By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When last we saw Piet Mondrian, he was a completely cosmopolitan man. To be sure, we all know the backstory: how Mondrian, the hero of De Stijl, champion of the abstract grid, started out as one more Dutch landscape painter. And plenty of books and courses and even minor exhibitions have made use of Mondrian's early paintings, propping them up alongside middle period (1906-'11) canvases to demonstrate how our hero reduced nature to essential forms, until, by the eve of World War I, Mondrian had distilled the world into a series of black lines.
But the focus of criticism, not to mention museum exhibitions, has long been the mature Mondrian, the high priest of minimalism, the man more responsible for the dominant 20th-century aesthetic than any other, with the possible exception of Duchamp. That Mondrian was the focus of the major 1994-'96 retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art, the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague and New York's Museum of Modern Art. It is as if Mondrian only became interesting after he quit Holland for the cosmopolitan climes of Paris, London and New York. Or, more precisely, as if his work only became interesting then. In part, this is a function of the fact that the definitive catalogue raisonne of Mondrian's work was only published in 1998. Mostly, however, it is because of the tyranny of formalism, that mode of analysis that pooh-poohs the importance of anything extrinsic to the physical properties of a work of art, a highfalutin form of humbug that has dominated--and just about destroyed--art criticism since the '60s.
Praise be unto the Kimbell Art Museum, then, whose new exhibition, Mondrian, 1892-1914: The Path to Abstraction, presents the flip side. A gloriously middlebrow effort, the show--organized by the Musee d'Orsay--focuses on the evolution of the high priest of modernism. In more than 100 canvases and drawings, as well as a fascinating, utterly readable catalog, the Kimbell "analyz[es]...the disparate influences upon [Mondrian]--aesthetic, historical, intellectual and spiritual." The results are remarkable. Not only do we get to enjoy that guiltiest of pleasures, a narrative of historical progression, of artistic development in all its outré, Hegelian glory; we also get to meet a far more interesting painter than the one we already know. For by consigning formalist analysis to the trash heap of jargon whence it belongs, the organizers have managed to telescope much of the story of modernism into the tale of Pieter C. Mondrian Jr., a provincial Dutch painter who became one of the most influential figures in 20th-century art.
The story begins with the 20-year-old Pieter's arrival in Amsterdam. The oldest son born to a solid, middle-class Dutch family, young Pieter determined early on to be an artist. Pieter's practical, Calvinist father disapproved, agreeing to support his son's aspirations only after the son agreed to get his teaching certificate.
Despite the progressive reputation it enjoys today, in 1892, when Pieter enrolled at the National Academy of Fine Arts, Amsterdam was an artistic backwater. Deeply and utterly conventional, the Dutch were quite proud of their own painting traditions, especially those from the 17th century, Holland's golden age of painting. Innovations were frowned upon, and when it came to foreign art, the Dutch were quite xenophobic. At the National Academy, young Pieter was instructed in still life and potraiture; even landscape painting was forbidden. He was steeped in the traditions of Dutch realism, in the romantic notion that truth was beauty and vice versa, that God could be found by observing and understanding nature. Thus, from the beginning, painting was for Mondrian a spiritual quest, inextricably linked to religion, philosophy and his study of "aesthetics," a subject in which Mondrian excelled.
Drawn to innovation, the young Mondrian began his own lifelong, obsessive search for truth by painting landscapes en plein air. The Kimbell's show contains many of these early efforts, in which, like a magpie, Mondrian apes and rejects a succession of styles. Even these early works, however, display many of the themes that run through Mondrian's mature work: a search for coherence, pictorial unity, order, harmony and concision. We see the young artist copy nature, then reduce it to the barest elements--lines, forms, blocks of color--in a compulsive search for the essence of things, for "truth." Before long, he begins working in cycles, rendering a motif again and again in different conditions, through the veil of twilight, of fog, of night. Along the way, he experiments with pictorial languages, with different means of shorthand; here he uses Cézannesque flattened blocks of color, there Munchish or art-nouveau twisting lines.
If the exhibition has a weakness, it is a certain inconsistency in analyzing questions of influence. For just one example, some of the earliest canvases in the Kimbell's show, like "Farmhouse With Clothesline" and "Country Road and Row of Houses," show a remarkable affinity with Cézanne. Like the Frenchman, early on Mondrian saw color rather than line as the arbiter of form, geometry as the basic unit of expression and laws of perspective as strictly optional. A year or two later, Mondrian exhibits curiously Munch-like development, although the show's organizers say Mondrian could not possibly have known the Norwegian's work.