2017-05-24 09:41:03
Footsteps: Mondrian’s World: From Primary Colors to the Boogie Woogie

It has often been assumed that Piet Mondrian was a cold, calculating, detached kind of man. Look at his paintings, his primary color planes divided by black lines, so formal and rectilineal: Hello, is there anyone in there?

But it turns out that the Dutch painter was quite a vibrant character, apparently a lover of many women, who went out dancing at jazz clubs almost every night, and constantly experimented with new forms of art and new ways of seeing.

A celebrated early-20th-century abstract artist, Mondrian was labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis, and fled wartime Europe by ship on a harrowing 10-day journey to America, where he was embraced as a hero of Modern art. There, he developed a utopian vision of the world that held up the United States — or, rather, what he experienced of it in the mixture of art and jazz in New York — as a model of the open-minded and the progressive.

As an American art writer living in Amsterdam, I have long been curious about Mondrian, one of the most influential but perhaps least understood of the modernists. His boldly colored graphic works have been so thoroughly integrated into our cultural wallpaper that it’s easy to forget he was a person.

This year cultural institutions throughout the Netherlands have teamed up for a celebration called “Mondrian to Dutch Design,” on the 100th anniversary of de Stijl (the Style), the art movement that he helped found in 1917. The country has gone all out, with tributes ranging from Mondrian-inspired flower displays in the Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse in the early spring to turning The Hague City Hall into a giant Mondrian canvas.

So it seemed an ideal time to go in search of Mondrian in the country where he was born and raised. The celebration coincides with a revealing new biography, “Piet Mondrian: A New Art for a Life Unknown,” by Hans Janssen, a Dutch art historian and curator.

The highlight of the de Stijl year is a major retrospective, “The Discovery of Mondrian,” from June 3 to Sept. 24 at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, which owns the largest collection of his work. The exhibition is described as “an extensive tour of the life and work of Piet Mondrian,” tracing the evolution of the artist’s style from his childhood sketches to his final masterwork, “Victory Boogie Woogie,” which he left unfinished on an easel in his East 59th Street studio in New York when he died of pneumonia at age 71 in 1944.

I started my version of this tour last fall, at Mondriaanhuis or Mondrian House, in Amersfoort, where Mondrian was born in 1872. Now a museum, the house, about an hour by train or car from Amsterdam, is in the charming medieval city center, with its lovely narrow cobblestone lanes, vine-covered brick houses and willows weeping over reflective canals.

The compact museum, founded in 1994, has biographical displays, along with a few select artworks by Mondrian, pieces by artists he influenced, and a replica of his studio in Paris, where he lived from the end of World War I until World War II. A $1 million renovation, completed in March, added a 13-screen introductory video and an exhibition room with a large white cube in the center presenting a multimedia display that explores Mondrian’s later life in New York, and how the dynamic city influenced him.

In the biographical area, which includes black-and-white photographs, personal objects and reproductions of historic documents, I learned that Mondrian grew up in a “God-fearing Protestant family,” with an older sister and three younger brothers.

Mondrian’s father was the headmaster of a school in Amersfoort. He was also an amateur artist and a gifted draughtsman who encouraged his son to draw at an early age and perhaps also imparted his love of music. It was Mondrian’s uncle, Frits, his father’s brother, though, who taught him how to paint.

Inge Vos, a private tour guide with Amersfoortse Gidsen, which offers a Mondrian-related tour, explained to me that the small town developed rapidly during the artist’s early childhood, when its first shopping street, tramway and railway were built.

“We think this probably influenced him,” she said, “because if so many things around you change, you start to wonder about the truth of everything. He became fascinated with technology and change.”

For the next part of my journey, I traveled by train 2.5 hours to Winterswijk, about as far east as you can travel in the Netherlands before crossing the German border, about five miles away. This was the second town where Mondrian lived, between 1880 and 1892, and where he began his artistic journey. His family home here, a grand white three-story house called the Villa Mondriaan, has also been converted into a museum devoted to his life story. It stands next to the former National School of Christian Instruction, where his father took another headmaster post.

Thanks to a loan from the Gemeentemuseum, the Villa Mondriaan contains an exhibition of artworks by Mondrian, with a particular focus on his early pictures. Here, I could witness the beginning stages of his process of artistic discovery: a sketch of a girl that he completed while studying fine arts at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, a portrait of a boy leaning on a fence he made at about age 21, and watercolors of landscapes in and around Winterswijk. All indicate a precocious talent for drawing, a clear interest in depicting qualities of light, and — perhaps not surprisingly — a very strong attention to line.

The museum has a room full of black-and-white portrait photographs from Mondrian’s years in Paris and New York — he cuts a clean and elegant figure, always in a tailored suit, even when posing in his studio, and often surrounded by artists and friends.

Villa Mondriaan — the painter dropped the second “a” to become more international — provides a sense of the young artist as somewhat distracted and unfocused in school, but determined and gifted, especially as a draughtsman. From early on, he constantly revised his vision — playing with line, exploring the dynamics of light, working with the form of things around him.

After my visit to the museum, I followed a self-guided eight-stop walking tour that travels through and around Winterswijk to key Mondrian locations. This took me to an urban park, with winding trails and a narrow wooden footbridge. At location No. 4, I sat on a red stool called the Mondriaan Bench and faced the quaint Dutch city. A sculptural frame had been erected in the park — black with red, yellow and blue rectangles — designed to offer a picture-frame view of the subject of one of Mondrian’s early landscape paintings, a cluster of squat clay-brick houses by a Romanesque church. This was the same aspect depicted in his 1899 “Farm Scene with St. Jacob’s Church,” a watercolor and gouache on paper he based on sketches he made here as a teenager.

Mondrian started out here as a naturalistic painter of Dutch landscapes, working to capture the town’s pastoral outskirts, often including farmers and their animals, in subdued color and muted light. As he moved farther away from the countryside, his work became more and more urbane, and so did he.

In his biography, Mr. Janssen writes that Mondrian “had soft features, a long narrow face, a high forehead with a hairline that had already begun to shift, and brown eyes with a serious, circumspect look. … He also tended to wear a reticent, half-hidden frown that gave him an air of calm dignity. His eyes were his most striking feature: open to the world, questioning, curious and full of determination.”

In 1892, Mondrian moved to Amsterdam, where he stayed until 1912, with some stints elsewhere in between. His early years in the city are “shrouded in mist” according to Mr. Janssen “but, at the age of 25, it would seem that he was searching on several fronts for his own style.” Unfortunately there are no landmarks of his life here, but the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the city’s leading contemporary art and design museum, where he had his first significant group exhibition in 1909, has a collection of his works, and is exhibiting a selection through Aug. 6 as part of “De Stijl at the Stedelijk,” which is devoted to the art movement.

De Stijl started as a magazine, founded by Theo van Doesburg, with articles by artists, designers and architects who were trying to redefine art in the hopes that it would help create “a world of total harmony, and to unify art and life,” according to the museum. Then it grew into an art and design movement.

Mondrian was one of the de Stijl revolutionaries, but after seeing an exhibition of Cubist work at the Stedelijk in 1911, he decided to move to Paris the next year. Here, he attended theater works with sets by the painter Fernand Léger whose style of Cubism featured bright, primary colors; he was impressed by Josephine Baker’s “danse sauvage”; and he became fascinated with the groundbreaking choreography of the Swedish dancer Jean Borlin, who combined Cubist and primitivist influences. All of this played into his evolving visual style.

Mondrian seems to have been out on the town almost every night, had lots of lovers and loved to dance. “In Paris, I quickly mastered the Foxtrot, the Shimmy and the One Step,” he wrote in a letter to van Doesburg, noting that he liked the Shimmy best: “At first, the heel-toe was sort of tricky. Nowadays, they find ways around it.” He never married, he would explain later, because when he was young he was too poor, and when he was older he never found the right woman.

From all that he saw and experienced, he created a new kind of universe, starting with his own studio. He painted the walls in bright primary colors, like his canvases divided into large blocks of white, using thick black lines — a three-dimensional version of what he was painting at the time. The place became a destination for artists and admirers, such as Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, Diego Rivera, Sonia Delaunay and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the collector Peggy Guggenheim and the art dealer Sidney Janis, who all visited — but apparently only by written appointment.

Mondrian lived in this studio, at Rue du Départ 26, in the Montparnasse neighborhood, from the end of World War I until 1938, when he fled Europe. It was unfortunately demolished with the expansion of the Gare Montparnasse train station in the 1940s, and now is the site of the Tour Montparnasse, a skyscraper. Luckily, it was well documented in photographs, and you can get a good idea of it at Mondriaan House in Amersfoort and at the Gemeentemuseum show.

Standing inside this studio was my favorite part of the journey. It’s easy to see how this space represented, for him and others, a kind of ideal, where everything was functional, but also aesthetically harmonious — a playground where art and life merged. While he lived there, Mondrian became internationally famous. Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, bought his work in Paris, and so did the Guggenheim Museum.

Forced to escape Paris after the Nazis targeted his work, he moved briefly to London, with the help of artist friends; after just barely surviving the Blitz, he traveled to New York on a Cunard ocean liner at the height of the U-boat war, in a convoy that sailed only by night with all the lights turned off. He was welcomed by Ms. Guggenheim, who introduced him to artists in New York, among whom he was already famous.

In his Manhattan studio, his work became ever more dynamic and abstract. At night, he traveled to Harlem to hear jazz jam sessions with artists like Thelonious Monk, and his fragmented, pounding, fractured sounds. He continued to dance, and to flirt.

He worked up until the day he died, creating his final tribute to the promise of postwar America and its jazz: the rhythmical diamond-shaped canvas he called “Victory Boogie Woogie.”

The Gemeentemuseum has the world’s largest collection of paintings by Mondrian, including his final 1944 masterpiece, “Victory Boogie Woogie.” “The Discovery of Mondrian” exhibition is scheduled for June 3 to Sept. 24. Stadhouderslaan 41, The Hague; gemeentemuseum.nl.

Mondriaanhuis is where Mondrian was born in 1872. Today it is a small museum devoted to his life and work, with a recreation of his Paris studio. Kortegracht 11, Amersfoort; mondriaanhuis.nl.

Villa Mondriaan is the house where Mondrian lived with his parents from 1880 to 1892. It has been restored and turned into a small museum and visitors’ center. Zonnebrink 4, Winterswijk; villamondriaan.nl/en/about-museum.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam has many Mondrian works in its collection of modern and contemporary art. Check the schedule for exhibitions. Museumplein (Museum Square); stedelijk.nl/en.