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Updated May 13, 2017


Line Over Form, Piet Mondrian
Line Over Form, Piet Mondrian

Modern art centenaries are piling up. There are (at least) three big ones this year: the Russian revolution with its impact on the avant garde, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, and the Dutch art and design movement De Stijl, founded by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg in 1917.

De Stijl is the most colourful — if you like red, yellow and blue. The celebrations in the Netherlands include a giant Mondrian on The Hague’s town hall, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam exploring De Stijl’s influence on contemporary artists such as Isa Genzken and The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum showing all 300 of its Mondrians in a colossal retrospective.

“Piet Mondrian is perhaps the greatest modern artist who ever lived,” boasts the latter’s website. Thanks for putting in that “perhaps”. Yet the other night I was shocked by my own reaction to some of Mondrian’s works, on view at London’s Tate Modern. There is no other word for what I felt except boredom. What a thing to feel, in front of “the greatest modern artist who ever lived!”

Piet Mondrian and the rest of the De Stijl movement were admirable idealists, but their work is joyless compared to their American peers

Admittedly, the way Tate Modern currently displays its De Stijl paintings is not helpful — they are in a gallery called ‘A View from Sao Paulo: Art and Society’, which takes its cue from Latin American abstract art to shoehorn in abstractions that it claims have a social conscience hidden in intersecting lines and planes of flat colour.

Technically this is true of De Stijl, who believed their spiritual geometries could save the world, and wanted to remake reality as a platonic ideal, not only through paintings but in the radical architecture and furniture that is perhaps its most popular legacy. Yet when you look at an abstract painting, this sort of information is fundamentally irrelevant. Abstract art is art beyond words. It is visually compelling, or it is nothing.

What struck me suddenly was how small and square Mondrian’s paintings are. They are intellectual constructs that don’t give your soul much room to move around in. Which brings me to my second confession. European abstract art of the early 20th century is — to my eyes — dead stuff that belongs in textbooks. It is terribly “important.” Yet it completely lacks the excitement and humanity of the truly great abstract art of the later 20th century — American abstract expressionism.

It is a measure of how much cultural prejudice there still is against the vulgar upstarts of the new world and how snobbishly we revere European art that it is still widely assumed that Mondrian, Kandinsky and other early 20th century abstract artists are somehow more serious, genuine and pure than Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Perhaps it is indeed the slight dullness of those old European abstract painters — the way we have to steel ourselves to study them — that persuades us they are more worthy than the brash Americans, who in reality took abstract painting to much greater artistic heights and deeper psychic lows.

Abstract art is art beyond words. It is visually compelling, or it is nothing.

If you don’t believe me, go to Tate Modern, look at its Mondrians, then go to the room where Rothko’s Seagram Murals are hung. It is like looking at a pond before diving into the sea. Rothko’s mighty, molten expanses of agonised colour suck you in, half-drown you, and leave you gasping. Mondrian is more like a maths teacher talking in a monotone.

The American critic Clement Greenberg explained the difference a long time ago. Greenberg, who championed the abstract expressionists in 1940s and ’50s in New York, praised them for rejecting what he dismissed as “European easel painting.” While European modernists had never rejected the old craft tradition of painting smallish canvases on an easel, he claimed, Americans instinctively reached for something bigger and freer.

Of course, Greenberg was a bit biased. The large scale abstractions of American modernism themselves have European roots. These origins just don’t happen to include Mondrian or De Stijl. The most important abstract art of the early 20th century looks, now, not to be the formalist experiments of De Stijl at all, but the sensual, all-embracing enigmas of Claude Monet’s wraparound water lily installations in the Orangerie in Paris.

De Stijl proposes a rational ideal of abstract art and design. The real glory of abstract art, however, is to explore regions of feeling beyond words. Mondrian’s art needs messing up — as he himself realised, perhaps, when he finally let the life of the streets into his greatest painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie.

By arrangement with The Guardian

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017