Look closely. It’s only the crazing of the paint – those tiny fissures mischievously running amok within Mondrian’s fearless geometry – that forces you to face the facts: this fresh, fizzing work is 70, 80 even 90 years old. It’s enough to give you a graphic orgasm (we’re using graphic in its draftsman’s context, naturally), and an object lesson in the power of pure line, primary pigment, and a poet’s eye for composition.
Mondrian and his Studios, Tate’s summer show – together with a retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi – offers a guided tour of the man, his itinerant studio spaces, and his restless quest to reduce, refine and re-assert the essence of form and colour, line and space. To push paint to its boundaries (literally, in many of his canvasses) and to continue the conversation on the walls, floors and furnishings of his studios. Talk about taking a line for a walk – this man made them circuit train, drop and give him twenty. Had them begging for mercy. And he did it all – breathtakingly, audaciously ahead of the rest.
But it wasn’t always thus. It’s great to see the wiggle room and organic freedom he gives to earlier canvasses of trees and seascapes in his earlier works: but it’s the artist’s move to Paris, and his studio at 26 Rue du Depart (recreated beautifully in the show: check out those skylights. Drool.), that sees Mondrian’s compositional clout really come into its own.
His signature panelled pieces – the ‘Neoplastic’ exploration of pure colour, line and geometric space – eschew any attempt at natural form. Cubism’s angular shadow is obvious. But Mondrian, not content with confines of canvas, developed ‘de stijl’ (‘The Style’) to encompass stage maquettes, furnishings and – famously – the ‘atelier as artwork’ of his studios.
Taken in one hit, Mondrian’s blue, red and yellow pieces are, perhaps, lost in a grid of homogeneity – it’s like ODing on a fold-out map of Manhattan, or being repeatedly hit in the head with a printed circuit board. But study each one individually, and the poise, balance and perpetual movement of these pieces take on the fluidity of a Swiss-made watch, so perfectly are they weighted and nuanced. Each part precisely in its place. Each hue subtle, yet significantly its own colour. The whole much greater than the parts.
Yes, his work has been homaged to within an inch of its life – but this scholarly and judiciously curated retrospective shows there is life in the old lines yet. And that it’s hard to imagine where we’d be, now, if we all weren’t – in some way – walking in his shoes.
Spare time, too, for Nasreen Mohamedi – a name I admit I’d not heard of. This Indian artist’s work really is a tale of two halves. Her abstract, wilful and darkly menacing earlier work meshes collage, paint and pen to pack a powerful punch – yet gives way to a purer form of graphic playfulness. Her stark, Escher-like imaginings lie somewhere between the Op Art of Bridget Riley and the rigorous blueprints of some fantastic, unbuildable future city. Tremendous stuff, and a perfect pairing: Mondrian and Mohamedi both able to extract the maximum of the minimum.
This is a must-see show.
Mondrian and his Studios
6 June – 5 October
Pic one: Piet Mondrian Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937-42
© 2014 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/p HCR International
Pic two: Piet Mondrian, No. VI/Composition No. II 1920
© 2014 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International USA