Mondrian, 1892–1914: The Path to Abstraction

Mondrian, 1892–1914: The Path to Abstraction

August 18, 2002 to December 8, 2002

The first exhibition devoted to Piet Mondrian’s early career, from his student years in Holland, working as a painter of romantic landscapes, to his emergence as an artist of international renown in cosmopolitan pre-World War I Paris, was on view at the Kimbell Art Museum from August 18 through December 8, 2002. With over 100 paintings and drawings of quietly breathtaking beauty, Mondrian, 1892–1914: The Path to Abstraction revealed how one of the greatest painters of the 20th century evolved towards abstraction while drawing upon pictorial traditions long established in the Netherlands.

The Kimbell Art Museum was the only North American venue for this exhibition, which was organized by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth and was made possible thanks to an exceptional loan from the collection of the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. The guest curators were Hans Janssen, chief curator of the Gemeentemuseum, and Mondrian specialist Joop Joosten.

“Mondrian’s work from the first half of his career, though less well known than his ‘grid paintings,’ has a distinctiveness and unity that is essential to understanding his fully abstract style,” said Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “In works of quiet but compelling beauty, we see Mondrian emerging from a wholly Dutch tradition of landscape painting, absorbing the revolutionary new approaches of Fauvism and Cubism, and then striking out on an equally revolutionary path of his own. This is one of those rare exhibitions that provide an important new perspective on a major figure of modern art, which will be of great interest to scholars while also offering a beautiful experience to art lovers and the general public. It promises to change the way early Mondrian is understood.”

Piet Mondrian is today considered one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, the creator of a new language built on abstraction. Near the end of his life, Mondrian looked back over the works of his early career and remarked: “For me, there is no difference between these early ones and the last ones—they are all a part of the same thing. I do not feel the difference between the old and the new in art as really different, but as a continuity.” This exhibition takes the artist at his word, showing the “pure” abstraction of his well-known grid compositions, with their squares and rectangles of primary color, as a progressive refinement of imagery contained in his early, representational paintings—which in turn developed out of older and particularly Dutch traditions of realism.

Mondrian has always been considered as a stylistic pioneer whose abstract paintings mark a clear and decisive break with the past. Descriptions of his artistic evolution are couched in terms of the “modern,” and certainly he was among the first of those revolutionary 20th-century European painters who challenged the idea that art must imitate nature. However, the severely beautiful works he created as a result, along with his own highly original artistic theories, have tended to obscure all that tied him to the past. Looking at Mondrian’s career as a whole, his work actually shows a strong degree of unity. Its “logic” can be divided into several periods that follow one another with perfect coherence, from the figurative beginnings in the Dutch countryside to the abstract climax in the heart of New York, passing through two long, decisive sojourns in Paris.

The first Parisian period, from 1912 to 1914, allowed Mondrian to make his transition from figurative to abstract Cubism, the outcome of a long process, begun in the 19th century, in which he progressively transformed realistic motifs. As a counterbalance to the narrowly modernist view of Mondrian, in which his abstraction is seen as a complete break with the past, this exhibition presented paintings and drawings that reveal his deep roots in the pictorial traditions of the 19th century and his native Netherlands. It took the reexamination of the early works inspired by the Mondrian retrospective held in The Hague, Washington, and New York in 1994–96 several steps further, drawing upon discoveries published in the late Robert Welsh’s catalogue raisonné of 1998.

When the 20-year-old Mondrian arrived in Amsterdam in 1892, he found himself in a highly conservative artistic environment. Unlike other Dutch cities, especially The Hague and Rotterdam, Amsterdam was still living artistically in the past, in a golden age of realism—a realism that had long been considered the defining feature of Dutch art as a whole. Mondrian spent his formative years in this nationalistic climate and in some ways continued throughout his career to create and think about art within the Dutch realist tradition. Significantly, he was to entitle a retrospective essay about his work “Toward the True Vision of Reality” (1942), affirming “I never painted these things romantically; but from the very beginning, I was always a realist.”

In Amsterdam, Mondrian undertook an exploration of shape, light, and space by means of series representing canals or riverbanks, buildings such as farms, churches, and lighthouses, dune landscapes, trees, and a few images of flowers and figures. He explored different techniques and styles interpreted in his own manner, including Pointillism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. Having discovered Cubism in Amsterdam at the exhibition he organized with the “artistic circle,” he decided to leave his own country to settle in Paris during the winter of 1911–12.

In the French capital, he immediately became part of the circle of Cubist painters. He continued to explore previously worked themes, especially trees and façades of buildings. Looking for structure, rhythm, and balance, he quickly abandoned so-called realistic representation, and composed images with complex patterns of horizontal and vertical lines set in a two-dimensional space, using few colors. He was mostly interested in the relationships between elements. Within two years, following this path, Mondrian reached what we call “abstract art.”

The argument of Mondrian, 1892–1914: The Path to Abstraction was that this new awareness by no means displaced the artist’s concern with realism—as critics have often claimed. His increasing abstraction was not a matter of transcending his experience of the world around him in pursuit of a higher, more spiritual state. It was a matter of rendering reality in purer, simpler form, of finding what he called “a more concise form of expression and an economy of means.” This exhibition traced Mondrian’s journey from naturalistic realism to what might be called abstract realism, to his own “True Vision of Reality.”

A fully illustrated catalogue by Hans Janssen and Joop Joosten was published by Waanders Publishers (Zwolle), the Dutch art book publisher, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris.

A symposium of the exhibition featuring distinguished scholars took place on Saturday, September 28, 2002. The day of lectures will include talks by Hans Janssen, curator of the Gemeentemuseum, Mondrian specialist Joop Joosten, John Elderfield, chief curator at large, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Yve-Alain Bois, Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art, Harvard University.

Promotional support for this exhibition was provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, NBC 5, and La Estrella.