Piet Mondrian: 10 things to know about the pioneering modernist
An abstract artist whose work was rooted in the language of landscape, Mondrian pared back his canvases to convey only essential forms — a process which, he said, was ‘not the creation of another reality, but the true vision of reality’
In September 1940, with Europe ravaged by war, Piet Mondrian boarded a Cunard ocean liner in Liverpool, bound for New York City. The ship formed part of a convoy that travelled with all the lights off at night. It lost five vessels to German U-boat attacks en route.
Mondrian himself made it across the Atlantic unscathed. Now in his late sixties, he would see out the final few years of his life in New York — and leave behind a legacy as one of abstraction’s great pioneers.
Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan was born in the town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands in 1872 (he would drop the second ‘a’ from his surname in later life, as a way of distancing himself from his Dutch roots).
His father was the headmaster of a Calvinist primary school. His uncle, Frits, was a landscape painter, and gave him his first instruction in art. Aged 20, Pieter moved to Amsterdam to study painting at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, where he received a classical training. ‘I began like anybody else,’ he recalled years later.
After graduation, he took a job drawing bacteria under a microscope for scientific researchers at Leiden University.
Mondrian’s early works were landscapes in the Hague School tradition: that is, broadly naturalistic scenes of the Dutch countryside, characterised by their subdued colour and muted light. He particularly liked to paint windmills on and near the Gein, a small waterway outside Amsterdam.
It’s worth noting that Mondrian was never a commercially successful artist. For much of his long career, he produced watercolours of flowers as a sideline to support himself.
According to his biographer, Hans Janssen — writing in Piet Mondrian: A Life (2022) — even in the 1920s, at the peak of his powers, ‘his lack of success gave him severe doubts’. At different moments, Mondrian toyed with the idea of becoming a church minister and an olive picker.
He only ever had one dedicated collector: Salomon Slijper, a Dutch real estate developer. Slijper acquired work mostly made before the end of the First World War and, on his death in 1971, bequeathed it all to the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Numbering almost 300 pieces, that museum’s Mondrian collection is today the largest in the world.
The end of the first decade of the 20th century was a noteworthy time for Mondrian. He was in his mid-to-late thirties — and now, finally, after many years’ toil, he was beginning to create art that might be called progressive.
Fauvism, Pointillism, Luminism and Vincent van Gogh all proved sources of inspiration — as can be seen in a painting such as 1908’s Windmill in Sunlight (part of Slijper’s bequest to the Kunstmuseum Den Haag).
In these years, Mondrian also paid regular visits to Domburg, a coastal town in the province of Zeeland. He produced numerous paintings of its seaside, sand dunes and piers. His palette had grown markedly lighter and more colourful than before, his brushwork sketchier and more spontaneous, and there was a definite move away from naturalism towards abstraction.
Another influence on Mondrian at this time was theosophy, a belief system newly established by the Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky, according to which the material world is but a part of a higher spiritual cosmos. The artist joined the Theosophical Society in 1909.
Late in 1911, Mondrian broke up with his fiancée, Greta. He left Amsterdam for Paris shortly afterwards (and never married). Once settled in the French capital, he became an adherent of Cubism, the style recently pioneered by Picasso and Georges Braque.
Mondrian’s Cubist work tended to be more abstract than that of the founding duo. His subject (often a tree) is commonly unrecognisable, reduced to interlocking black lines and planes of colour.
In the summer of 1914, Mondrian returned to his homeland to visit his sick father, only for the outbreak of the First World War to prevent him from heading back to Paris again for several years.
In 1917, Mondrian and three of his compatriots — Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck and Vilmos Huszár — founded the art periodical and movement De Stijl. They rejected depictions of the world they saw around them, advocating instead a visual language shrunk to the bare essentials of form and colour. This meant orthogonal shapes (rectangles and squares) painted in the primary colours supplemented by black, white or grey.
De Stijl is sometimes seen as a response to the First World War — as the search for a new type of art rooted in a basic harmony which mankind would have done well to adopt. Van Doesburg himself said he hoped the style might ‘develop forces of sufficient strength to enable it to influence all culture’.
Mondrian quit De Stijl in the mid-1920s after a fall-out with Van Doesburg, but would retain an adherence to geometric abstraction for the rest of his career.
Mondrian moved back to Paris after the First World War and stayed there for the better part of two decades. He tends to be remembered today as an austere character, but in fact he was a keen lover of music, especially jazz, and enjoyed dancing.
According to Janssen, Mondrian told the Dutch press in 1926 that he refused to return to the Netherlands until a national ban on the Charleston (a dance deemed overly sensual by the authorities) was lifted.
The years Mondrian spent in Paris between the wars were also when he produced his most famous work. Refining his previous practice, he now hit upon a signature style: grid paintings consisting of horizontal and vertical black lines, which created rectangles and squares that he filled with passages of a primary colour, white or grey.
With his canvases of the 1920s and 1930s, Mondrian dedicated himself to the pursuit of balance, rhythm and economy. Each work featured minor variations in the choice and shade of the colours; the thickness of the black lines; and the size and shape of the geometrical grids.
‘The position of the artist is humble,’ he once said. ‘He is, essentially, a channel.’ Such words might be interpreted in the context of theosophy, as a claim that good art merely reflects the immutable laws of reality and divine truth. However, one shouldn’t underestimate Mondrian’s own talents: his grid paintings are among the most iconic artworks of the 20th century.
In 1937, two pieces by Mondrian were included in the Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) exhibition in Munich. Organised by the Nazi regime, this was a vast show of modern art, all of which was deemed morally and aesthetically inappropriate for the citizens of the new German Reich. A year later, Mondrian thought it wise to leave the European mainland for the relative safety of London.
He moved to the suburb of Hampstead, a few doors down from Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. When the Blitz (the German bombing campaign against Britain) started in the summer of 1940, however, he embarked on the perilous journey to the US.
Time didn’t allow Mondrian to produce much work there, but his art in New York is characterised by a greater sense of freedom than before. He dispensed with black lines, for example, creating grids out of coloured bands instead — as can be seen in paintings such as New York City, from 1942. He also began experimenting with adhesive tape, applying it to his canvases and painting over it.
Mondrian died from pneumonia in 1944, aged 71.
Fifteen works by Mondrian have fetched more than $5 million at auction since 2000. All but two of these were painted in his golden period, the 1920s and 1930s.
‘Every man on the street recognises those grid paintings as Mondrians,’ says Arno Verkade, managing director of Christie’s Germany and the Netherlands. ‘They have a universal recognition as canonical works of modern art. In their beautiful simplicity, they also have a universal appeal, no matter where you’re from. Which is why I think there’s still room for plenty of growth in the market.’
Six of the 10 highest prices paid for works by Mondrian at auction have come in the past decade: a sign of a market continuing to rise.
Verkade adds that there’s no shortage of grid paintings in private hands, so sales should keep happening with reasonable frequency. Broadly speaking, the most valuable works will have the ‘right’ colours — especially the reds, blues and yellows.
Verkade stresses, however, that a more important factor determining price is the condition of the paint. ‘Mondrian built up his colours layer by layer, revising and adjusting as he went along. The passage of time has meant that, in some cases, the paint now shows cracks — something which detracts from the visual effect and, as a result, can negatively affect its value.’
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What of the works from other periods of the artist’s career? ‘Given their local subject matter, the paintings from before 1907 tend to be of particular interest to Dutch collectors, though they also occasionally attract international buyers,’ says Verkade.
‘In many ways the most interesting work is that which he made in the few years after 1907, as he shifted from realism to abstraction. Paintings from that crucial period are almost all in public institutions. But the day one appears at auction again will be a day to get excited!’