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Total Art: Seeing Mondrian’s Ambition

A long overdue Paris retrospective opens for one of the major figures of 20th century art

PARIS -- Celebrating Piet Mondrian in Paris is a bona fide event in more ways than one. First, because the French capital was where the Dutch artist, influenced by the cubist patterns of Braque and Picasso, conducted the research between 1912 and 1938 that would lead to his universal pictorial language: the "new abstract visual." And yet no major retrospective of this influential 20th century figure has been held here since the 1969 show at the Musée de l'Orangerie.

It is also moving, in itself, to see the remarkable path that transformed Mondrian (1872-1944) from landscapes rooted in the Dutch tradition towards the most radical kind of abstraction. These creations fused with their utopian dimension manage to somehow still stand today above all other forms of art. Curator Brigitte Leal delicately shows visitors a distinct characteristic of this inventor: a language that opens the door to an entire spiritual world.

After visiting two rooms devoted to the tree (what a symbolic motif!) -- stunning grey and beige masterpieces made available by the Hague's Gemeentemuseum -- the viewer can understand it all.

Moral and Metaphysical Demands

When asked what he wanted to express through his work, Mondrian replied: "Nothing more than what every artist seeks: to express harmony through the equivalence of lines, colors and planes. Specifically, to achieve this in the clearest and most powerful way." This intellectual commitment, coupled with an extreme and radical sensitivity, defined the very strength of his paintings. Mondrian dreamed of absolute art that would embody the face of modernity, and succeeded in the highest sense. You can see it inStill Life with Ginger Jarof 1911-1912, on loan from the Guggenheim, toNew York Cityof 1942, one of the jewels acquired in 1984 by the Centre Pompidou, offering a window into the art of his American years.

The year 1914 was a pivotal one for the artist. It marked his transition to color and the division of surfaces. It was on the walls of his studio in the Rue du Depart, now beautifully restored by the Centre Pompidou, that the artist experimented with the staging of color and lines on unframed canvases.

This was also where Mondrian welcomed members of the international avant-garde for debate. To understand his highly cerebral work, one must delve into the life of this man and the strict Calvinist father who raised him. Throughout his career, Mondrian's creations were based on a moral, philosophical, and even metaphysical compulsion, inherited from the Puritan community of his youth and nourished by later theosophical teachings. In 1909, he joined the Theosophical Society, an organization which espoused an esoteric doctrine inspired by Neo-Platonist ideals.

An emerging market

It was the 2009 auction of the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent collection, conducted by Christie's in Paris' Grand Palais, that set a record for Mondrian's work. A 1922 Composition with blue, red, yellow and black (80 x 50 cm) was sold for 21.5 million euros. This iconic painting, which was acquired from the dealer Alain Tarica after the Saint Laurent created his famous Mondrian dress in 1965, has been universally recognized for its perfect balance and equilibrium. The piece was perfectly conserved and its sale marked a pivotal year in the career of the artist. The second highest price, $21 million in 2004 at Sotheby's, was paid for a 1942 study for the famousBroadway Boogie Woogiewhich was painted the following year and is now preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

All of Mondrian's greatest works are already in museums. "He is a far less popular and commercial artist than Picasso, Monet or even Modigliani, and his work, which is very cerebral, remains too closely tied to a movement," explained Thomas Seydoux of Christie's. "Hence the prices similar to those of Miro, who is associated with surrealism, or those of Klee and Kandinsky, the kings of abstraction."

"De Stijl" on the road to modernity

It is a challenge to make a connection between this great name in abstract painting and the Dutch avant-garde movement "De Stijl," which was born in the early 1900s. Some 2200 square meters of the exhibit hold 400 paintings, drawings, models, photographs and articles, demonstrating the prolific nature of Mondrian's oeuvre, as well as his ability to win over his contemporaries. The period was so rich with work that journeying through it can even, at times, become labyrinthine and tedious.

Since its 1923 founding exhibition at the Galerie L'Effort Modern, this movement of some of the most important avant-garde artists has not been the subject of a major retrospective exhibition in France. De Stijl was based around a magazine in Leiden that existed from 1917-1931, founded by Theo Van Duisburg, who collected the works and proposals of theorists and practitioners of all horizons. This included emblematic artists such as Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld as well as others less known to the public, such as Bart van der Leck, and Vilmos Huszard, or Robert Van't Hoff, prominent activists of modern abstraction.

Informed by theosophy, Mondrian developed his theories of Neoplasticism within this movement, believing art must evolve in parallel with the life of the "truly modern man" by removing individual subjectivity in order to reach the "pure representation of the human spirit."

A Life's Project

Such a representation was based on a universal visual language, of neutral construction, consisting of horizontal and vertical lines which cross at right angles to symbolize the opposition encountered in the universe. Here, Mondrian also explores the infinite wealth of the primary colors red, yellow and blue.

"De Stijl was never really a movement, like Bauhaus, but rather an aesthetic, a set of shared ideas and precepts," explains Aurélien Lemonier, co-curator alongside Frederick Migayrou. "This explains why it is not well known even though it had a considerable influence on all other disciplines." The aesthetic is clear in this ambitious exhibition, which traces the origins of De Stijl in Holland and shows its influence in France, particularly in architectural masterpieces such as the Café-Dancing de l'Aubette in Strasbourg, created by Theo VanDoesburg, Sophie Taueber and Hans Arp. De Stijl proposes a life's project through design, from exteriors to interiors. The subject is broad, almost too broad.

Mondrian/De Stijl through March 21 at the Centre Pompidou. www.centrepompidou.fr

» Read the original story in French

» Credits: Lenore Edman (CC)

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"Splendid" Colonialism? Time To Change How We Talk About Fashion And Culture

A lavish book to celebrate Cartagena, Colombia's most prized travel destination, will perpetuate clichéd views of a city inextricably linked with European exploitation.

Photo of women in traditional clothes at a market in Cartagena, Colombia

At a market iIn Cartagena, Colombia

Vanessa Rosales


BOGOTÁ — The Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz is celebrating the historic port of Cartagena de Indias, in Colombia, in a new book, Cartagena Grace, published by Assouline. The European publisher specializes in luxury art and travel books, or those weighty, costly coffee table books filled with dreamy pictures. If you never opened the book, you could still admire it as a beautiful object in a lobby or on a center table.

Ortiz produced the book in collaboration with Lauren Santo Domingo, an American model (née Davis, in Connecticut) who married into one of Colombia's wealthiest families. Assouline is promoting it as a celebration of the city's "colonial splendor, Caribbean soul and unfaltering pride," while the Bogotá weekly Semana has welcomed an international publisher's focus on one of the country's emblematic cities and tourist spots.

And yet, use of terms like colonial "splendor" is not just inappropriate, but unacceptable.

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