Mondrian’s biography paints a new picture of a warped artist
For six years, the most comprehensive biography ever written on Dutch painter Piet Mondrian was only available in Dutch. Thanks to a new translation, English-speaking audiences can now learn more about one of the most important figures of modernism.
Mondrian, it turns out, was not the man we thought he was. A century later, the influence of its iconic railings can still be seen everywhere, from architecture and interior designto the clothes on bridge. Yet according to a more nuanced portrait of Mondrian offered by the meticulous research of Hans Janssen Piet Mondriaan – Een nieuwe kunst voor een ongekend leven (2016), translated into English this year on the 150e anniversary of Mondrian’s birth, much of the knowledge received about the man behind the easel misses the mark.
Released in the UK in June, with a US edition due September 27, the 424-page translation Piet Mondrian: a life is the first complete biography on Mondrian ever published in English.
The work is the result of years of study by Hans Janssen (1954-2021), former chief curator of the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, which houses the largest Mondrian collection in the world. His careful examination of sources – including hitherto unknown letters and manuscripts – allows for a deeper reading of Mondrian’s work than ever before and promises in the introduction “a fuller picture of the man and a more pleasant about his work”.
Above all, the biography puts an end to the myth according to which Mondrian, the most dogmatic of the founders of the De Stijl movement (abstract, “neoplastic” art limited to straight lines and primary colors), lived as a hermit, absorbed in his work. On the contrary, he was a great jazz enthusiast, a fantastic dancer and had a great sense of humor.
In Paris (1912-1914 and 1919-1938), in particular, he immersed himself in the bohemian scene of the city’s nightclubs. He maintained society with poets, playwrights and painters: Cocteau, Stein, Picasso, Man Ray; and the singer, dancer and actress Josephine Baker, whose “visible and tangible energy” (Janssen) greatly appealed to him, seeing a kinship between her attractive exterior and private interior and her own artistic attempt to break through the universal laws that underlie beauty.
“In 1920 and 1921, the avalanche of new experiences and friendships sparked in Mondrian an inexhaustible desire to work,” wrote Janssen. Mondrian, we learn, was far from isolated. In fact, the longer he left his studio, the more his painting proliferated. Her love of concerts and dance has nurtured her work and given it an important musical element often overlooked by critics.
But not Jansen. “He gradually realized that a good painting… had its own inner rhythm which came from the interaction between the visual elements, of which position and proportion were most important,” he writes, and he quotes a 1922 diary interview where Mondrian alludes to how the “suddenly ceasing sounds” of jazz music and the “balance in opposition” of dance influenced his grid compositions.
Mondrian even named a series of paintings after his beloved fox trot, communicating the same slow, slow, fast, fast rhythm as the eye dances around the canvas. And when the Netherlands threatened to ban the Charleston in 1926, he said From Telegraaf that he might never go back there.
Despite a strict religious upbringing in Amersfoort, Mondrian was not the monk some historians have made him out to be. Although there is evidence in the book that he ended relationships if they compromised his ability to paint, Mondrian had many romantic liaisons and – with his slicked back hair, tailored suits and clever dance step – he was hugely popular with women.
Nor did his intellectual circle and his devotion to his art make him haughty. Instead, Janssen paints an image of a likeable man who was “kind-hearted and never mean-spirited”. “He may have had strong opinions, but he was not quick to judge,” he wrote.
Unusually, the biography has interludes where we access Mondrian’s thoughts or witness imaginary conversations. Although based on documentary evidence, these intimate moments drew mixed reviews from critics. But they are perhaps best understood as a testament to the deep connection Janssen felt with Mondrian – sometimes even the sense that he was becoming him – and his desire to bring his hero to life for readers.
Readers of the biography are also treated to vivid descriptions of Mondrian’s studios in the Netherlands, France and the United States. We follow Mondrian as a student in the 1890s, door-to-door in the De Pijp district of Amsterdam, hawking his landscape paintings, and we hear how, in 1940, he was nearly torpedoed at sea as he fled the UK to start a new life in New York.
Curator Caro Verbeek, who succeeded Hans Janssen at Kunstmuseum Den Haag in 2021, told DutchNews.nl that Piet Mondrian: a life brought “new knowledge and insight into Mondrian as a human being and an artist” and how the two are intertwined, and elicited “enthusiastic reactions from around the world”.
“People think Mondrian took a ruler and made really straight lines and then calculated the size of each volume,” she says. ‘Nope. It was more something Mondrian felt, rather than thought, and I think it’s something that Hans Janssen communicated very well in his biography.
Verbeek, who works at the desk where Janssen once sat, once found a button underneath that belonged to him. Janssen suggested she return it to him in person, but died before a date was set. The button is now pinned to Verbeek’s computer as a reminder of his contribution to art history. It is one of her roles at the museum, she says, “to continue to convey Hans’s message that Mondrian was not antisocial, not cerebral, but that he was intuitive and very social”.
With the recent Kunstmuseum exhibition Movers Mondrian, inspired by Janssen’s biography and the “Applause to the Rhythm of Piet” tour, Verbeek has remained true to Janssen’s legacy. “No one knew Mondrian as well as he did,” she says.
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