Before you see Piet Mondrian’s world famous primary color paintings, you first need to look at the building which houses the collection, the Gemeentemuseum The Hague. Built by famous Dutch architect H.P. Berlage, it fits perfectly with Mondrian’s abstract paintings and his movement, De Stijl. As a visitor, you enter through a long corridor with 11cm bricks on the wall. “Berlage wanted the art to be accessible to the people, but at that time, common people didn’t go to museums often. This long corridor would help them to leave the city behind and give time to enter a different world,” says tour leader and artist Wieke Terpstra.
2017 will be the year of Mondrian in The Hague, as it will be 100 years since the movement was founded. And what a movement it was. “You don’t realize it, but these artists changed what our world looks like today. All these white walls and simple furniture we are used to now go back to them, ” Terpstra told hiEurope.
Just to show how different houses used to be, she takes us to another wing, where some 18th century rooms were completely transported to the museum. They were decorated in dark wooden panels, in what Europeans at that time thought was a Chinese style. “China was in fashion, and the Dutch had started to imitate Chinese porcelain. They painted Chinese people on their walls without ever having seen one.”
This lavish decorating ended with Mondrian and his friends. Although, in the Gemeentemuseum, you can see how he started with painting landscapes, like anyone else. “When photography was invented, artists didn’t need to paint exact pictures anymore. For some this was a challenge, others saw it as an opportunity,” Terpstra says.
Mondrian’s artistic journey, as you can see in the next hall, started with experimenting with colors. He painted a bright red windmill and a red tree on a blue background. But that wasn’t enough. Soon he tried to paint without creating depth in his pictures, giving more meaning to the shapes than the content. “He discovered how you can do this by giving the background shapes the same attention as the object in the foreground.” Reviews of his new way of paintings were terrible, and his uncle, who was also an artists, distanced himself from his work, but Mondrian didn’t give up. Instead, he left for Paris to learn from Picasso and cubism. And learn he did. By 1920 he started to produce what is now known as the typical Mondrian style.
At the museum, which has a collection of almost 300 of his works, you can see that these paintings are more than just colored squares. Some of the lines stop before the edge of the canvas, which makes the shapes look different. “It’s all about what your brain does with these shapes. You can see pictures of these paintings, but until you stand right in front of it, you won’t know how it plays in your mind,” says Terpstra. Similarly, Mondrian made paintings that were diamond shaped, with just a few lines on it. “Your brain continues these lines to finish the shape.”
The museum also has Mondrian’s last work, which he made in New York. It’s called Victory Boogie Woogie, made at a time when the Second World War was almost over, and Mondrian incorporated the music of New York into his paintings. In this last work, the artist used colored tape, which had just been invented, to experiment with designs to be colored in later. He never had a chance to finish the work, as he died of pneumonia shortly after, leaving this, one of his biggest and most colorful paintings, on the easel in his workshop, colored tape and all.
Mondrian died without a family heir, but his work was collected by one of his greatest fans, Sal Slijper. He left it to the museum in The Hague after his death in 1971. By that time, the Mondrian style had touched us all: from fashion - Yves Saint Laurent made iconic dresses, Hermes a line of luggage and Nike shoes - to architecture and decoration. There is Mondrian in every modern city of the world.
After Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Mondrian is the third famous artist from the Netherlands. Born in 1872 in Amersfoort, he received a scholarship from the Dutch queen to study art in Amsterdam. In 1911, he moved to Paris to learn about Cubism, but during a visit home in 1914, World War one broke out and he was forced to stay in the Netherlands again. Together with other artists Mondrian started his own magazine and movement, de Stijl (The Style). After the war, Mondrian immediately returned to Paris, where he loved the life of artists and entertainment. He fled from the Nazi’s to London in 1938, and when he did not feel safe there either, to New York, where he arrived at the age of 68. Here, his paintings changed style again, and they reflected the happy music and liveliness of Mondrian’s new home town. Mondrian died in 1944.
For more information about the Year of Mondrian to Dutch Design: http://gemeentemuseum.nl/en/mondrian2017