Art: Wednesday, August 29, 2002
Mondrian, 1892-1914:The Path to Abstraction
Thru Dec. 8 at Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW. 817-332-8451.
Messy Muse

No one — including Mondrian — knew what inspired his latter-day, modern work.


Never trust what an artist says about his work — unless it concerns what type of paint he uses or where he buys his canvases. Pinpointing the sources of inspiration is a fool’s game. Art, even in its most photorealistic form, is the subconscious laid bare. Why can’t we just let something like the mystery of artistic creation and growth remain mysterious?

Everybody and his mother has a theory of how Piet Mondrian went from talented landscape artist to talented abstract genius over the course of about 20 years — including Mondrian. Even as he began to experiment with abstracted forms in the early 1900s in Paris, the native Dutchman still saw himself as a “realist” but of a different kind. Instead of putting down on canvas every knothole of the slender trees of Oele, Mondrian was now painting what he saw as the very real ideas of, say, randomness or even aspiration as represented by trees. The connection between “tree” as three-dimensional object and as metaphor for natural phenomena makes a kind of cheesy poetic sense — but was Mondrian really that simple-minded?

You would think so, at least by Mondrian’s writings and by the attitude of the group behind Mondrian: 1892-1914: The Path to Abstraction, which is now on view at the Kimbell Art Museum. The exhibit, an impressive collection of pre-abstract pieces on loan from the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, debuted at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris earlier this year. The curators — Hans Janssen, chief curator at the Gemeentemuseum, and Joop Joosten, co-author with Robert Welsh of the Mondrian catalogue raisonné of 1998 — have chosen to exhibit these works chronologically, so that the master’s metamorphosis looks obvious, natural.

Truth is, this so-called path to abstraction was circuitous. Maybe I’m a romantic, but I’d like to think abstract art chose him, instead of the other way around.

It’s impossible to overstate the role Mondrian played in shaping modernism, which would dominate the West for decades. It borders on fawning, however, for curators to imply— even in the slightest, breeziest language — that the artist intended to spearhead such an important change.

Trained professionally at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam from 1892 to 1894, Mondrian worked for a long while in the traditional Dutch style: lots of moody landscapes, bodies of water, and plain folk at work; lots of deep, earthy hues; lots of smooth brushwork.

Then from about 1908 to 1911 came a strange period that the curators interpret as a bridge between his realist beginnings and his abstract endings. During this time, Mondrian often visited the coastal city of Domburg, in the region of Zeeland; here, he began experimenting in neutral colors with line and form, and getting at the essences of things as opposed to neatly re-creating painterly images. By the end of this period, the unabashed use of brilliant color had come to dominate nearly everything the artist produced on canvas.

Part of that change probably has to do with the influences that were seeping into Mondrian’s life from the rest of the art world, which was high on post-impressionism and wildly colorful Fauvism. Undoubtedly Mondrian was beginning to realize the shortcomings of traditional realism as a means of getting at his ideas of “truth.” But to say Mondrian’s Domburg period work is somehow a halfway point between his Hague School paintings and his abstract pieces is to impose a tidy artificial narrative on what is obviously a messy story. More likely, this period was one in which the artist was trying to find his voice and failing. But, oh, what reward for failure!

“Mill” (1910) could be mistaken for a logo for an energy company — or for a movie about Don Quixote. On a rich blue background, the striking red silhouette of a windmill, its blades forming an “X” at the top of the structure, dominates the huge frame. Where the blades intersect is a purple square. A small, crudely shaped window in the middle of the windmill’s tower glows a luminous green, and the viewer’s entire perspective is of a meager creature, looking skyward. “Mill” could be seen as an episode of Mondrian’s ongoing search for artistic truth, which during this period seems to him to have meant “logic.” The mostly neat shapes speak of order and control in a world in which no one knows which way the wind blows, and the colors are sinisterly synthetic-looking. Trés moderne, Piet.

Other works from this time are equally Fauvistic and groovy in a Day-Glo kinda way. “Devotion” is all white-heat and thick, upward-moving brushwork, while the “Evolution” triptych — each vertical panel is of a blue-skinned woman — could be a contemporary comic book artist’s magnum opus. You’ve probably never seen such intoxicating color as in “Mill in Sunlight,” an impressionistic and almost pointillistic excursion in yellows, oranges, and reds.

By the time Mondrian had progressed to painting purely geometric shapes, the idea of modernism — a reflection of the 19th century’s industrial growth — was already bubbling up throughout the West, primarily in literature. The postmodern, or anti-modern, thing to do when viewing this show would be to forget all about the meta-narrative behind Mondrian and concentrate on the beautiful paintings.

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