Undoubtedly, this is Kertész's most famous photograph and may be one of the best known and most widely reproduced images in 20th century photography. As part of the series of photographs Kertész made of Mondrian and his environment, Chez Mondrian seems to have captured not only the essence of the painter's physical surroundings but the photographer's newly developed sense of alternative portraiture. Prior to meeting Mondrian, Kertész's work was characterized by a keen eye for genre scenes - not as a mere recorder of events but as a humanist interested in how and where people led their lives. In Of Paris and New York, Dr. Sandra Phillips, Curator of Photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, proposes that "Occuring less than a year after his arrival, this contact with the most important figure in abstract painting in Paris set Kertész on a new course. We suddenly find a great number of enthusiastic experiments. His work became more formalist, more sensitive to planar tensions and geometric structure... But his personality was never dominated by the ideas of others, for his eye has always been primarily responsive to the human aspect of what he sees" (op. cit., p. 31).
In June 1926 Kertész was introduced to Mondrian by Michel Seuphor, who accompanied him to Mondrian's home and studio the day he made this fortuitous study. Kertész recalled the artificial flower in the vase as a seemingly incongruous decoration, painted to match the studio (Naef, p. 42) and that the straw hat belonged to Seuphor (Of Paris and New York, cat. no. 22, p. 261). (This may not explain, however, why Mondrian appears to be wearing the same hat in Kertész's document After the Soirée [lot 206] and Seuphor goes bare-headed.)
Chez Mondrian was located at 26, rue du Départ, overlooking the tracks of the Gare Montparnasse. This was Mondrian's address in Paris for nearly the entire time he lived there, both before World War I and then again from 1921 until 1936. The third floor studio was famous for its sparseness and its clear reflection of the painter's aesthetics and mature period. Many people photographed it, including Seuphor (see: Seuphor, Piet Mondrian: Life and Work, pp. 31-2; Blotkamp, Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, fig. 114, p.154; fig. 118, p. 156). Seuphor mentions the presence of the surrogate flower again in his Life and Work: "I want to call attention to the fact that I never saw the slightest trace of a living flower in Mondrian's studio. But, in a round vase on a hall table close to the door, there was always the single artificial tulip I mentioned before. An artificial leaf which went with it was painted white by Mondrian to banish entirely from his studio any recollection of the green he found so intolerable." (op. cit., p. 160). None however, seemed to distill the quiet elegance and personal meaning of the painter's surroundings into as allegorical a study as Chez Mondrian.
Later prints of this image abound but examples dating from the period are scarce. There are approximately nine vintage prints known including the lot offered here, either on carte postale or as enlargements. Among these are prints in the following collections: The Art Institute of Chicago, Julien Levy Collection (on carte postale and mounted to vellum); the J. Paul Getty Museum (on carte postale, unmounted); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (carte postale, ex-collection Piet Mondrian); Thomas Walther, New York (on carte postale, unmounted); one in a Private Collection (carte postale, unmounted); another Private Collection, assumed American, sold by the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, Santa Monica, Calif., 1991 (carte postale, unmounted); and an unmounted, unsigned enlargement.