During the first decade of the 20th century, a range of avant-garde movements that thrived across Europe was represented by some of the most prolific artists who have, as we now know, revolutionized art. Despite the bloody atrocities of World War I, this particular activity continued in different environments, and De Stijl was formed as the last movement before the end of the great conflict.
Also known as Neoplasticism, this Dutch art movement founded in 1917 served as a platform for the formal and stylistic explorations of visual artists and architects, determined to depart from the traditional arts and to enter a new creative phase. Although it bears the name after the De Stijl magazine run by the painter and critic Theo van Doesburg, the movement’s agenda was articulated through an essay Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art written by its spiritus movens, Piet Mondrian.
This essay, as well as other ideas, projects, and contributions related to the development of abstract art, were published continually in the mentioned magazine until 1931 when the activity of De Stijl ceased to exist. Mondrian himself firmly believed in an almost metaphysical harmony and simplicity of pictorial elements such as colors and lines, an approach further extended by other important members of the group.
The artist’s contribution to the development of abstraction is immense, and so is the role of the movement. Therefore, the current exhibition titled Mondrian and De Stijl, organized in joined efforts by the Museo Reina Sofía, the Stichting Kunstmuseum den Haag and Comunidad de Madrid, pays an homage to Piet Mondrian, as one of the leading 20th-century visionaries, in terms of his native movement, De Stijl, and its international relevance.
Under the curation of Hans Janssen, the current exhibition marks the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Museo Reina Sofía, as it revisits the career and outstanding influence of Piet Mondrian, the modernist mage, and unique experiments that were conducted under the wing of De Stijl.
Throughout the nine galleries the narrative envelopes and tackles practically every aspect of the artist’s and the movement’s production while accentuating the standpoints that have shaped the philosophy of Neoplasticism. With 95 works on display (35 by Mondrian and 60 by other artists including Theo van Doesburg, Georges Vantongerloo, Bart van der Leck, etc.), the visitors are encouraged to dive into one of the most important chapters of the historical development of abstraction.
The exhibition starts with a room dedicated to Mondrian’s beginnings as an artist who emerged in 1892 as a painter of still lifes and landscapes. His early works on the display, such as Still Life with Oranges (1900) or Evening at Weesperzijde (1901-1902), nicely illustrate the artist’s gradual appropriation of emerging artistic trends like Pointillism, Fauvism, and Cubism that ultimately led him on developing his signature aesthetic.
The second gallery unravels the atmosphere of the Dutch art scene and the appearance of De Stijl magazine that emerged in 1916 under the influence of experimental projects such as the new stock exchange building in Amsterdam released by the architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage. Alongside his on display are the designs of other artists like Karel Petrus Cornelis Bazel and Johannes Jacobus van Nieukerken whose interiors, buildings, and urban layouts in cities like The Hague, Leipzig, and Amsterdam inspired the practitioners of De Stijl.
The following gallery features the trajectory of Mondrian’s work with paintings like Summer Night (1906-07) and Large Landscape (1907-08) produced before the movement was formed, while the fourth gallery delivers the artist’s quest for “universal beauty”, embodied in his Composition No. II (1913).
The next three rooms of the exhibition are focused on the movement of De Stijl, and the activity of artists such as Gerrit Rietveld, Vilmos Huszár and Georges Vantongerloo, and others who searched for new modalities of abstract art. The movement shows the tremendous diversity of experimental approaches present among the artists of the group perhaps best underlined with Bart van der Leck’s Composition 1917, no. 2 (Dog Cart) (1917).
The exhibition ends with two galleries centered on Mondrian’s last period affiliated with the movement. Despite the belief his abstract experiment is over, the artist continued to reduce the picture plane and the composition became dominated by horizontal and vertical lines framing the areas of white, red, yellow, or blue color. By the late 1902s he transfixed fascinated by linking forms, but during the 1930s Mondrian introduced a more dynamic balance as is the case with Composition C (no. III) with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1935), also on display.
By the 1920s, what was considered to be a utopian movement appeared to be the site of different and rather conflicting perspectives on art. For that reason, De Stijl eventually went into obscurity by the mid-1930s, and the only artist who remained well-positioned in the international context was Mondrian himself (he emigrated to the United States in 1940).
This exhibition casts a new light on this phenomenon with fresh scholarly contributions all situated in an illustrative bilingual catalog (in Spanish and English) that includes texts by curator Hans Janssen, the director of the museum, Manuel Borja-Villel, as well as by Michael White, and Marek Wieczorek.
Mondrian and De Stijl will be on display at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid until 1 March 2021.
Featured images: Piet Mondrian - Composition No.II, 1913. Oil on canvas, 88 x 115 cm. Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands © 2020 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust; Exhibition view Mondrian and De Stijl. Museo Nacional Ceentro de Arte Reina Sofia, November 2020. Boys’ bedroom, Villa Arendshoeve, home of Bruynzeel Family, Voorburg (Vlmos Huszar and Pieter Jan Christophel Klaarhamer). Photo credit: Joaquin Cortes/Roman Lores. Archive of Museo Reina Sofia; Exhibition view Mondrian and De Stijl. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, November 2020. From left to right: Composition XX and Composition in Grey (Theo van Doesburg) Study no. III (Georges Vantongeloo), Composition (Chris Beekman) and Uncolored slatted armchair (Gerrit Thomas Rietveld). Photo credit: Joaquin Cortes/Roman Lores. Archive of Museo Reina Sofia.
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