Whether you like his art or not, it’s hard nowadays to imagine how Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) could have generated controversy. His characteristic paintings included white rectangles divided by straight-edged grids and brightened by little yellow or red squares. The great art critic Robert Hughes joked that his work inspired the patterns on linoleum flooring; many of his paintings look as if they might have been designs for leaded glass windows from early 20th century homes.
Mondrian and Controversy
But because he was a modernist, the best-known adherent of a severe Dutch style called, with prosaic directness, de Stijl, the Nazis lumped him with the “Degenerate Artists” whose work they sought to ban or burn. Currently, four Mondrian paintings are at the center of yet another controversy over artwork displaced during the Third Reich.
The paintings in dispute – unassuming compositions of grids and primary colors – have hung without much notice since 1950 on the walls of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld, a medium-sized factory town northwest of Dusseldorf on the Rhine River. Where they were before then and why they arrived at the museum is the question. The Kaiser Wilhelm’s directors say that Mondrian donated the paintings to the museum. However, Mondrian’s heirs say that the artist lent the paintings to the museum in 1930 for an exhibition of avant-garde artists that never took place. The rise of the Nazis might have scotched all plans for such an event.
Either way, it appears that the museum’s staff must have hidden the paintings to keep them from the clutches of the Nazis or forgot about them until after the war when a resurgent West Germany was proud to hang the work of an internationally recognized modernist in its museums.
Early Abstract Approach
Mondrian was among the pioneers of abstract art in the early years of the last century. Drawn to what was then the worldwide center of the art world, Paris, Mondrian lived in the French capital from 1919 to 1938. He left for London and then fled Europe, settling in New York for the final four years of his life.
The highest price paid for a Mondrian work, Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black, created in 1929, realized $50.565 million at Christie’s New York in May 2015. The 19 3/4-inch-square oil on canvas shows the distinctive bold grid work that became synonymous with his name.
Influenced by his interest in the 19th century theosophical movement, he believed it was possible to attain a knowledge of nature and its spiritual underpinnings through these simple and uncluttered forms. Mondrian began producing his grid-based paintings in Paris in 1919.
But there is much more than grids in Mondrian’s catalog. Born in the Netherlands, he studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Amsterdam in the 1890s and began by producing rural landscapes in the Impressionist and Realistic styles. These early works come up for sale at auction frequently and sell from $18,000 to $350,000. Lane With Sheaves of Rye (1890-92) is a fine example from this period.
Mindful of Modernism
The 14-by-10-inch oil on canvas shows the artist’s connection with nature in its depiction of a verdant
landscape, lush in bucolic detail at the peak of summer. The work realized $38,770 at Grisebach auction house (Berlin) in 2014.
By 1900 he had turned toward modernism, exploring a variety of styles including Fauvism and Pointillism. Church in Zoutelande (1909) is characterized by Fauvist and Pointillist elements such as the repetitive mottled brushwork and the use of bright colors. The 24-by-27-inch oil painting sold for $1.385 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2013.
In 1911 Mondrian attended an exhibit in Holland featuring works by Cubist painters Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and Georges Braque. Energized by what he saw, he followed those artists back to Paris and began working in a Cubist mode. However, departing from the usual Cubist imagery of cityscapes and objects, Mondrian kept nature as his subject. In one painting, a tree is seen as a series of interlocking black lines and planes of color in a palette of ocher and gray tones. Through this arrangement he strove to reveal a spiritual interconnection between the crossed lines and the space between.
Celebrating Artistic Freedom
By uniting solid and empty space, horizontal and vertical, he hoped to find an “equilibrium of opposites.” His Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, painted in 1913, hangs in the Guggenheim Museum (New York) and exemplifies his direction. It suggests an early rehearsal for his grid imagery to come.
In the summer of 1914 Mondrian returned to Holland to visit his ailing father and, with the outbreak of World War I, remained in Holland until he was able to return to Paris in 1919. There, he enjoyed the artistic freedom to flex his imagination and develop an even stronger abstract influence on his work.
By 1920 he had rejected most references to the physical world on his canvas and reduced his style to the horizontal and vertical, the rectangle and square.
Rarely exhibiting, Mondrian penned several essays including a series of 12 articles called Neo-Plasticism in Painting published in the journal De Stijl in 1917 and the book, Neo-Plasticism published in 1920. Mondrian coined the term Neo-Plasticism to describe the style of abstract painting he created along with the Dutch artists of the de Stijl movement, characterized by the use of horizontal and vertical lines and planes and by black, white, grey, and primary colors.
The controversy over the four Mondrians in Germany is characteristic of the battles over ownership and provenance that have become more frequent in the past several decades, especially between family heirs and museums. The most famous case involves the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s (1862-1918) portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, commissioned by her husband in 1903-07 and dramatized in the 2015 movie The Woman in Gold. Vienna’s Belvedere Museum claimed rights to that portrait through a will stipulating the painting be donated to the museum.
Enjoy a clip from the film "The Woman in Gold"....
However, Block-Bauer’s heir, Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles, maintained the will was null and void and won over a point of law. In any event, The Woman in Gold and the lost Mondrians are both examples of Nazism’s impact on the art market — through ideology and wholesale looting — that continues to reverberate decades later.
About our columnist: Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis.(www.landmarksgallery.com).
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