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The art of abstraction at the Pompidou’s Mondrian show

The Pompidou treat Mondrian almost as a native in mounting what is really two shows in one

It was in Paris in 1912 that Piet Mondriaan dropped an ‘a’ from his surname when he signed a work and became the Mondrian that we know. It was also in Paris a little later that he made paintings based on facades of buildings near his studio, abstracting them into compositions of interlocking planes picked out in pale pink and blue.

They anticipate the more severe abstractions that Mondrian painted on his return to Paris after the First World War - the ones his name immediately evokes. And because he remained in the city until 1938 the Pompidou can treat him almost as a native in mounting what is really two shows in one: a superb Mondrian retrospective complemented by a survey of the artists and architects loosely grouped around the magazine De Stijl, which Theo van Doesburg founded in 1917.

After a few examples of Mondrian’s pre-Paris work, the retrospective begins in earnest with his Cubist tree studies in ochre and grey, and proceeds via the facades to the Pier and Ocean series - the last of his paintings to stem directly from external reality. Then come the pure abstractions, studiously impersonal in their suppression of any brushstrokes and animated by red, yellow and blue. In the dazzling final room are paintings from the 1930s, rhythmically subdivided by horizontal and vertical lines on a white ground, with colour minimised and pushed to the edge.

The only problem with the choice of works is that they make Mondrian seem unerring. While the show includes one unfinished painting, a whole room of them in the 1995 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art highlighted all the revisions of arrangement Mondrian would make. Clearly the harmony of his compositions, asymmetrical but balanced, doesn’t come from proportional systems but from his eye and intuition.

Not that all the finished paintings are as pristine as they look in reproduction. Some of them have as much craquelure as something from the 15th century. In this perhaps they encapsulate what happened when the idealism of De Stijl met ‘the real world’, though the story is not so much of flaws in executed schemes as of unrealised ambitions (both social and aesthetic).

Among many exhibits that illustrate those ambitions are replicas of Mondrian’s Paris studio and Rietveld’s Coloured Spatial Composition for an Exhibition Area, along with detailed presentations of Mondrian’s study-library for Ida Bienert and Van Doesburg’s schemes for L’Aubette in Strasbourg. In all these, multiple oblongs of colour colonise walls, ceiling, floor and furniture to completely immerse the occupant. But Van Doesburg’s diagonal designs are really quite aggressive - he seems more the architect’s antagonist than an ally.

If Rietveld’s Schröder House was De Stijl’s most fully realised conception, its most utopian must be Frederick Kiesler’s suspended City in Space at the Paris International Exhibition of 1925. A replica of this intricate structure, with its linked beams and planes barely touching the floor, dominates a large room here. ‘This is no wild dream,’ said Kiesler - to which history has disagreed.
These twin shows are a treat. They confirm just how exemplary Mondrian’s career was, for he never relied on a formula but continually pressed on to find new solutions. His best works here are timeless in their subtlety and rigour.

+ The harmony of compositions
- The choice of works makes Mondrian seem unerring

Mondrian / De Stijl

Where:  Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

When: Until 21 March

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