Molen Bij Zonlicht, 1908.
I didn’t go to the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague on Saturday to see the Mondriaan exhibition; I went to see the paintings by Isaac Israel and his friend George Breitner. But to get to this exhibition I had to go through the Mondriaan exhibition and it stopped me in my tracks. The exhibition is entitled, “De Ontdekking Van Mondriaan” or ‘Discover Mondrian‘.
A discovery it certainly was! I’ve never seen many of his early paintings, and they are astonishingly good. I shan’t dwell on them because Mondriaan (who dropped an ‘a’ after he moved to Paris in 1911) is better known for his abstracts. Those are for another post, though. What I want to examine in this post is why he chose the path to abstraction rather than of painting the world around him. Reality by any other name.
It was an off hand comment by one of the commentators of the exhibition that gave me the clue as to what was going on in Mondriaan’s life at the time. He was a painter, and by the age of 14 he knew this is what he wanted to devote his life to. I’ll add that Isaac Israels who is but seven years older, was a well rounded painter by the age of sixteen just as Mondriaan was himself. This was raw talent if ever there was.
So what made such an incredibly talented painter turn away from the source of all that is beautiful? The key is in this painting of a windmill. I don’t know which one it is, and it isn’t the one at Gein that he often painted.
There are several striking issues with his depiction: it has the strident, almost explosive power of a van Gogh. Mondriaan saw the exhibition of van Gogh’s work in 1905 (the man had been dead for a decade before he became famous) and like so many others, was inspired by the forceful nature of the colours.
At the time, Mondriaan was painting the evening light, trying to capture the mood – the ‘sphere’ as the Dutch call it – of the end of the day. His colours being subtle and profound, not to say moving. There is a genuine communication of what the artist saw and what is evoked in the mind of the viewer.
Mondriaan was not satisfied with this, though. Just depicting something was simply not enough: he needed to enhance it somehow. Not to exaggerate as such, that would come later, but to make the mood more obvious. That is to say, he added something to his paintings that wasn’t there. In the way Vincent van Gogh added lines to his painting of the bridge at Arles when there weren’t any in reality. He needed to show the bridge was there by adding black lines to draw the viewers’ attention to it – when it was already the centrepiece of the painting! It was unmissable; but that’s not how people think, and my upcoming post on the new livery of the Dutch railways will explore this phenomenon in a less serious way. There is something about the modern artist that is trying to tell the viewer to see what is obvious and in plain sight.
It’s as if the painter can’t trust his viewer to see what has been painted. But then, with the Dutch, who are a bone headed lot at the best of times, these painters might have had a point.
The painting itself is bold and colourful. Mondriaan worked with a palette of three colours: red, yellow and blue. This was a little like Tom Thomson who painted with four colours – albeit he mixed them to achieve an effect that is truly majestic. Mondriaan on the other hand kept the colours pure and the result literally hits you between the eyes. Subtle it is not, but then, that’s what modern art is all about. Anything that doesn’t have impact is boring.
Which is what Mondriaan is all about, isn’t it? He chose to embellish the things he witnessed and recorded in paint – rather than offer an honest appraisal. It has to be added that shadows are a peculiar beast and with the sun directly behind the mill, it’s possible that it could have had a reddish tone to it – but not the dazzling red he employed here.
Thus we have two elements at play: Mondriaan was bored with the plodding reality of a rather flat and plodding country studded with interminable windmills. His response to this was to improve on it by painting something that wasn’t there.
What Is Wrong With Reality?
Mondriaan was an excellent painter, he just got bored with the dullness of the world around him. This is the key to understanding our modern world, though. Reality isn’t that interesting. Especially around here where it’s flat and the only hill is the wooden platform that the windmill stands on. The truly human thing to do is to work with that dullness in a way that allows one to be at peace with it. I’ll add that this is something that I have been able to do, albeit somewhat late in life. For me the dewdrops in the morning sun are my wealth, my diamonds.
They weren’t for Mondriaan. He wanted to improve on it. Rather than deal with reality, he preferred an illusion. In painting the windmill in a bright red, he was imposing his own needs over what he saw with his eyes. Now to be fair, nobody had done anything remotely as exciting as this before! Indeed, I have no problem with people trying out the possibilities in art or anything else. But with one proviso: that they accept that reality is, well, real. It’s no good to pretend that the windmill was red when the boring reality was that it was a muddy brown and had been for years. The miller was either too poor or too bored to be bothered to paint it.
Mind you, there’s always the possibility that it was actually painted red! I’ve never seen any red ones here, though, but I don’t live in Noord Holland where Mondriaan was painting. To be honest, in my village there aren’t any windmills at all…
Even so, the colours Mondriaan used were depictive rather than reflective, if you understand me. Mondriaan was trying to tell a story here rather than relate the boring facts. Telling stories is fine, just as long as they remain stories and people don’t wander around thinking that everybody they meet might just be Jack the Ripper – which is precisely what happened in the London of the late 1880s. The story became the reality in the mind of the newspaper reader! This led directly to the phenomenon of stoning dachshunds in the park a generation later…
Is it any surprise that Mondriaan should become ensnared in his own illusions, his own way of painting? There is another side to this, though, and it is the insidiousness of the illusion. In being the way he wanted to paint, it was comfortable to do so – it pleased him to do so. He was literally painting within his comfort zone. Wallowing in it, more like.
There is a problem, though. That in itself becomes rather dull… after all, there’s just so much you can do with your own imagination when that is all you are relying on. This is what happens when you have developed your own style, after all. The likes of Tom Thomson and JMW Turner solved this riddle by going out and finding something to inspire them again – just as I do. Mondriaan had already boxed himself in with his comfy illusions and it was all he wanted, irrespective of what would make him a better artist.
Mondriaan could only go one way: inwards. As he retreated inwards from the reality around him, his colours became more intense – that is to say, unnatural. Rectangular blocks of pure red, grey and yellow predominated along with various grids of black lines. You can already see the genesis of this in the rectangular clouds in his painting of the windmill. This was inspiration, but it was one that depended on his own abilities to come up with bright ideas, rather than absorbing them from outside. Further to this, he couldn’t think of what to call his new creations! All he could call them was “Composition.” Well, it’s better than the modern standard: “untitled.” The ultimate in abstract art, a painting that is so abstracted from reality that the painter couldn’t even think of a name for it.
You cannot get more pathetic than that, can you?
The exhibition ‘Discover Mondrian‘ is at the Gemeentemuseum den Haag until the 24th of September (click here for info). I hadn’t expected to say this, but it really is worth a visit; these paintings are not on show very often and it really shows the transition in Mondrian’s life.