Pure Spirit

The Kimbell captures Mondrian's quest to reduce the world to its essence

The riddle of whether identical cultural developments can spring up in disparate places completely independent of one another is, of course, a nature-vs.-nurture debate more often addressed in anthropological journals than art-historical ones. Nevertheless, it is a koan that arises time and again in Mondrian's career. At times, the organizers of this exhibition seem to reject the Connecticut-Yankee-in-King-Arthur's-Court theory of artistic influence, arguing that Mondrian had an abiding, traditionally Dutch fear of outside influences. In other places, they freely speculate Mondrian was or could have been exposed to foreign artistic trends. They argue that Mondrian embraced Symbolism but at the same time rejected Impressionism, since he was not seeking truth as the artist's eye sees it, but truth as the artist's soul comprehends it--a distinction that, in some canvases, seems stylistically insupportable.

The answer may be, in part, that such stylistic similarities sprang from common currents of thought. In this regard, the exhibition seems at times to underplay the importance of Mondrian's rather dotty allegiance to Theosophy. For Mondrian, as for many early modernists, art was religion, and like many artistic and spiritual seekers around the fin de siecle, Mondrian fell under the spell of Theosophy, a mystical brand of folderol that held that one day the material world would dissolve into its spiritual "essence." It fit neatly with the aesthetic in which Mondrian had been inculcated, and like a number of pioneers of abstraction--Kandinsky comes most notably to mind--Mondrian spent much of his life trying to depict the Theosophical ideal in visual language.

Mondrian's career could thus be used as exhibit A in arguing that great visual innovations do not necessarily rest on grand philosophical notions. Naturally, the show's organizers aren't touching that one, parroting instead Piet's conceit that "clarity of thought should be accompanied by clarity of technique." Maybe so, but the converse would be nice, too--and it's here that ol' Piet had his problems. The canvases in which Mondrian overtly sets out to illustrate Deep Theosphical Thoughts, efforts like "Devotion" (1908) and the "Evolution" triptych (1910), are in fact among his most wretched. After viewing the show, one surmises that Mondrian's greatest innovations, as well as his most brilliant spurts of creative energy, came mostly by way of responses to painting traditions, or in response to the plastic innovations of others. And it is the ceaseless innovation, the sheer visual inventiveness of Mondrian's oeuvre, that gives the paintings such stunning visual presence.

"The Red Cloud, 1907," one of Piet Mondrian's pivotal canvases, now on view at the Kimbell
"The Red Cloud, 1907," one of Piet Mondrian's pivotal canvases, now on view at the Kimbell

Mondrian's lifelong quest to reduce the real world into pure spirit was but one source of this drive to innovate. Unfortunately, it was a goal that ultimately betrayed him. This is the paradox of Mondrian's great achievement, the reduction of the physical world into the modernist grid. Through the reduction of all to the grid, Mondrian's painting may have achieved a sort of universality, but this union with the absolute is evidenced by a mystical shorthand, ironically understandable only to the artist. The only thing mere mortals can see is the painted surface, formulaic, self-contained and self-referential. The paintings become a mirror for the viewer's projections, and worst of all, an excuse for generations of eggheads to churn out faux profundity. And as suggested by Mondrian's "Compositions," the final painting in the Kimbell's show, when Piet becomes one with the universe, less is demonstrably a bore.

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