Past: December 1, 2010 → March 21, 2011
The Mondrian/De Stijl exhibition at the Centre Pompidou links the career of one of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century to the story of one of the most fertile art movements of European modernism.
A key element of any understanding of the springs of modern art, between the end of the first decade of the century and the close of the Twenties the avant-garde movement De Stijl (Style) elaborated a vision of both art and society that aspired to universality, nourishing the ambition for a “total art.” It was in Paris, between 1912 and 1938, that Piet Mondrian, the central figure of the movement and its most famous representative, pursued his quest for visual harmony. Seeking a universal language of forms and primary colours, his radical abstraction sought to go beyond painting. For Mondrian and other De Stijl artists, the total work of art was the key to a new world, the symbol of a renewed human community characterised by a perfect equilibrium in which each element combines with every other to form a whole.
The exhibition consists of two sections. The first, devoted to Mondrian, focuses on the drawings and paintings he produced in Paris between 1912 and 1938. Through some hundred major works, it shows the painter’s development from Cubism to Neo-Plasticism, from “natural reality to abstract reality,” reflecting the artistic dynamism that marked the painter’s years in the French capital. This is the first time since 1969 that a large-scale exhibition of Mondrian’s work has been staged in the city where most of it was indeed produced. The second section looks at De Stijl, examining it history in parallel with Mondrian’s career, through an outstanding selection of paintings, drawings and photographs. It has as its guiding thread the cross-disciplinary practice of the movement’s members, notably revealing the complexity of the collaborations between the painters, architects and designers who rallied around the three leading figures of Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and Gerrit Rietveld. To accompany this unprecedented exhibition, Éditions du Centre Pompidou are to publish two major works: Mondrian (ed. Brigitte Leal), and De Stijl, 1917–1931 (ed. Frédéric Migayrou and Aurélien Lemonier). Other publications will include Mondrian/De Stijl, an album of the exhibition; an edition of Mondrian’s French writings; the republication of his key text of 1920, Réalité naturelle, réalité abstraite; and a special number of the journal Les Cahiers du Musée.
Piet Mondrian (1872–1944)
Born in the Netherlands in 1872, Mondrian first received an academic training in Amsterdam, where he gained his first commissions (traditional portraits, decorative work for churches and private houses). At the start of the new century he was regularly painting, in a Symbolist vein, the farmhouses and countryside near his family home at Winterswijk, and already showing a marked interest in the rhythmic elements of composition (trees and fences), flatness (with the raising of the horizon line to counter the effect of depth) and the geometrization of forms. Having moved to Paris in 1912, Mondrian discovered Picasso’s Cubism and abandoned the Divisionist — or Fauve-inspired painting, sometimes marked by theosophical influences, of his years in Domburg and Oele, to embark on the quest for a “universal pictorial language.” Between 1912 and 1920, he gradually developed his Cubism towards Neo-Plasticism (the new, abstract, plastic art), moving from “natural reality to abstract reality.” Starting from the analytical decomposition of form, he developed a “pure” visual art based on the relationship between coloured surfaces and guided by a logic of harmony and equilibrium between elements. This horizontal/vertical dialectic, in which pure colours (blue, red, yellow) are juxtaposed with non-colours (black, white, grey) in a combinatorial geometry that abolishes perspective, allows for an infinity of modular variations. On this basis Mondrian produced during this period several series of paintings through which he developed his theology of Neo-Plasticism. These works are ordered in consistent, systematically developed series — the “plus-minus” works, the square compositions, the diamonds, the grids. “Everything is composed by relation and reciprocity. Colour exists only through another colour, dimension is defined by another dimension, there is no position except in opposition to another position.” The painting is open, seemingly a fragment of a much larger ensemble. The division of the canvas into rectangles echoes the frame, the wall on which the painting hangs, the room, the city about… Neo-Plasticism is a vision of precision that ties pictorial order to a social, spiritual and poetical utopia.
In his “sanctuary,” his studio at 26 Rue du Départ in Montparnasse — a space not so much decorated as treated as if it were itself a painting, furniture and easel included, to create a total art space — Mondrian lived meagrely but far from reclusively. This experimental laboratory served as the headquarters of a considerable operation combining theoretical work, publishing and business, to promote the Neo-Plastic ideal and to develop and exploit his connections among all the abstract currents of Europe (Dada, De Stijl, Abstraction-Création, etc.).
In 1915, the same studio was the site of his decisive encounter with Theo van Doesburg. In 1918, he launched the of the De Stijl manifesto. In 1921, he showed at Léonce Rosenberg’s Effort Moderne gallery, which also published his treatise Le néoplasticisme: Principe général de l’équivalence plastique, and staged the exhibition “De Stijl” in 1923. In 1925, Mondrian took part, together with other leading abstractionists, in the first international exhibition of non-figurative art, “L’Art d’Aujourd’hui.” In 1926, he did the stage design for Michel Seuphor’s L’Éphémère est éternel. In 1927, he published “Le Home — la Rue — la Cité” in Vouloir, showed at the Salon des Tuileries and exhibited at Jeanne Bucher’s. In 1931, he supported the formation of the Abstraction-Création group. In 1937, he took part in the exhibition “Origines et développement de l’art international indépendant,” organised at the Jeu de Paume by Yvonne et Christian Zervos. During his twenty years in Paris, Mondrian got to know not only all the artists that mattered — the Delaunays, the Arps, Jean Hélion, Robert Mallet–Stevens, Pierre Chareau, Le Corbusier, the Cubists, the Constructivists, the Dadaists and the abstractionists, but also many young artists such as Calder, who came especially to Paris in 1930 to visit his studio. In Paris too he found his first collectors, Frenchmen like Charles de Noailles, Americans like Albert Gallatin, Swiss like Alfred Roth, and also his first disciples, such as Jean Gorin and Félix Del Marle, and critics and eulogists like Christian Zervos and Michel Seuphor. “A poem of right angles,” according to Le Corbusier, the Neo-Plasticist microcosm of 26 Rue du Départ became the crucial reference point of a new vision of the world that subordinated the individual to the universal. As such, it was visited by the greatest photographers of the time, among them André Kertész, Rogi André and Florence Henri, who immortalised it in pictures published in art journals the whole world over. Curator: Brigitte Leal Assistant Director, Collections Musée National d’Art Moderne / Centre de Création Industrielle
De Stijl and Neo-Plasticism
The Dutch avant-garde movement De Stijl (Style) is an essential key to any understanding of the springs of Modernism. It formed around three central figures: the painters Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg and architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld. Other members of the original group were painters Bart van der Leck, Georges Vantongerloo and Vilmos Huszar, architects JJP Oud, Robert van’t Hoff and Jan Wills, and poet Anthony Kok, who would be joined by graphic designer Piet Zwart and architect Cornelis van Eesteren. It was in 1918, a year after the official foundation of the group and the publication of the first issue of the journal that publicised and promoted the movement’s teachings that the founders of De Stijl explicitly articulated the aesthetic and social vision that drew them together: the group’s first manifesto called for a new equilibrium between the individual and the universal and for the emancipation of art from the constraints of the cult of individualism. This quest for the utopian and universal might be summed up in the aphorism: “The goal of life is man; the goal of man is Style.” Both utopian vision and practical engagement in the production of the real in an industrial world, De Stijl drew on the Hegelian tradition and on Theosophy, an esoteric doctrine then popular in the Netherlands and elsewhere. The founders of the movement were however primarily concerned with the formal — pictorial or architectural — expression of the principles of universal harmony. Painting, sculpture, graphics, furniture design, architecture and soon town planning served as the medium of experiment. De Stijl’s creations were multidisciplinary by nature, transcending the traditional academic boundaries between major and minor arts, between decorative art, architecture and urbanism. The guiding theme of the movement during its fourteen years of productive existence might be taken to be the spirit of the city. The spatiality of the work of art gradually shifts from being the basis for an analysis of the world to a means of construction of the urban social and political environment. In this respect, the spatialization of the work of art constitutes a specific experience of the world, ordering it and giving substance to community, embodying and making possible the equilibrium between individual and collective, between rational and sensuous, knowing and doing, spiritual and material. For De Stijl, the priority was to find a formal language that answered to the problems of industrial society in the wake of the Great War and to adumbrate the strategies for the establishment of a new social order.
The method that served the vision was Neo-Plasticism, which at first represented a simple radicalisation of the avant-garde practice of the time.
“The Cubists,” said Mondrian, “refuse to take their own artistic revolution to its logical conclusion. The modern sensibility cannot be reduced to the integration of multiple points of view, but must tend towards an immediately universal and rational plastic language.”
Van Doesburg, for his part, called for “the elaboration, in connection with the plastic arts, of simple fundamental principles understandable to all.” It was through the rigorous employment of primary colours alone (blue, yellow, red), unmodulated white and black, and straight lines laid out at right angles, and the limitation of forms and the geometrization of volumes that this brought that the members of De Stijl invented a new grammar of forms. The analytical simplification of the formal lexicon and the harmonious dynamics of proportion offered no scope for tragedy, in the end projecting aesthetics as a universal.
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