PIET MONDRIAN'S works are ubiquitous. The red, blue, and yellow
geometrics encased in black grids have been styled into everything
from book covers to bed sheets and summer dresses. Those familiar
with the Dutch artist's paintings can always spot his abstractions
from the easily recognizable style.
Now at the National Gallery of Art's East Wing, an unprecedented
Mondrian retrospective finally brings to the public eye what art
critics have long known: There is more, a lot more, to this man's
work. Commonly held in high regard for his influence on sterile
design and architecture, he was actually a dazzling contributor to
the most important movements of 20th-century art.
This rich display of 171 paintings, spanning more than 50 years
and eight distinct periods in Mondrian's life (1872-1944), is a
study in evolution.
From his earliest days of painting realist landscapes of the
Holland countryside, through his most contemporary New York City
creations inspired by American jazz, Mondrian's hand was precise.
After formal training at the Amsterdam Academy, he traversed
Realism, Pointillism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism,
Cubism, and Abstraction with seeming ease. And, he created his own
movement, which he coined "neo-plasticism," an odd translation for
"new form," or "new image."
The National Gallery show, which came from The Hague and is
bound for New York, is the most comprehensive collection of
Mondrian's work ever shown. Assembled over a 2-1/2-year period by a
team of experts led by curator Angelica Zander Rudenstine, the
pieces came from private and public collections in Europe, the
United States, and Asia.
As Ms. Rudenstine scoured museums, homes, and artists' studios
for Mondrian's best works, she says she "had to do a lot of arm
twisting." Borrowing masterpieces is never easy, no matter how
professional the care that's promised.
But Rudenstine's pleas were persuasive. "We had a staggering
rate of success," she says. Ninety-five percent of prospective
lenders agreed to put their pieces on loan once they realized that
the goal was to showcase Mondrian's development. "Some of the most
extraordinary pictures are hanging due to the generosity of people
who were from families in which the parents bought pictures from
Mondrian himself, when he was an impoverished artist living in
Paris during the 1920s."
Throughout his working life, Mondrian relied on friends and
admirers to sustain him with the simplest support such as food and
clothing. Often he asked for advances on sales he hoped to make,
in order to pay a month's rent or tide him over until the next
installment. In turn, he gave others enrichment.
"I see this every day in my studio, it nourishes me. I'm a very
old man. Why should I let this out of my sight?" protested an
elderly European painter, after Rudenstine approached him about
borrowing one of Mondrian's superb color compositions. She visited
him three times, she recalls. "Finally, he said: 'I decided to
lend you this picture because I believe what you're doing is
something good for Mondrian. …