There’s been a lot of looking back over 100 years, to the just-post World War 1 in this blog – Paul Nash, Russian Revolutionary Art, and although I haven’t written it up yet, I’ve been pondering on 1917 poetry with Wilfred Owen meeting Siegfried Sassoon).
The painter Piet Mondrian, key to development of abstract art – also goes through changes in his artwork around the same time. Recently, I went to a lecture by Edinburgh University on “Classic Mondrian in Neo-Calvinist View” by Joseph Masheck, art historian. (If I began describing his titles, publications and positions held, it would take too long – google him).
So much of really seeing art is to spend time with it – as you would with a person. And in a large scale. Up close.
Seeing Mondrian’s work in a book does it no favours: it is so much smaller, and flat – it looks like it was made and printed by a computer.
However, when you see a real painting, in the flesh, so to speak, your breath is caught because you see the small paintbrushes on those squares and know that it was made by a living, breathing, thinking and feeling human person. I have enjoyed the stark beauty and colour of his paintings for many years, only in books, but when I finally met one, at Tate Modern, it was a completely different, personal encounter.
At this lecture, in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, we were in a very good space to properly view the art: in a darkened room, undistracted, with the artworks projected on a huge screen, much larger than life – and with an art historian who has spent years researching the artist, audibly putting it in context and offering us a new way of looking at the art.
For a long time, we were free to contemplate this particular painting, as it remained onscreen – and I noticed how the black lines didn’t always completely enclose the oblongs.
Now the whole point of the talk was to adjust the old view that Mondrian was the poster-boy for a type of philosophy, Theosophy. Joseph Masheck was keen to rebalance the spiritual judgments on Mondrian, pointing out that he came from a very strong Calvinist upbringing, joined a reformed Church in his youth and went through confirmation classes – and this was a major influence throughout his life’s painting. One of Mondrian’s key words to describe his painting was “equilibration” to bring things back into equilibrium – which Professor Masheck pointed out is similar to the Calvinist idea of Justification. ie. Creation and humans were in perfect equilibrium with God but were damaged by the Fall (Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God, Genesis 2 and 3 in the Bible) but that all things are being brought back into beauty and balance through Jesus Christ.
Justification is also a term in craft: a printer justifies his margins, and carpenters also use it in their woodworking. I happened to be viewing this talk with a printmaker friend – we exchanged significant glances at this point, knowing it was so.
Masheck sees a great deal of similarity between Mondrian’s writing and the theological writings of Herman Babinck, who was a contemporary of Mondrian. For a more detailed working out of this, you can read Masheck’s writing here.
Context: Mondrian (before the squares)
For an intriguing video glimpse into the work which Piet Mondrian was doing, before breaking through into his black lines and squares, it’s worth seeing this 11 minute video, in Dutch but with English subtitles. This was created for a centenary exhibition at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. It also shows the work of simply cleaning the pictures, which was particularly nervewracking for curators as many were unvarnished.