Art Anyone with even a passing understanding of contemporary broadcasting in the UK in 2014 will find the sentence after this one entirely unbelievable. I have Channel 5 to thank for helping me to understand Piet Mondrian. Back in 1997 when The Jack Docherty Show was still at the cornerstone of the schedule and the branding was fittingly hewn in primary colours, morning television included a very basically presented half hour slice of public service broadcasting in which an expert, I expect it was Tim Marlow, interviewed another expert on a particular subject, very Late Night Line-Up, very History Today without the jokes.
One morning I happened to be watching and that morning they were covering the life of Piet Mondrian. I don’t much remember the specifics of what was said, but I do remember the paintings and how across the half hour beginning with his trees and landscapes and buildings, the expert explained how across his life, Mondrian just kept paring back and paring back the elements of his work right to the essentials. Suddenly these paintings which were prominent enough for me to recognise but not enough to understand, and which I’d seen numerously in exhibitions, made almost perfect sense.
All of which probably sounds terribly remedial to you, but for me, sitting with on my sofa with my cornflakes trying to decide how late I could leave it before getting the bus to work it was a revelation, because it also meant I understood that artists have chronology. They don’t simply produce random pieces of art across their lives as the mood took them, but there was a clear sense of trying to develop, of shifting from one idea to the next to the next and it quickly became apparent to my half-formed brain that this was true of all the best cultural creators, in film, in music, in books and in theatre.
Tate Liverpool’s Mondrian and his Studios begins at the transitional point, that moment during the First World War when he’s stuck in the Netherlands producing work that glances towards the figurative, creating pieces like Scaffold Studies in which its still possible to see architectural shapes and The Tree A in which, thanks to the title giving us some idea, we can see the darkened cracks of bark around the trunk of some timber even if the colours are pastel greys and blues rather than dark greens and browns. But without the titles, if they were Untitled, I expect we’d assume them to be “abstract”.
Then in the next room, we’re straight into his neo-plasticity phase, blocks, lines and colours and I wonder how I might have reacted had it not been for Channel 5. It’s interesting that exhibition doesn’t set itself out to create the same “oho” moment or an “Oh, I get it!” One of his day-glo tree efforts from a couple of years earlier would certainly have gone some way towards this. Instead, there’s an expectation that the visitor is supposed to have some kind of working knowledge of the painter, even though unlike other recent artists gifted iconic Summer shows here, he’s pretty challenging.
The exhibition does allow Mondrian to speak for himself. In the accompanying booklet, there’s a quote from 1941 which does much to clarify: “More and more I excluded from my painting all curved lines, until finally my compositions consisted only of vertical and horizontal lines, which formed crosses, each one separate and detached from the other. Observing sea, sky and stars, I sought to indicate their plastic function through a multiplicity of crossing verticals and horizontals.”
That quote is missing an opening section, “In painting a tree I progressively abstracted the curves; you can understand that very little ‘tree’ remained.” Is it an exhibition’s job to be education in the same way as that discussion programme? I don’t know and I definitely can’t say because I’m not seeing Mondrian’s work as a new thing, just as when someone says that can’t understand Shakespeare I can’t see it from their perspective because he’s been with me for so many years. Which isn’t a criticism, incidentally, but worth asking.
Amid these discussions about curatorial intent, as with all exhibitions it can’t help, as part of its function, being educational. Seeing these paintings up close, it’s possible to see that Mondrian wasn’t working with uniform colours. What seems from a distance or postcard reproduction like a block of TARDIS blue has gradations, elements of royal blue, Tory blue and other blues without descriptive connotations. Age has also produced crazing, extra jagged elements of black which in one of his neo-placticism works, Composition A, resembled the bark of The Tree A.
The show does also demonstrate that even after Mondrian had abandoned what he’d initially decided was “abstract real”, he continued to develop. Faced with his initial blocks of colour, critics apparently decided that he’d created a full stop on painting, that there wasn’t much more to say. But It was only 1920. A semi-colon. He had decades of work still left to do. As he moved from Paris, then to London and finally to New York, although at a glance the work, which now had the familiar white background, black bars and blocks or blue, red and yellow seem the same, his ideas were forever changing.
By the late twenties he’s creating the most familiar of his works, in which a single block of colour, most often white, fills the space with everything else pushed to the side. By the 1930s he’d begun to use the phase “dynamic equilibrium” and said that his work expressed “the perpetual movement of changing opposites”. He’d spend months even years on some paintings, making choices on how the lines would intersect, where to put the colours, whether he could be radical and have a horizontal line stretching from left to right stop at a vertical or box.
By the 1940s, his love of jazz meant that he wanted to create an ever greater sense of movement in the paintings so there are more lines and they were more likely to intersect, and the colours sometimes stand alone. Many of these works took years to create, begun at one end of the Second World War but completed towards the end. His work rate was surprisingly slow. Across his life he only produced about three hundred paintings, which in comparison to some “abstract” artists is amazingly small. But unlike some, the effort in terms of thought was exceptionally intense.
So there is some narrative here, and underpinning the sense of biography, each artistic period is accompanied by recreations of his studios, the “and his Studios” part of the title (unlike some exhibitions where “and his studios” means the paintings touched up by the artist’s students). His home in London, which due to the war remains entirely undocumented is represented by a slideshow of computer reconstructions. His final studio in New York is evoked through a contemporary filmed recording, photographs and reconstructions of the wall decorations, small squares of coloured card.
But it’s the recreation of his Paris studio at 26, Rue du Depart, an installation originally created in 1995 by this Foundation for the Construction of Mondrian’s Studio which is getting the most coverage. It’s extraordinary. Mondrian realised that the best way to publicise his work and its possibilities was through this space, or the original version of this space and so it was designed to reflect the work, from the vertical lines to the positioning of his work spaces to the decorations which included recreations of his already sold work amongst the originals still in production.
But as you can see from the photos it was also a living space and the details of Mondrian's humanity have also been painstakingly included. The alarm clock hung on wall, his wire rimmed spectacles sat on a table as though he’s just left them there, stacks of paintbrushes (some of them with paint staining), binoculars, pipes sitting within small wooden rests, even a hole punch, all bathed in natural light from windows in the real ceiling of the gallery, though in this context, with a little bit of suspension of disbelief, Liverpool’s sky could just as well be Paris.
Except Liverpool is ever present through all of the windows in the gallery and that’s what reminds us that at its source, Mondrian’s abstractions have real world origins. Stand in front of many of these paintings then look left and right and we see similar, if more uniform grids in the Tate’s window frames. Look beyond that to the rest of the Albert Dock and we see arches and verticals similar to his transitional architectural drawings. Look even further across the road to Liverpool One and we find trees. Mondrian’s artistic development isn’t just in the gallery. It’s all around us too.
Mondrian and his Studios is at Tate Liverpool from 6 June – 5 October 2014.
Adult £11 (without donation £10)
Concession £8.25 (without donation £7.50)
[Price includes admission to Nasreen Mohamedi]