If you thought Piet Mondrian’s art was all abstract geometric forms and primary colours, a new exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum will have you reconsidering this notion. Upon entering the first room, you spot the still life of a dead hare and faithful recreation of an early morning view of Amsterdam’s famed Singel canal.
The next few halls continue in the same vein, showing dozens of bucolic and, at first glance, traditional landscapes and depictions of the sea, dunes and windmills. In total some 300 of the artist’s works – a quarter of his entire output and almost the entirety of the museum’s Mondrian collection – are on show in the exhibition titled 'The Discovery of Mondrian.' Many of them have never seen before by the public, but rediscovered by the museum staff during a massive restoration project between 2009 and 2015.
The little-known early work is important believes curator Hans Janssen, as it shows just how innovative and modern the artist truly was.' He speaks of the 'sense of depth' that carried through to his later work, the visibly sophisticated brushwork techniques ('the working of the paint') but also of something else: 'At first glance some of them look like 19th century rubbish but they have a quality that is very hard to describe and that has to do with a sense of inner self'. Indeed there is a sense of quiet spirituality and optimism that is a constant in all the work, as well as a potent luminosity that lifts the work out of the mundane.
As the years pass there is an intensification of colour and a dynamism perfectly exemplified in the early 1908 piece Mill in the Sunlight, where realism and truth-telling is abandoned for an impressionistic use of bold oranges, reds and yellows that show a mill suffused in shimmering and glorious sunlight.
With every change in style and move to a new city (the exhibition looks at works produced in Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York), it becomes clear that Mondrian was a painter that constantly innovated and renewed and that, like Van Gogh before him, he lived for his art. Janssen calls Mondrian an 'attentive and intuitive artist whose craftsmanship often resulted in unexpected but beautiful things'.
Both the works and the personal items on display (like the letters and his recreated atelier downstairs) are unexpected and rewarding. Mondrian writes in one letter, 'I want to get as close as possible to the truth and am therefore abstracting everything until I get to the foundations…of things’. There is a feeling in this exhibition that the onlooker is doing just that, getting to the essence of what this remarkable artist was about.