Piet Mondrian and the six lines that made a masterpiece

This multi-sensory engagement with art, Verbeek explains, is also invited into Mondrian’s 1922 composition with blue, yellow, red, black and gray once you appreciate its musicality. “What I love about this composition is how it changes your sense of verticality and horizontality. It’s not just that you move your eyes, it’s also that your whole state of mind changes…in the same plane,” she says. “That’s how you’re supposed to look at a Mondrian. Not as an image you scan, but as a change in direction, movement, rhythm, pace.”

Contemplating a Mondrian, she explains, is a visceral experience: “The members of the Stijl want to evoke a bodily sensation, a very physical aesthetic. Years later, Mondrian would go further, attributing specific dances to his works. There was a Foxtrot series in the late 1920s, for example, and his last painting Victory Boogie Woogie (1942-44), was a celebration of the syncopated rhythms he adored.

Even brushstrokes perpetuate movement, Verbeek explains. The thin, vertical yellow plane, for example, is painted – counterintuitively – in careful horizontal strokes, creating that characteristic duality and opposition, while reminding us of the individual, the steady hand of the artist, in the ‘universal.

Even appreciated at their most superficial level, Mondrian’s attractive and instantly recognizable grids made a lasting impression, emboldening and democratizing the art world and elevating the status of the graphic and the geometric.

We find the influence of Mondrian’s color palette and sharp angles in the Pop Art of Lichtenstein, and echoes of his checkerboards in the painted mosaics of Gerhard Richter. Architects from Slovakia to the United States are still experimenting with De Stijl principles, and fashion brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Hermès, Moschino and even Nike have all brought Mondrian grids to life on their catwalks.

At the Stedelijk Museum, where a century ago Mondrian raised a glass with friends, the 1922 masterpiece hangs innocently, its central white square staring at passing visitors, directing their gaze on a perpetual journey inside and around it. Is the work a motif, a painting, a drawing or a dance?

For those in the know, there is music inside, but most just stare curiously. The colors seem to leak out of the frame and the unfinished grid lines keep their teasing. “I think he just wanted to keep the image as open as possible,” muses Ulf Küster of Beyeler. “All good artists ask more questions than they answer.”

Mondrian Evolution is at the Fondation Beyeler until October 9, 2022.

Mondrian & De Stijl is on permanent display at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Mondrian Moves runs until September 25, 2022.

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