There was the most spectacular thunderstorm when I went to visit the Mondrians at Tate Liverpool. The type that turns the sky slate grey and looms heavy in the air like the cloud bearing down on the ground.
I was deep in thought – notebook in one hand, looking at the linear painting with its distinct blocks of primary colour. Seriously impressed, I’ve always loved his work. One of my friends once painted his Austin Metro car in homage to Mondrian with a white bonnet, red roof and blue wings.
“Is that wet?” the staff member asked, gesturing to the furled brolly in my right hand.
“It’s bone dry,” I said.
The rain was throwing it down outside, making the Mersey and the sky indistinguishable from one another. It was a fair question, given the circumstances.
She leant forward and touched it, to check. I felt chastened and left it by the door with another curator. It was getting in my way anyway, making it impossible to juggle a dangerously overloaded bag, notebook, pen and brochures, which clattered to the floor.
One of the highlights of the exhibition, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the artist’s death, is the life-size recreation of Mondrian‘s studio in Paris at 26 rue du Depart, based on a 1926 photo by Paul Delbo. The exhibition, meanwhile, focuses entirely on his work from 1911 onwards.
The studio has two pairs of Mondrian’s glasses placed on top of a table. There’s a wood burning stove. It has the feel of a simple existence, entirely focused on the paintings which are dotted around the walls, along with cardboard squares of colour.
I love the 1933 Charles Karsten photograph of Mondrian in his studio, balding and bespectacled and smartly dressed in his suit, hand defiantly placed on hip. He looks more like a clerk in an office than one of the 20th century’s most important artists.
The exhibition is also significant as Tate Liverpool has assembled the largest number of neo-plastic paintings by Mondrian in the UK, ever.
During 1920s Paris, the association between the compositional arrangements on the studio walls was noticed by Mondrian’s many visitors. It became a meeting place for the Parisian avant-garde and the subject of much chatter at the time. Clearly, he established the notion of the artist’s studio as a sanctified place.
His painting, no VI/ Composition No II, can be seen hanging on the studio wall above a doorway in two photographs from the 1920s, and is now part of the Tate collection. By 1921, he decided to paint solely in primary colours that led to purely abstract works, including Composition with Large Blue Plane, Red, Yellow, Black and Grey, 1921.
One of his paintings from 1916/17 reminds me of a sudoku puzzle or a map, Composition in Line, 2nd state. There’s a definite logic and beauty to the linear form that I appreciate.
When he moved to a new studio in 1936, his first task was to remodel it. Each surface was covered in panels of coloured cardboard. He wrote to the British artist Winifred Nicholson that the studio “is also part of my painting”, so critical had it become.
By focusing on the importance of the studio, Tate Liverpool gives you an insight into the artist’s world and thought process. The exhibition also has some of his records – jazz and boogie woogie mostly – which influenced his later work.
Mike Pinnington, content editor at Liverpool Tate, says Mondrian’s early moves were accompanied by steps along the road from figuration to abstraction. And it was in Paris that Mondrian took his first steps toward the work he is so widely recognised for today. I liked Mondrian’s earlier work, such as The Tree, from 1913; it’s so different to his later paintings for which he is so easily identifiable. However, you can see that he is excluding all curved lines. Around this time of his life, war was about to break out and he was unexpectedly trapped in the Netherlands shortly after.
In later years, the threat of World War Two led to his move, via London, to the United States. For a time he lived in Hampstead Heath alongside the one-time studio of artist Ben Nicholson. Sculptor Barbara Hepworth said of the London home that “his wonderful squares of primary colour climbed up the walls”. The exhibition features a letter to Hepworth, among others.
Mondrian was constantly in transit, moving from Amsterdam to Paris and back, then London and finally New York. He left for New York in 1940 on board Cunard White Star Lines’s Samaria, which sailed from Liverpool, a short distance from Tate Liverpool. In his work in America, the black lines become thicker as if reflecting the built-up environment where he was living in later life. I prefer the more spaced out works of Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue from 1927. There’s also an unexpected 1917 composition from earlier in his life, Composition in Colour B, with pastel pink hues, which shows how he began to move towards neo-plasticism.
The whole ethos of Mondrian and his Studios is to consider Mondrian’s importance in abstraction, but also the relationship between his artworks and the space around them. It’s well worth a visit. Just leave your brolly at home.
Where: Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool Waterfront
When: until October 5, 2014
More info: it costs £10, or £7.50 with concessions; @tateliverpool; telephone 0151 702 7400; www.Tate.org.uk/Liverpool