Mondrian - a modern master

Image Credit: Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Composition with large red plane, yellow, black

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell speaks to the Director of National Gallery of Ireland, Sean Rainbird, about their upcoming Piet Mondrian exhibition

Before I knew anything about anything, I knew I liked Mondrian.

On a trip to visit my family in Texas, we visited Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. (Kahn’s museum building and grounds are stunning, as is Renzo Piano’s extension, and is deserving of much more than this note, but that is for another article). Mondrian's distinct blue, red, yellow, and white squares and stark black lines were simultaneously irregular and rigorous. They were like nothing I had ever seen hanging in an art gallery. While measured and rhythmic, his compositions seem to hold no ascertainable logic as to how Mondrian decided where to paint. Knowing more about the artist now, his paintings resonate with his beloved Jazz. Every move made and note struck and contributes to the whole, and is unpredictable yet entirely rational.

This winter, The National Gallery of Ireland is exhibiting the works of the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian. The University Observer spoke to Sean Rainbird, Director of National Gallery of Ireland, about Mondrian, his favourite pieces, and how the museum has adapted to Covid-19.

It is unusual for an artist to be so consistent in forging a new path in modern art. Mondrian’s art is an extraordinary example of the development of modern art, both in practice and theory

“As this exhibition will show, Mondrian was a quintessential modern painter”. I asked Rainbird what makes Mondrian so special? “His work spans the landscapes of his native Holland, painted in naturalistic colours around the turn of the 20th century, to a heightened palette in the first decade as a response to post-impressionism and van Gogh, but also with a spiritual value attached to colour. His move to Paris, the art capital of Europe, was decisive. His encounter with cubism was individualistic and an intelligently articulated route-map to a radically different language of painting. The decade 1910-20 is extraordinary in its trajectory, ending with the first of the highly experimental but rigorous grid paintings that defined his art until the final, rhythmical flourish of the New York period. It is unusual for an artist to be so consistent in forging a new path in modern art. Mondrian’s art is an extraordinary example of the development of modern art, both in practice and theory”.

While Mondrian is best known for his neoplasticism and de Stijl works, he began his career painting landscapes and earned much of his living painting replicas of famous pieces; “The exhibition covers almost the entire career of the artist. The exception is of works from his final years in New York. These are too fragile to lend, and are such central works in the museums that own them, that they will only exceptionally be included in survey exhibitions by the likes of MoMA in New York. Our show will show five decades of work from the 1890s to the 1940s. Also included, in the penultimate room, is a small display of works by the de Stijl group of artists (Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck etc) to give a sense of the wider movement around the periodical and group of artists working in a multi-disciplinary way as architects, designers, makers and painters. For Mondrian, though, the true path was with painting, which is one of the main reasons he did not remain with the de Stijl group”.

While Mondrian’s neoplasticism is his most distinct legacy, his work varied, shifted, and adapted over the many decades of his life. “What has always fascinated me is that Mondrian leaves Holland for Paris with drawings of apple trees in his suitcase. In the urban setting of Paris, he first filters these trees through the pictorial language of cubism. The urban environment, though, soon imprints itself in his art. My favourite painting (one of them…) is a wonderful cubist painting based on the façade of a ruined building. Full of doorways, chimney places and alcoves, Mondrian has translated these marginally differing planes into a series of pale pink and blue oblongs, loosely bound by black lines. He has the visual wit to add ‘KUB’ to the bottom right of the image, most likely the torn remnants of an advertising poster, but a signal for (K)cub(ism). It is a fabulous, vibrant painting”.

Every year I look forward to the National Gallery’s feature exhibitions around this time of year. Caravaggio, Vermeer, and in particular Sorolla have all been beautiful, varied exhibitions. I am sure Mondrian will be no different. I asked Rainbird how the Gallery chooses who to exhibit every year? “Many exhibitions originate in individual works – or groups of works – that are part of the Gallery’s permanent collection. Others, such as Mondrian are a way of addressing some of the (inevitable) gaps in the collection. We look at the strengths of the collection, as much as at the history of art, to decide which artists, groups of artists, or themes we wish to show at the Gallery. The programme is set anything from one to five years ahead, whether the exhibitions/temporary displays are large or small. We look to provide a balanced programme between modern and earlier art, between solo and mixed exhibitions, between Irish and non-Irish/international art, between well-known artists (for example, Mondrian or Vermeer) and those (such as Sorolla, exhibited here in 2019) who deserve a wider audience”.

Like everything else, the National Gallery is not untouched by the Covid-19 pandemic; “The exhibition has not adapted but we have. All the confirmed loans are in fact coming. This is a great relief. We cooperated with the lenders through all the usual processes and steps using Zoom, as so many colleagues across the world have begun to do, to enable something like a normal programme to be sustained”.

The Mondrian exhibition was due to open on November 4th but now; “will now lose the first four weeks of the exhibition (under current restrictions) as the Gallery is currently closed to the public”. Rainbird continued; “It is important to us that the exhibition is up and ready for visitors when we reopen, as there has been such interest in the show. It will provide a great fillip. We traditionally share a picture on Instagram, of the front stairs, with an image of one of the exhibition works cascading up them. This time, with one of Mondrian’s grid paintings, we had several thousand views within a few hours – it looks spectacular”.

Sean Rainbird, Director, National Gallery of Ireland, and Janet McLean, Curator of European Art from 1850, National Gallery of Ireland, are co-curators of the exhibition Mondrian.