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.

» Read the original story in French

» Credits: Lenore Edman (CC)

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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