Piet Mondrian and the six lines that made a masterpiece

This multi-sensory engagement with art, Verbeek explains, is also invited into Mondrian’s 1922 Composition with Blue, Yellow, Red, Black and Gray if one appreciates its musicality. “What I love about this composition is how it changes your sense of verticality and horizontality. Not only do you move your eyes, but your entire way of thinking changes…on the same level,” she says. “This is how a Mondrian should be seen. Not as an image that you scan, but as a change of direction, in movement, in rhythm, in tempo.”

Viewing a Mondrian, she explains, is a visceral experience: “The members of the Stijl want to evoke a physical feeling, a very physical kind of aesthetic.” Years later, Mondrian went further and attributed specific dances to his works. There was a foxtrot series in the late 1920s, for example, and his last painting Victory Boogie Woogie (1942-4) was a celebration of the syncopated rhythms he revered.

Even the brushstrokes continue the movement, Verbeek explains. The thin, vertical yellow surface, for example, is – counterintuitively – painted in careful horizontal strokes, creating this characteristic duality and opposition, while at the same time reminding us of the individual, the artist’s steady hand within the universal.

Appreciated even at their most superficial level, Mondrian’s engaging and instantly recognizable grids have left a lasting impression, emboldened and democratized the art world, and elevated the status of the graphic and the geometric.

We see the influence of Mondrian’s color palette and sharp angles in Lichtenstein’s pop art and echoes of his checkerboard patterns in Gerhard Richter’s painted mosaics. Architects from Slovakia to the US are still experimenting with De Stijl principles, and fashion brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Hermès, Moschino and even Nike have brought Mondrian’s grid to life on their catwalks.

In the Stedelijk Museum, where Mondrian raised a glass with friends a century ago, the 1922 masterpiece hangs innocently, its central white square staring blankly at passing visitors, drawing their gaze on an ongoing journey in and around it. Is the work a pattern, a painting, a design, or a dance?

For those in the know, there’s music in it, but most just watch curiously. The colors seem to escape from the frame and the unfinished grid lines maintain their appeal. “I think he just wanted to keep the image as open as possible,” muses Ulf Küster from Beyeler. “All good artists ask more questions than they give answers.”

Mondrian Evolution is at the Stiftung Beyeler until October 9, 2022.

Mondrian & De Stijl is a permanent exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Mondrian Moves runs until September 25, 2022.

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