In September 1926, a Dutch journalist W.F.A Röell visited Piet Mondrian in his Paris studio on Rue du Départ. Having previously dropped in on Kees Van Dongen, the Fauvist painter known for his chromatic feasts, what struck Röell most forcibly was the difference between the two spaces. Van Dongen’s workplace was a “sophisticated tango palace”; Mondrian’s was “a geometrically impeccable room” with a “glacially pristine” mood.
That was then and this is now. Seen through 21st-century eyes, that Paris den was a hodgepodge of clutter to send a Feng Shui expert running for the hills. Yes, Mondrian’s trademark angular abstractions hung on the wall, and there were mirrors, rectangular rugs and a plain white table. But the space was also crammed with bric-a-brac – an Edwardian stove, an occasional table, a tin alarm clock – that disturbed Mondrian’s New World lines with quaint Art Nouveau curves.
Currently, a replica of the space can be seen at Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition Mondrian and his Studios. Tate’s contention is that Mondrian’s studios functioned as an earthly paradigm for “Mondrian’s ultimate utopia”, which was to “turn the world into a large canvas and for Neo-Plasticism [his term for his vision] to invade our three-dimensional space through architecture”.
Tate may be right. Although Mondrian wrote little about his studio, the space was clearly significant. He loved not only to paint there but also to entertain. Some conversations, such as those with Röell, involved serious artistic debate. Often, though, it was a place to drink, dance and party. One of many illuminating photographs on view shows him, in Rue du Départ, sitting with friends at a table groaning with cigarettes and wine.
The mish-mash of life and art in Rue du Départ reflects Mondrian’s own paradoxes. For this was an artist who stamped his work with spartan clarity yet exuded passionate exuberance. Described by Röell as “wild about jazz and modern dance”, Mondrian defended the Charleston and named paintings after the foxtrot and boogie-woogie. To complicate his psyche further, those material joys were woven into wilder, spiritual ecstasies.
Mondrian’s chosen faith was theosophy. Championed at the turn of the 20th century by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, it was fallen upon by a clutch of artists who interpreted its credo – that the divine essence of reality was a union of spirit and matter – as a manifesto for an art that aimed at universal enlightenment.
However esoteric it sounds, theosophy made for masterpieces. (Kandinsky was a fellow traveller.) It captured Mondrian’s imagination in 1909, while he was still in Amsterdam. In 1911 he left for Paris and his spiritual vision found its secular medium in cubism’s crystalline dissections.
Back in the Netherlands during the first world war, he made a glorious series of works that reflect the alliance of Picasso’s means with his own metaphysical ends. Lattices of criss-crossed, staccato lines – in charcoal and gouache as well as oil – they marry matt shades with chalky veils of white and black to evoke the dusty shimmer of medieval frescoes. But these flickering skins sanctify the material world: a church façade, a nocturnal sea, a building masked by scaffolding. Of several on show here, the diva is “Ocean 5” (1915). On loan from the Guggenheim in Venice, its tremulous ripples are echoed in the real view of the Mersey on the other side of the gridded window next to which it has been placed.
By now, Mondrian was convinced that the era of the curve was finished. In his seminal 1941 essay “Toward the True Vision of Reality” – reproduced in Tate’s excellent catalogue – he explained his passion for horizontal and vertical lines: “The equilibrium of any particular aspect of nature rests on the equivalence of its opposites.”
Bad design equalled emotional catastrophe. “I felt that the tragic is created by unequivalence. I saw the tragic in a wide horizon or a high cathedral,” he continued. No wonder he needed the Charleston to release the tension.
In Amsterdam, he met Theo Van Doesburg, with whom he formed De Stijl, a group of artists and architects who believed that straight lines and primary colours were the route to a more humane world. Their work, allied to the vogue for geometric abstraction across eastern Europe, fuelled the development of neo-plasticism.
“Nature reveals forms in space,” Mondrian wrote, remembering the thought process that coincided with his return to Paris in 1918. “Actually all is space.” Inevitably, his horizontals and vertical lines coalesced into rectangles. The studio, which offered space in three dimensions, became more important than ever.
Certainly Mondrian clocked the potential of his workplace as somewhere that the boundaries between art and reality could be dissolved once and for all. Writing to his dear friend Winifred Nicholson in 1936, after he had moved to London, he admitted that “the studio is also part of my painting”.
If this show fails to nail the connection, it is because the room itself falls short. Mondrian’s chief effort at an immersive environment turns on his hanging of “No VI, Composition no II” (1920) – a grid of coloured squares and rectangles that was one of his earliest neo-plastics. Placed above the door, its forms pour on down the wall through extra painted panels and mirrors. Unfortunately, this subtle flow is extinguished by the helter-skelter of objects around it.
Nevertheless, the show is worth seeing for the works alone. Aside from those early marvels, it marks the largest number of Mondrian’s neo-plastic paintings ever to be seen together in the UK. Planes of white, black, grey and primary colour intersected by black lines of varying thickness, their stark, punchy simplicity makes them the most instantly recognisable signature of any artist before or since.
This does not mean they are great paintings. In sacrificing hesitancy of line and tone for system, Mondrian too often tips art into graphics and decoration. Few of the neo-plastics can compete with the mystical tremor of the luminous wartime webs.
Nevertheless, there are some stunners. From Krefeld’s Kunstmuseen, three 1925 paintings – Tableaux X, XI and VII – are divided by identical black lines but different colour schemes. With ultramarine blue popping in one lower right corner and fire-engine red pulsing in another, the energy unique to each colour has never sung out more strongly.
By 1940, Mondrian was in New York after a brief spell in London (where his friend Barbara Hepworth testified to a studio where “wonderful squares of primary colours climbed up the walls”). In the city that never sleeps, he finally found a real grid to echo the Utopian maps in his head. Suddenly, he loosened up. One of the finest of these late works, Tate’s “Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red” (1937-42) – a plenitude of black stripes broken by enigmatic swatches of colour – shudders with the perilous fury of a cage rattled by a prisoner.
Is this what Mondrian meant when he called for an art that captured “a clear vision of true reality”? Absolutely not. Indeed, he would have found such a lowly metaphor tragic.
Until October 5, tate.org.uk