“Harmony is never a symmetry”: the curator of the Fondation Beyeler’s Mondrian exhibition on what made the artist vibrate

Piet Mondrian – the Dutch painter synonymous with rigidly gridded abstractions– never used a ruler, it turns out.

It was one of many revelations underlined by the restorers of the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, who have concluded a multi-year program research project which preceded a retrospective by the famous artist, which is on view until October.

Mondrian “made marks around the edges, then very slowly painted those lines. They look precise but they are based on intuition,” said Ulf Kuster, who curated the exhibit. For the Dutch artist, painting was a “long process of looking, composing, erasing”, explains the curator.

The neo-plastician’s greatest hits abound with myriad right angles and intersecting lines, so it’s hard to believe he didn’t use help. But Mondrian’s reluctance to use a ruler says more about his dogmatic — and often arduous — approach to art, Kuster pointed out.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with yellow and blue (1932). © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel.

“I really learned that [Mondrian] was a painter who was always in control of what he was doing,” the curator said of his experience working on the exhibit. “I hadn’t realized how laborious this painting process must have been for him and how much he looked at things and how much he thought about the painting.”

“Mondrian Evolution” is the name of Kuster’s exhibition, which marks the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth. It also doubles as a description of what viewers can expect at The Beyeler: a toe-to-toe survey of Mondrian’s career, beginning with his younger endeavors in portraiture and landscape.

These early paintings, completed in the Netherlands just before and after the turn of the 19th century, bear no resemblance to those for which he would later become known. But it’s also not difficult to spot shared DNA strands. See, for example, his numerous studies of whirling windmills and multi-branched trees: it is clear that already at that time the artist was trying to translate into oil paint the geometry that governs the world that surrounds us.

“He was looking for harmony, but harmony is never symmetry,” Kuster said. “Harmony must have a tension in time.”

Piet Mondrian, mill in the sun (1908). © 2022 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust. Photo: Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

With exposure to painters like Picasso and Pointedand a years-long stay in Paris, abstraction began to permeate Mondrian’s canvases around 1911. His once representative scenes of Dutch waterways dissolved into Cubist abstractions which, while remaining based in the lived worldemphasizing form over substance.

Over the next decade he returned to the Netherlands, then returned to Paris. Its vaguely painted cubes turned into hard rectangles; its fresh Fauvist-inspired palette has been replaced by solid bands of color. The style that would come to be known as “De Stijl” was born.

From classical figuration to cutting-edge abstraction, the full trajectory of Mondrian’s work on display at the Beyeler reflects the evolution of modernism itself. However, the Dutch artist also shows us the importance of looking beyond this familiar story, Kuster pointed out.

“Mondrian is someone who teaches you a lot about painting,” the curator said, showing his own affection for the artist. “The very art-historical – and in many ways useful – idea that modern art is a development from figuration to abstraction is acceptable, but it’s not really interesting for artists.”

“For an artist,” Kuster continued, “it doesn’t matter if it’s figurative or non-figurative, because it’s always abstract. It’s always abstract, because painting is abstraction.

Check out some of the highlights of “Mondrian Evolution” below:

Piet Mondrian, No. VI / Composition No. II (1920). © 2021 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
Photo: Tate.

Piet Mondrian, The red cloud (1907). © 2022 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust. Photo: Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Piet Mondrian, Bell tower of the Domburg church (1911). © 2022 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
Photo: Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Piet Mondrian, Windmill in the evening (1917). © 2022 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust. Photo: Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Piet Mondrian, Wood near Oele (1908). © 2022 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust. Photo: Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Piet Mondrian, apple blossom (1912).
© 2022 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
Photo: Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Piet Mondrian, Diamond Composition with Eight Lines and Red / Image No. III (1938). © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel.

Mondrian Evolutionis on view until October 9, 2022 at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland.

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