The National Gallery Uncovers Evolution of Mondrian's Art on the Way to Geometric Abstraction, the Dutch Painter Dipped into Styles Ranging from Realism to Cubism

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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. …


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