(Berlin.) Martin-Gropius-Bau’s latest exhibition will confound all those who knew Piet Mondrian only as de Stijl-ish master of sparsely coloured lines and squares. Co-organized with Gemeentemuseum of Den Haag, Piet Mondrian. The Line tracks the Dutchman’s development from student to canonical - from a.m. to P.M. as we’re tempted to say.
In hindsight, his career, and the evolution of his art, seem logical. The very first work on show, a representational self portrait of 1918, has abstract rectangles surrounding Mondrian’s head, seeming to prove that lines and forms were always on his mind, geometrics never more than a glance away and constantly pressing forth through his perception of the world.
To further their theory, the curators go back right to the beginnings.
Piet Mondrian is quoted with the words, “from the first instant, I was always and only a realist”; a surprising statement given the many styles he experimented with and that we are invited to discover here – “Impressionism by Mondrian” is a term you were probably not prepared to hear. Those works painted while studying in Amsterdam at the fin de siècle may be fascinating for fans, but on the other hand every artist does a lot of different stuff in school... After graduation, Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan still struggled to find his style; the Summer Night of 1906/07 features a somehow van Goghy sun, and experiments in Pointillism (Church at Oostkapelle, 1909) were soon abandoned. Trees on the Gein: Moonrise (1907) is shown side-by-side with a preparatory drawing, and the comparison is fun: The (still monochrome) drawing features true-to-life trees, dreamy, curvy and storm bent, under the sun a simple circle that could almost reappear in Mondrian’s abstractions of many years later. In the final version painting on the contrary, the trees have lost all life and character, are reduced to ink stains like a Rorschach test pattern. And the sun? Realist, breathing out the day’s last heat.
The Oostzuider Windmill at Night (1907-08) is remarkable for its “construction plan” being evident behind the image with almost visible lines marking the different sections. The same can be said of a Great Landscape of 1907/08. It seems to hint the direction for the following years, leading eventually to the unique patterns he should become most famous for.
Next, the show is interrupted by a film documentary on the artist’s life, most memorable of which is one more quote: “When I finish a work, there’s only one moment of satisfaction, and the pressure is back.” Mondrian more and more dissected the world to cut it back into its basic forms, and this search for underlying lines might appear maniac, bordering on the pathologic.
Going with the time, his Large Nude of 1912 is a relative of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and in 1914, he openly referenced Cubism with the letters “KUB” in Composition in Oval with Colour Fields 2. Even if at this point, Mondrian still portrayed real life observation - in this case an advertising board turned into Cubist compound eye perspective - his work was increasingly about reducing the world to lines and cubes, to show the pixels behind as one might say today. But Cubism was still not clean enough for him, in this painting as well as in Church Front 1 Composition at Domburg the outer circle was more important than the inner forms. More and more basic patterns break through, and it’s all about reducing the world to lines and squares. The chaos of Painting No 4, 1913 gets replaced by the sobriety of the Mosaic-like Composition No 3 with Small Colour Fields, 1917 and Grid Composition 2, 1919. Mondrian definitely had a geometric mind, eager to tidy up the world and bring it in line up to a point where it would vanish in pure form.
Finally, it’s the ‘20s, and finally that’s our Piet as we know and love him. The pure rhythm of numbered Compositions in white, black and red in all prosaic formality still frees eyes and mind of all ballast, a regimen for the soul. There are six of them, and to say knowing one is knowing all would be utterly beside the point.
Then, having spent about half an hour at Martin-Gropius-Bau, it’s all over. That's it, nothing more to see, and suddenly you understand why there were that many visitors cramped into the screening room. Returning the same way, you too lean against the wall and watch if not all than much of the documentary. At least it gives you the feeling of getting something more for your money. But let’s put it straight: This is a small exhibition, and half of it shows a young artist's/student’s work long before he found the style that made him stand out. If this would be the bonus to a main event, a visit for half the price, we'd be fine with it.
But at eleven Euros, it smells of a rip-off.
Piet Mondrian. The Line, 04. September-06 December 2015, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin