Pure Spirit

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

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 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

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.

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.

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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