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Piet Mondrian: No. VI / Composition No. II

ArtWay Art Meditation January 8, 2023

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Piet Mondrian: No. VI / Composition No. II

A Utopian Vision

by Nigel Halliday

Mondrian was a utopian idealist and, like many such, he was a mixture of barmy eccentricity and deep seriousness that generated great affection for him personally, as well as great works of enduring beauty.

Mondrian is known for his arrangements of black lines on white backgrounds, punctuated by squares and rectangles of primary colours, beautifully and intuitively balanced by eye. Yet stories of his eccentric behaviour abound. In his desire to imprint human rationality on nature, he is supposed to have gone for walks through the woods, making precise ninety-degree turns rather than follow the natural path. He is reported to have swapped seats in a New York cafe so that he could look at the buildings rather than the plants. He wore a shirt and tie under his painting overalls, looking like an undertaker, but danced to jazz in his studio as well as in nightclubs.

Mondrian’s painting is deeply serious. Like that other great pioneer of non-representational painting, Wassily Kandinsky, Mondrian was a theosophist. They believed that humanity was evolving not just physically but spiritually, and it was through the contemplation of art that the human soul would be enlightened and perfected.

Mondrian and Kandinsky were linked to and affected by the rationalism of 1920s architecture and design, which believed it could reform human nature through rational control of the environment. Mondrian’s paintings act like metaphors for a rationally balanced world: a huge red square can be balanced by a well-placed, but much smaller yellow and blue to achieve what he called ‘dynamic tension’. But over the years the idea of metaphor seemed to fade and he came to think of his paintings not as images of an unseen reality, but part of reality, part of the urban environment that he believed to be shaping human spiritual evolution.

In the 1920s he coined a term for his painting: neo-plasticism. It emphasises the plasticity, the physicality, of the work of art: the painting is not a traditional icon referring to a reality beyond, but a reality in itself. In the earlier images the edges are blurred, as if to show a separation between the image and the world of the viewer. But in the later work the lines continue to the edge of the canvas and there is no frame, suggesting the work continues into the surrounding area of wall. Indeed, at times in his writings you get the feeling that, if you peeled back the surface of the world with all its confusing multifariousness, there underneath you would see something akin to a Mondrian painting.

Utopianism implies that perfection can be reached and all other possibilities superseded. Hence his paintings work best when they are exhibited with each other and no one else’s. Rows of related but subtly varying Mondrians create a delightful environment that invites relaxed, serious contemplation. But when a Mondrian is put next to an expressionist, surrealist or war artist you are forcibly reminded of all the aspects of humanity that Mondrian is skating over.

In the end it is a vision that fails to take account of the true ills of human nature, just as its architectural counterpart failed to change human nature by changing his environment. But the vision itself is beautiful, as are the works.

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Piet Mondrian: No. VI / Composition No. II, 1920, oil paint on canvas, 99.7 x 100.3 cm. Tate, London, UK.

Piet Mondrian: Tableau I, 1921, oil on canvas, 103 x 100 cm. Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Netherlands.  

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is a Dutch painter. During his career Mondrian developed from Impressionism through Symbolism and Cubism to his own form of abstract painting. He is seen as a pioneer of abstract art. Especially his later geometric-abstract artworks, with horizontal and vertical black lines and primary colours (red, blue, yellow), are well-known. They are a source of inspiration for many architects and designers.

Nigel Halliday is a freelance art historian, lecturer and teacher. He studied History of Art at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute, London. He teaches the whole canon of Western art from Giotto onwards, but his main interests have been nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. He has also researched and lectured on Michelangelo and Rembrandt, and particularly the influence of Protestant belief on their work. He writes articles and exhibition reviews for the Christian press, and leads retreats and study sessions around the themes of ‘Art and the Bible’, as well as other Biblical teaching. He is a Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Public Theology in Cambridge.

This meditation is an adaptation of this exhibition review.

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ART NEWS INTERNATIONAL

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KIRBY LAING CENTRE SEEKS ARTS PROJECT MANAGER – KLC in Cambridge, England seeks to appoint an Arts project manager. KLC has been offered the wonderful opportunity to take over artway.eu, developed by Marleen Hengelaar Rookmaaker over the last 13 years. This provides KLC with a great opportunity to receive and develop this legacy, and to develop a substantial footprint in the arts. Job description 1. Work with the website designer to ensure the new site is what we need. 2. Generate two newsletters per month. 3. Network with Christians (and non) in the arts. 4. Maintain and update the website regularly. 5. Work with the Director to develop a KLC arts hub. 6. Assist in ongoing fundraising to maintain and develop this work. The position comes with a honorarium of £5K per year. The position will be available from February 2023. Applications should be sent to admin@kirbylaingcentre.co.uk by 31 January 2023 including a CV and 2 names for references. We aim to make the appointment by the end of February 2023 if not before. For more information, contact admin@kirbylaingcentre.co.uk.

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THE BLIND JESUS IN WICKFORD ENGLAND – Until 9 April, St Andrew’s, 11 London Rd, Wickford: The Blind Jesus (No-one belongs here more than you) is an image in charcoal of the Last Supper which includes the central character of a visually impaired Jesus, surrounded by twelve people of differing ages, backgrounds and abilities. At the table, an empty chair invites the viewer to find themselves at the table. The image has been commissioned by Celia Webster, Co-Founder of Wave (We’re All Valued Equally), as part of a project in which it seeds other images of the Last Supper that are truly for everyone. Schools, churches and community groups are being invited as part of this project to create their own Last Supper images. The latest exhibition of this image at St Andrew’s Church in Wickford includes additional Last Supper images created for the (Still) Calling from the Edge conference and by WAVE and school in Hampstead and Barnet. On 27 January, 19 – 21 h, there will be an event with as speakers artist Alan Stewart, project lead Celia Webster (co-founder of WAVE), and Revd John Beauchamp, Disability Ministry Enabler for the Diocese of London. https://www.achurchnearyou.com/church/6704/service-and-events/events-oneoff/

VIDEO CODART – Enclosed Garden with Saints Elisabeth, Ursula and Catharina by Anonymous, ca. 1513, Museum Hof van Busleyden, Malines, Belgium. The besloten hofjes, or enclosed gardens, are probably the most enigmatic retables ever produced in the Low Countries. One of the best preserved is the enclosed garden with Saints Elizabeth, Ursula and Catherine. Made for (and probably by) the Augustinian nuns of Malines, it is a testimony of devotion. The iconography is quite complex, and perfectly suited to the hospice nuns. Three female saints stand in a hortus conclusus, the Latin term for an enclosed garden. The various references to one of the most mystical texts in the Bible, the Song of Songs, the stories of martyrs, and references to piety and purity fit perfectly with the spiritual world of the Augustinian nuns. A hybrid and overwhelming spectacle of images, relics, textiles, flowers and other objects enhances the religious experience. This is a work of art in which viewers lose themselves, a devotional image that encourages the viewer to look beyond the material and embark on a spiritual journey. Watch the video

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc., click here

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