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Reading between the lines

The artistic and geographical journeys of Piet Mondrian are chronicled in an exhibition at Tate Liverpool

The first gallery at Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Mondrian and his Studios perfectly conveys the blankness I struggle with in Mondrian’s abstract art – the lines and blocks of colour that could be so meaningful but pared back offer neither beauty, nor suggestion. But get to know Piet Mondrian through his place and his studios, those lines start to take on new meaning.

Taken around the corner into the more intimate spaces of the show, you are introduced to Mondrian’s Paris Studio, first through the photographs of Paul Delbo, which were published in the late 1920s. The historic clothing, if not the historic tints, take you back to that time when Mondrian was exploring his art and becoming known in Paris and beyond for his New Plastic painting. And, say the curators, the studio and the photographs were used as a tool by Mondrian to counter the interpretation of his work as the end of painting. They showed his art moving off canvas and out into the world.

To step from this imagined 1920s into the mocked-up studio is to inhabit the two worlds of the historic and the avant garde. There is the pipe on the side and the wire framed spectacles, but the black and white and the blocks of primary colours pasted onto the walls, and the furniture, feel very fresh. In fact, records – including letters from other artists – suggest that these arrangements were ever changing. Set alongside the mullions of the large studio windows, you almost picture a composition emerging. This was the room in which Mondrian lived, worked and entertained, but also a composition in itself, argue the curators.

When he first lived in the studio at 26 Rue du Départ, in 1912 and then again for 15 years from 1921, Mondrian was completing works like Scaffold: Study for a Tableau III and Church Façade 6. In these you can perceive the frames of city life, the verticals of scaffold, the line of a window, the suggestion of an ecclesiastical arch. Yet it was as if, from that Paris studio, Mondrian turned inward from the views out onto city life and started to paint the internal forms of his studio, curated and controlled by him with rules that only he would fully understand – though now they make him an artist for experts and connoisseurs to decode as his abstract lines themselves become more abstract, shifting to the edge of frames as he moves first to north London, avoiding the encroaching war in Europe, and then on to New York.

The short sojourn in London’s Belsize Park, as the Blitz took hold, is represented by a rather uncomfortable looking visualisation. But as Mondrian leaves for New York from Liverpool on the Samaria, and in the early years of the upheavel of his last years, his letters to artists back in England give a more vivid picture of his life. If his great American cheerleader Harry Holtzman is to be believed, these years took on great colour. Here Mondrian started the exuberant Victory Boogie Woogie. After his death, which left this unfinished, Holtzman preserved some of the studio panels that absorbed so much of Mondrian’s artist energy and filmed the studio in colour, which you can see here.

Despite the ranging geography and views out of the gallery to the Mersey and the Pier Head where Mondrian would have embarked for America, this is a very internalised exhibition – the life of the artist in small studios. Seeing the lines of Mondrian’s neo plasticism as bars to a cage or a shortsighted inability to focus beyond the window itself might seem fanciful in art history terms. But leaving the exhibition, this is the sad sense and confined sensation that stays with you.

Mondrian and his Studios

Tate Liverpool

Until 5 October 2014

  • Reconstruction of 26 Rue du Depart, Paris, based on 1926 photo by Paul Delbo.
    Reconstruction of 26 Rue du Depart, Paris, based on 1926 photo by Paul Delbo.
  • Piet Mondrian – Scaffold Study for Tableau III.
    Piet Mondrian – Scaffold Study for Tableau III.
  • Piet Mondrian – Ocean 5, 1915.
    Piet Mondrian – Ocean 5, 1915.
  • Piet Mondrian – No. VI Composition No.II.
    Piet Mondrian – No. VI Composition No.II.
  • Piet Mondrian – Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1927.
    Piet Mondrian – Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1927.
  • Piet Mondrian – Composition B (No. II) with Red, 1935.
    Piet Mondrian – Composition B (No. II) with Red, 1935.
  • Mondrian's Paris studio in 1926.
    Mondrian's Paris studio in 1926.