Tonight, I went to see Mondrian and de Stijl at the Centre Pompidou, and I nearly cried.
I didn’t particularly like the hanging of many of Mondrian’s greatest paintings that are on display here. Although this huge exhibition did, at times, gesture in the right direction, in true Centre Pompidou style, there was way too much going on, and to be seen properly it would need at least three full days.
Mondrian’s paintings are among those of a handful of artists that have been reproduced ad infinitum on cups, postcards, posters, t-shirts, and every other object that can be sold for a profit to those who want to own a slice of modern art. This is perhaps what makes the paintings themselves all the more exciting: the reproductions have nothing at all to do with the paintings.
From the very beginning, Mondrian’s work is a love affair with paint. Even in the early years when he was painting portraits, the sea, things as we know them in the world, the paintings are about the problem of the medium, they are about how to find a form that is truer to the limitations and possibilities of painting. I had forgotten The Grey Tree, from 1912, a painting that sits on the precipice of abstraction, a painting that marks the beginning of Mondrian’s most prolific and experimental period. The grey tree encapsulates everything for which Mondrian will become famous, its influence will ricochet throughout the twentieth century. And yet, it is grey, recognizeably a tree, in its own frame, ostensibly bearing no resemblance at all to the forms and patterns in red yellow and blue that are reproduced everywhere. The grey may not have the dynamism of red yellow and blue, but that is just the point. Mondrian strips away the distraction of color and focuses on the brushstroke: thick, defined and defiant bare boughs that waver in the still, cold air that surround them. And the boughs become lines, depending on our perspective, in tension with the air that is really a series of staccato, emphatic horizontal white to grey strokes. Line and color are engaged in a battle with each other, even if that color is white or grey. Figure and ground are in the process of merging completely, on the surface of the canvas.
In a room that was, for me, the centerpiece of the exhibition, a room filled with works from the 1920s and 1930s when one war had subsided, the other still to come, the paintings gradually enter into a world of their own, independent of any influence I may have over them. I last saw paintings such as the compositions in red yellow and blue in New York at MoMA in 1996. There and then, they were hung differently, in galleries that were not thoroughfares, but discreet spaces that invited the paintings to speak to each other. These masterpieces were exhibited slowly and silently, in chronological order, fully allowed to contradict and to enhance each other, to confuse us, to provoke us to marvel at their independence from anything we might think about them.
(Image: Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue, 1927, Oil on canvas)
At the Centre Pompidou this sense of community between the compositions is gestured towards, but not fully enabled. Still, we become confused by them, as we try to work out if the red square is bigger than the blue. Is the white between the black lines equal, which is the line and which the color, or is it, in the end, all an optical illusion? These games that the paintings as a community play with us are the great joy of letting go to the magic of Mondrian. It is then that we begin to feel the vibrations as they rub up against each other, constantly moving, changing and deceiving us as our vision is tested against the forms and surfaces of lines, the blocks of red, yellow and blue. This is what makes not only Mondrian's canvases, but the experience of painting life changing.
The excess of context for Mondrian’s greatness is reflected in the enormity of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. That this great master was not working in a void, but rather came at the end of a long line of Flemish masters, in a land filled with water, flatness and a natural world waiting to be echoed in painting. This is interesting, in and of itself, but I wonder if it is really what Mondrian has most to offer the world today? Is the intellectual, historical understanding of color on a canvas, ultimately, as interesting as the relationship we enter with them as we stand, among the paintings, listening with our eyes to their intensity?
(Image: Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue and White II, 1927, Oil on canvas)
I was with friends who were unaccustomed to modern art. When I explained Mondrian’s preoccupation with the problem of painting, the revolution that he spearheaded in the attempt to break away from centuries of perspectival renderings as the great deception of painting, they said “uh ha.” And when I talked about his challenge to perception via a fusion of figure and ground, line and color, the space of representation and that beyond the frame, they seemed to be somewhat engaged. However, when I asked them to watch the surprises and unpredictable optical movements of the untitled compositions, asking them what they saw, over time, their faces lit up. It was in this gesture of measuring their own perception against the ingenuity of Mondrian’s compositions that my friends became immersed in the work. Indeed, they were fascinated, visibly animated by the magic of abstract painting as it came alive in a relationship they developed with what was, otherwise, paint on a canvas in a frame hung on a wall next to another image of paint on a canvas in a frame hung on a wall. And I ask myself, isn’t this what painting is all about? Isn’t this what Mondrian was looking for in the first place?
--Frances Guerin, film historian and writer living in Paris (see FX Reflects for more info on Frances)