The Shape of Things to Come; Night & Day

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Byline: PHILIP HENSHER

Mondrian: Nature to Abstraction Tate Gallery, London Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is one of those painters whose name immediately summons a particular image - horizontal and vertical, thick black lines on a white ground, with occasional squares of intense colour to wake up its serene purity. Produced in the last 20 years of his life, these geometric paintings have overshadowed his earlier work, which encompassed landscapes and still-lifes.

They are some of the loveliest and subtlest paintings of the century. The simplicity of the late paintings means that they're easily turned into posters, T-shirts and even logos, and when one comes across the real thing in a gallery there is always a small shock of recognition and pleasure. But there is much more to Mondrian than that; the Tate's new exhibition shows how he slowly shed every unnecessary detail and purified his extraordinary vision.

From the start, Mondrian was an austere painter, preferring the monumental simplicity of upright forms to anything remotely elaborate. An early painting, Forest (1898-1900), reduces the trees to vertical trunks, not troubling with foliage at all; landscapes and seascapes often turn the flat Dutch view into a series of thick horizontal lines. It's difficult not to see the late paintings' geometric patterns in these severe images; Mondrian, I think, wanted merely to paint horizontal and vertical lines, and, at the start of his career, went out to see where he could find them.

The careful balancing of colours, too, is there almost from the start. Most of the early paintings are in a ravishingly restrained silvery range, from grey to brown and dark green, but the scrupulous care and delicate combination of colours make them anything but gloomy.

He always had an eye for the way that something too symmetrical could be infused with life and energy by an irrational eruption of colour. …