Mondrian under high tension in Basel

The Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, near Basel (Switzerland), is showing one of the most accomplished and above all the most subtle exhibitions of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) that we have ever seen. Entitled “Mondrian Evolution” by its curator, Ulf Küster – Evolution is the title of a mystical triptych by Mondrian painted in 1911 and unfortunately remained at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague – it brings together around 90 paintings, which is already no small feat, and above all arranges them in an exemplary hanging, both it serves its purpose: to penetrate, as closely as possible, the working method of Mondrian.

Because if his work evolves formally over time in a radical way, it remains fundamentally constant: of an apparent and implacable rigor, especially in the orthogonal paintings which made him famous, but in fact based on intuition. Trial and error, research more sensitive than mathematical, until reaching the ideal composition.

Colored adhesive paper

To understand it, you have to start with the paintings at the end, some of which are unfinished. That’s good, Ulf Küster hung one at the start, from the first room which alone sums up the whole point. Dated 1941, it is next to a portrait of a peasant woman holding a spindle, painted around 1893, a forest landscape from 1908 and an orthogonal abstraction composed only of black lines on a white background, dated 1934. The lines seem to have been drawn with a ruler , However, it is not the case. We apprehend it better in front of the painting of 1941, New York City 1. It is made up of strips of colored adhesive paper, blue, yellow and red, reinforced at their ends by thumbtacks: we imagine the painter affixing them, then taking off those whose location did not satisfy him to fix them a little more far. Step by step, slowly, he elaborates his composition.

His work is of an apparent and implacable rigor, but in fact based on intuition

Leaning after this one on his peasant woman with a spindle, painted almost fifty years earlier, makes her see it with a different eye. We no longer look at the subject, a classic of Dutch painting treated by an artist then a beginner, but there too the organization of the surface, and in particular the arrangement of the elements of the background: the grid of the joints of a wall tile, the clever arrangement of a round table and the curves of a chair, the verticals of a post and what seems to be a stovepipe framing the main subject. A composition lesson known to all students and initiated, among other things, by the relentless arrangement of the paintings that form the background of the self-portrait painted by Nicolas Poussin in 1650 – obviously absent from the exhibition, but it would be interesting to to see Poussin and geometric abstracts brought together one day – and which Mondrian was to apply throughout his life, paradoxically striving to make it less rigid.

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