10 Facts That Change the Way You See Piet Mondrian, From His Inventive New Biography

How well do you think you know the Dutch painter?

Piet Mondrian’s Evolution (1911) in the exhibition “Piet Mondrian - Vom Abbild zum Bild” at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Photo by Henning Kaiser /AFP/Getty Images.
An employee checks the light levels around Piet Mondrian’s Evolution (1911) in the exhibition “Piet Mondrian - Vom Abbild zum Bild” at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Photo by Henning Kaiser /AFP/Getty Images.

In his new biography of Piet Mondrian, Dutch art historian Hans Janssen sets out to abolish the myth of the artist as recluse, ascetic being, and mechanical/unemotional figure slaving in his studio. Instead, he reveals the true nature of “[a] man who embraced life, and was completely fascinated by painting.”

Though Mondrian was, no doubt, a mysterious and elusive man, Janssen endeavors to draw a portrait of the Neo-Plasticist hero as “a practical man,” less influenced by his belief in Theosophic philosophy or Goethe’s color theory than his enjoyment of the company of women, love of music and food, and above all, abilities as an amazing dancer—an artist with a wholesome joie de vivre. 

In what is an impressive feat of research and scholarship into the life of Mondrian, Janssen takes some liberties in recounting the painter’s life, retelling parts of Mondrian’s story in the form of vie romancée and fictionalizing segments of the famed figure’s life based on plausible circumstances.

The most notable example of this may be a scene in which Mondrian is described as attending Josephine Baker’s first performance in Paris in 1925—down to his disappointment that she didn’t dance the Charleston. There is no evidence that he did attend, “[but] it is highly likely,” notes Janssen. It includes passages like this, an invented dialogue with Henry van Loon in the section:

“And this is the thing,” said Mondrian. “I hear that there was a young dancer with them, and no one knew what she would be doing. Charles developed a dance sauvage for her. He wanted her to appear scantily clad, or better still, wearing almost nothing, with just some pink feathers here and there, including at her wrists and ankles. That would nicely accentuate the suppleness of her body. She is apparently called Josephine Baker, and she is barely nineteen years old.”

Nevertheless, Janssen’s biography of the Dutch master is riveting and eloquent. Here are some of the tidbits about Janssen’s new, earthy Mondrian given in this 625-page tome (120 pages of which were translated from its original, and form the basis of this article).

Piet Mondrian in his studio with (top) Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow Lines (1933) and (bottom) Composition with Double Lines and Yellow, (1934). Paris, October 1933. Collection RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History. Photo credit Charles Karsten.

Piet Mondrian in his studio with (top) Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow Lines (1933) and (bottom) Composition with Double Lines and Yellow (1934). Paris, October 1933. Collection RKD, Netherlands Institute for Art History. Photo credit Charles Karsten.

 

1. MONDRIAN LOVED TO BIKE

 

At the tail end of WWI, Mondrian lived in Laren, Holland, and would travel from his home to his studio near Noolseweg every day by bicycle (that’s where he made Composition With Gray Lines of 1919). The book starts out, quite emphatically, by stating that Mondrian “always enjoyed the bicycle ride, even when the weather was not good.”

Granted, for a Dutchman, this is perhaps not so surprising.

 

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Grey Lines, 1918, oil on canvas. Courtesy Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Grey Lines, 1918, oil on canvas. Courtesy Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

2. DYSLEXIA SHAPED HIS ART

 

Janssen makes an interesting case about the origins of his path-breaking art concepts:

Mondrian’s literal interpretation of reality was also reflected in his interest in the literal meaning of words, which may have been prompted by a mild form of dyslexia. His peculiar use of language resulted from this interest: ‘plastic means’, ‘bringing to determination’, ‘abolition of position and proportion’. Such terms and phrases, as he used them in Dutch, were the outcome of his tendency to take words literally.

Mondrian wrote extensively for friend and fellow painter Theo von Doesburg’s journal De Stijl. Through these writings, Mondrian would then come up with theories of a “new plastic,” or Neo-Plasticism.

 

3. HE ASSISTED THE LEADING SCIENTISTS OF HIS TIME

 

Starting in 1910 (and perhaps before), Mondrian worked as an assistant to Professor Reindert Pieter van Calcar (1872–1957) at Leiden University in the Netherlands. As a way to make money during a time of uncertainty in his art practice, the artist would draw bacteriological specimens in the laboratory for the professor. Van Calcar specialized in cholera and performed a lot of quantitative and experimental research. Between 1901 and 1920, researchers at Leiden were awarded three Nobel Prizes. Janssen argues Mondrian’s experience working at Leiden University had a tremendous influence on theoretical breakthroughs in painting—a strategy of looking, measuring, and experimenting with nature.

 

4. THE ARTIST ONCE CONSIDERED BECOMING A MINISTER

 

“Mondrian has grown up to become a painter, but the need to expose the essence has induced him to seriously consider becoming a church minister, or a conductor,” writes Janssen, though in general, the book makes an effort to downplay Mondrian’s interests in Theosophy and mysticism. But the artist was very much into spirituality. Although Mondrian developed a “scientific method” or approach to art making, he was convinced that the creative process was “directed and led by the intuitive,” and “driven by unknown forces.”

 

 5. MONDRIAN SURVIVED THE SPANISH FLU

 

In 1918, Mondrian contracted the Spanish flu, an epidemic that took more lives than the Great War itself, with deaths ranging from 50 to 100 million. It is believed that Mondrian caught the disease from his housemate Jo Steijling (1879–1973), a primary school teacher who was very close to the artist. Mondrian’s symptoms continued for months. By December 1918 tens of thousands of people died of the influenza alone. Throughout this time, he continued to work on his paintings in his studio—and this may have helped his art.

As he wrote to a friend in 1929, “While I have had the flu I have noticed how concentrated one unwillingly becomes, and that the work is the better for it.”

Piet Mondrian Victory Boogie Woogie. Courtesy the Gemeentemuseum.

Piet Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie (1944). Courtesy the Gemeentemuseum.

 

  6. HE ALMOST GAVE UP ART TO BECOME A FARMHAND

 

After WWI, Mondrian returned to Paris where the city was slowly becoming a hotbed for creativity, experimentation, and partying—he was huge fan of the Paris nightclub scene and frequented the boîtes whenever possible. However, while in Paris, “his lack of success gave him severe doubts,” and made him think about finding a job as a waiter or a grape picker. Janseen notes:

“From January 1920 he toyed continually with idea of throwing in the towel and going to live with his friend Ritsema van Eck, who had offered him accommodation in the south of France.’You understand,’ he [Mondrian] wrote, ‘that once I am convinced that it will be financially viable because of N.P. [neo-plastic] work, I shall be off. I shall simply pick olives in the South. I can earn 12 fr. [francs] a day there, and people live off that.”

 

7. HE WAS INTO NOISE MUSIC

 

It is probably well known that Mondrian was a great jazz fan, and was obsessed with how people danced to the music, regularly going to clubs in Paris during the 1920s. What is perhaps not common knowledge is that the artist was also a fan of noise music.

In June 1921 artist Luigi Russolo premiered his performance Bruiteurs Futuristes at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Russolo created instruments he called intonarumori, apparatuses that “produced acoustic noises that were reflected in their names: screechers, growlers, cracklers, bleepers, cluckers, poppers, howlers, croakers.” Although we don’t know for sure if Mondrian actually attended Russolo performance in Paris, Janssen notes that he wrote “a lengthy article for De Stijl detailing how the intonarumori allowed the creation for purely abstract form of music.”

 

8. THE MAN WAS A COMPULSIVE SPENDER AND A HUGE FOODIE

 

During his time in Paris, Mondrian often complained about having a lack of money, since he couldn’t sell his painting. This fits with his artistic rep for austere, rationalistic abstraction, but it was far from being true.

Not only did he have support from friends like Ritsema van Eck and Jo Steijling who both bought paintings from the artist, he also had fairly affordable rent. The issue was that Mondrian was not very good with money and lived a somewhat lavish lifestyle: He enjoyed the finer things in life, and most of all loved going out to best restaurants in town: “Mondrian knew all the restaurants where one could eat well.”

In attempt to be frugal, Mondrian started cooking from home and found that he ate “much better and more cheaply,” but alas, he felt that his social was in the outs, finding himself at home and in the studio at all hours of the day.

Piet Mondrian with Broadway Boogie Woogie, New York, 1943. Photo by Fritz Glarner. Courtesy the Collection RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.

Piet Mondrian with Broadway Boogie Woogie, New York, 1943. Photo by Fritz Glarner. Courtesy the Collection RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.

 

9. HE HAD AN “UNUSUALLY INTENSE” INTEREST IN WOMEN

 

Despite the image of Mondrian as a solitary, hermit of a man, he actually did enjoy the company of women. He would take women out on walks, to restaurants, and out dancing to clubs. As Janssen puts it in his book, he “had an uncomplicated interest in women, one that was unusually intense but at the same time enlightened and honourable. He was also highly attractive to women…, He lived simply, but took pleasure in the finer things in life.”

Just how “enlightened and honourable” was he? He had an affair with the much younger Lily Bles (1909–1982), the daughter of Dutch poet Dop Bles (1883–1940). In 1929 Dop and his daughter, who was  a much, much younger 19 at the time (Mondrian was 57), came to visit Paris and stayed with Mondrian. Dop and Mondrian had known each other for some time and were good friends. Mondrian and Lily continued their affair for years. Mondrian asked for Lily’s hand in marriage, but in a letter she wrote to him in 1932, Lily denied his request because “she was looking for someone her own age.”

 

10. HE LOVED TO DANCE MORE THAN HE LOVED HIS COUNTRY

 

Maybe one Mondrian’s best known secrets is his passion for dance. The painter enjoyed going out dancing with friends and took dance classes all throughout his life. And, according to Janssen, the dance enthusiast was obsessed with the “Charleston,” a popular dance movement in the United States during 1920s, named after the city in South Carolina.

Mondrian was drawn to the dance for its connection to jazz and “visual and rhythmic aspects.” All over the world, however, the dance was frowned upon because it was viewed as immoral, lude, and overtly sexual. As Janssen puts it, Moondrian “felt compelled, in 1926, to give an interview to the Dutch press threatening never to return to the Netherlands if the ban on the Charleston was enforced.”

Piet Mondrian: A New Art for a Life Unknown (Hollands Diep, 2017) was published just before the opening of “Mondrian to Dutch Design: 100 Years of De Stijl” an exhibition celebrating centennial anniversary of the founding of the art movement. The show is on view at the Gemeentemuseum in Holland, through September 24, 2017.


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