brings to light the transformative forces at play in Mondrian’s work. Across nine rooms, viewers encounter recurring motifs such as windmills, dunes, the sea, farmhouses reflected in water and plants in various states of abstraction. In his landscapes, Piet Mondrian experimented with the radiance and explosiveness of colour, lending these paintings their distinctly bright and vibrant aspect, as well as with the influence of light and the experience of space, surface, structure and reflections.

Mill in Sunlight, painted in 1908, at the time caused an uproar among contemporary critics on account of its explosion of colours and sketchy painting technique. The exhibition also features the atmospheric work The Red Cloud, 1907, which captures the magical and fleeting moment in which the low sun turns a cloud a luminous red whereas the landscape and the sky still appear a radiant blue. The painting belongs to a group of works that Mondrian painted at dusk, when colours and colour combinations undergo intense change. In the self-portraits he drew in 1908, Mondrian also represented himself at twilight, his pupils wide open and receptive even to the smallest shift in shade brought about by the light. Mondrian’s large-scale painting Woods near Oele, 1908, on loan from the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, shows a view toward the sun above the horizon. The staggered tree stems, appearing red or purple against the light, create the illusion of spatiality.

Following the colour explosions of the years 1907 to 1911, Mondrian, inspired by his encounter with Cubism in Paris, reverted to less radiant colours. Greys and ochres now set the tone of the paintings and the line as such became increasingly important. Mondrian continued his investigation of themes such as abstraction. The metamorphosis in his depictions of trees is particularly striking and makes it possible to trace the reasoning behind his artistic quest. The experience of these images allowed Mondrian to fully leave figuration behind. Composition No. IX, 1913, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is an arrangement of interlocking shapes largely defined by right angles.

New York City 1 is the most recent work in the exhibition and belongs to a small group of paintings created around 1941. Its constellation is reminiscent of Woods near Oele, 1908 but this later composition bears no relation whatsoever to an actual landscape and is “purely abstract”. The painting is unfinished and provides an important testimony of the way Mondrian worked in the last years of his life. In New York, he had begun to reconfigure his pictures, using paper strips to make them more dynamic and rhythmical. Coloured surfaces gave way to coloured lines.

Born in 1872 in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, Mondrian came into contact with art from a young age: his father was a drawing teacher, his uncle a successful amateur painter influenced by the Hague School of landscape painting, a specifically Dutch form of Impressionism. After a Calvinist upbringing and training as a drawing instructor, between 1892 and 1895 Mondrian studied at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. He kept working as a drawing teacher, painted portraits on commission and produced scientific drawings for Leiden University. All the while, he also pursued his artistic ambitions and rapidly developed his own painting style. Most of the works from this period, which mainly feature windmills, rivers and farmhouses, still display the influence of the Hague School. From there, Mondrian single-mindedly widened the scope of his artistic possibilities.

Mondrian’s art is closely connected to his interest in philosophy and esotericism. Starting in 1908, he immersed himself in Theosophy; influenced by the writings of Rudolf Steiner – at the time still a Theosophist – he joined the Dutch branch of the Theosophical Society in 1909. Mondrian’s encounter with Cubism led to a first stay in Paris in late 1911, lasting until 1914 when the outbreak of World War I prevented him from returning there. In 1919, he moved to Paris for good.

After World War I, many artists strove for a radical cultural new beginning. In the Netherlands, a group of like-minded avant-garde artists came together and in 1917 began publishing the journal De Stijl. Mondrian formulated the group’s ambition to destroy traditions in order to reconfigure all aspects of life on the basis of the essential elements of art as he saw them.

Mondrian attempted to expound his artistic programme in theoretical essays. He named his new painterly mode of expression “Neoplasticism”. Above all, Mondrian conceived “Neoplasticism” as focussing on painting’s essential means of expression: on the one hand, black and white, located at opposite ends of the colour scale. On the other hand, the primary colours yellow, red and blue. As a rule, black is the colour of the lines that run vertically and horizontally, meeting at a right angle. The interplay of these elements gives rise to infinite possibilities of pictorial composition. Mondrian was concerned with the essential picture, the creation of perfect yet suspenseful balance, in which all elements appear to take their rightful place.

Mondrian spent the last 25 years of his life in the three cultural metropolises of the modern age: Paris, London and New York. From late 1911 to 1938, with an interruption due to World War I, he lived in Paris. After a few intermediate years in London, in 1940 he moved to New York where he died in 1944 aged 71. As a member of the Theosophical Society, Mondrian attached great importance to internationality. From the 1920s, Mondrian became a celebrity as an avant-garde artist and a co-founder of abstract painting. His studios became legendary and highly inspiring places, especially for younger artists such as Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner.

Complementing the exhibition, the Fondation Beyeler will screen “Piet & Mondrian”, a short film by Lars Kraume, one of the most renowned German-language film directors. The film takes as its starting point Piet Mondrian’s 1919/1920 essay in dialogue form Natural Reality and Abstract Reality, in which the artist formulated his thoughts and considerations on abstraction in art. The renowned German theatre and film actor Lars Eidinger brings to life Mondrian’s theoretical text. “Piet & Mondrian” was produced by Felix von Boehm / Lupa Film with funding from Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. The screenplay is by Constantin Lieb.

“Mondrian Evolution” is organised by the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, in cooperation with the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. The exhibition is curated by Ulf Küster, Senior Curator, Fondation Beyeler, Kathrin Beßen and Susanne Meyer-Büser, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.

The exhibition catalogue was designed by world-renowned graphic designer Irma Boom, who over the past years has explored anew the infinite possibilities of the book. The catalogue is published in German and in English by Hatje Cantz Verlag, Berlin. On 264 pages, it brings together essays by Benno Tempel, Caro Verbeek, Ulf Küster, Kathrin Beßen, Susanne Meyer-Büser, Charlotte Sarrazin and artist Bridget Riley, with a foreword by Sam Keller and Ulf Küster. On the occasion of the exhibition, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Berlin also publishes Mondrian A-Z: in this entertaining text, Ulf Küster alphabetically explores the themes and topics that interested Mondrian, providing insights into his thought process and emotions.

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