Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) always has been an enigmatic figure in the history of modern art. His importance is unquestioned. With Wassily Kandinsky and Kazmir Malevich, he is credited with the invention of the single most important development in 20th-century art--abstraction--a subjective, self-contained artistic language that makes no concessions to visible reality. In addition, he was one of the most prolific and important theorists of modern art.
Yet all this belies the complex nature of his artistic identity. His abstract paintings appear to be so accessible and familiar that they long ago were annexed by the worlds of interior design and high fashion. More than any other modern artist, Mondrian has become a kind of emblem for the whole modern movement. Yet in spite of their simplicity and apparent similarity, his paintings are infinitely varied, subtle and complex.
So is their ambition. Using the most basic, reductive elements -- lines and rectangles, primary colors, black and white -- Mondrian sought nothing less than to evoke a spiritual realm of universality and wholeness, one capable of revealing the eternal truths behind the shifting illusions of external appearances.
All this may explain why Mondrian doesn't command the kind of loyalty from the museum-going public that figures such as Claude Monet or Henri Matisse do. This point was driven home last winter when it turned out that during its stop at The Hague, the Mondrian retrospective now showing at Washington's National Gallery of Art (June 11 to Sept. 4) failed to attract enough visitors to cover its costs.
It may also explain why Carel Blotkamp's Mondrian: The Art of Destruction (Abrams, 261 pp) is the first Mondrian monograph in 25 years. An excellent book in many ways, Blotkamp's work takes us through Mondrian's development, providing the reader with a clear understanding of the genesis and meaning of Mondrian's art, as well as his importance to 20th-century modernism.
Mondrian began as a painter of landscapes and still lifes strongly influenced by the symbolist movement of the late 19th century, with its emphasis on interior states of feeling and decay. A pivotal moment came in 1909 when he joined the Theosophical Society, an organization deeply rooted in occult doctrine rather than any purely religious orthodoxy, but which nonetheless worked to attain a kind of universal brotherhood in which distinctions between races, sexes and religions were eliminated.
Mondrian remained a gifted but provincial painter until he encountered the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque at an Amsterdam exhibition in 1911. The impact of this cubist art propelled him to Paris, where he lived for two years producing some of his most important early paintings, such as the so-called Pier and Ocean series, in which a traditional landscape subject is interpreted solely in terms of a loose network of short, intersecting horizontal and vertical bands.
The balance between abstraction and representation in these pictures is crucial to their impact, and Mondrians' language of lines serves as the springboard for his leap into full non-objective art.
In 1914, he returned to Holland where, during the …