Mondrian and his edges

As someone who has always been interested in abstraction in the visual arts Piet Mondrian has continually lurked in the background and often enough forced his way forward into my own work. When I think back to my time as a student in London, he was one of the reasons that a few friends and I made a visit to the Netherlands. We visited the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague to see firsthand the works of this influential Dutch master. To be honest I can’t quite remember which works we saw, but it certainly wasn’t as many are as currently on view at the museum. To mark the centenary of the setting up of De Stijl the Gemeentemuseum has dipped deep into its collection and pulled out pretty much everything in order to mount a hugely extensive exhibition that gives a great deal of context and background to the work that brought him to the abstract images with which we tend to immediately settle on when thinking about Mondrian.

This framing of context of Mondrian’s work is further extended by the presence of a second exhibition, Rumoer in de Stad (Tumult in the city), in the museum that focuses on the Dutch artistic world from 1880 onwards, and in particular around The Hague itself.  It features work by the likes of George Hendrik Breitner, Isaac Israëls and Willem Witsen. It creates a clear image of daily and cultural life in Dutch society at the end of the nineteenth century. The paintings and drawings displayed ooze a spontaneity and a pleasure in the materials that the artists were using. It’s easy to allow yourself to imagine the world that these artists moved in and were recording in their work.

It is very much this sort of context that Mondrian was building on when he moved to the city to begin his artistic career. The Gemeentemuseum documents extensively this early work. There are walls literally covered in landscape paintings. To start with they are often painted in a quite restrained way. But sure enough, as you pass through subsequent galleries we see the familiar process of reduction, abstraction and heightening of colour start to take place leading us to rooms of archetypal ‘Mondrians’ from the collection and ultimately to the museums pride and joy, Victory Boogie Woogie.

Anything but graphic

The abstract paintings of the 1920s and 30s have understandably been responsible for securing the Dutch man’s place in art history. The countless reproductions and reusing of the black verticals and horizontals with zones of primary colour have become the something of a trademark. But they have also become way more graphic in our minds than they are. I’ve always been aware of the painterly qualities of Mondrian’s work, it strikes you immediately when you see the original work.

But when seeing such a quantity of paintings as are currently on display you become more aware than ever how important edges between areas of colour were to the artist. There’s nothing graphic or in any way hard.in the early work the edges are soft and defused.  As the world Mondrian chose to represent became more reduced the edges became areas of paint seeminly pushing together to create an edge with very much a manmade tension to it. Whilst drawing tends to focus on line, painting challenges to artist to deal with edges, edges where two colours come together, Mondrian understood edges and how often details occurring on a very small scale can carry important consequences.

6Throughout the whole exhibition you are constantly aware of the hand of the artist, decisions and refinements constantly being considered and worked.  An approach that is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the room with nothing on the pristine white walls, except that is, for the engaging presence that is Victory Boogie Woogie.

 

 

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Alice Neel exhibition…. Portrait painter

Let me start with a confession; the paintings of Alice Neel had largely passed me by until a few months ago. My attention was then drawn to them by an image that was sent to me by my colleague artist and art teacher, Pasi, in Finland.  We’ve been busy setting up a photography project between my pupils in the Netherlands and his in Finland. (For more information about this use the link below).

Netherlands-Finland photography project

One aspect of the project has involved drawing some comparisons of photographic portraits and painted ones.  Within this context Pasi sent me a collection images, including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was in her eighties. It’s an unusual and somewhat eye catching representation of the elderly artist, sitting naked in a chair whilst painting her self-portrait.  It was this very portrait that you encounter as you walk into the extensive Alice Neel exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague at the moment.

img_3164The exhibition walks you through a large body of this relatively forgotten artist, an early life surrounded by revolutionaries and political activists before nestling herself amongst the cultural life of New York. Unusually for a portrait artist Neel didn’t document herself in her work until right at the end of her life, instead the focus lies on partners, lovers, children, friends and others she came across in the circles she moved in. The result is a fascinating journey through the muted early work into the increasingly colourful and expressive work that came later.

Constant throughout the exhibition is a feeling of focused intensity, both from the artist and the subject. The sitter often stares out of the image with large penetrating eyes.

I enjoyed the show hugely and found myself unusually reading everything on the gallery walls building up a picture of a very colourful and varied life. It’s clear to see how the artist drew on the work of Munch and Van Gogh for her inspiration. It is also evident why Dutch artist Marlene Dumas finds her interesting. Personally I see a strong connection to the work of David Hockney.

The texts that accompany the exhibition make much of a feminist agenda that perhaps caused Neel to be neglected. That may well be the case, but it also has to be said that when the artist was producing some of her best work, in the fifties and sixties she was close to where she needed to be, painting portraits of gallery owners and others within the cultural world.  Her fringe position within the cultural scene must surely also been down to the fact that the American art world of this period was pre-occupied by very different things. Yes, it was a very male dominated and macho place to be, but also one focusing on abstraction, minimalism, Pop art and conceptual art, there was little space for an essentially traditional portraitist, no matter how good and how intense her work was.

Ellsworth Kelly, at last, and a new Dutch modern art museum

Ellsworth Kelly has always been an important artist to me, ever since I first encountered his work as a student in London back in the late 1980s. His use of line and form, coupled with intense colour, drew me towards an interest in abstraction. His reduced artworks had a beauty that engaged my attention and helped me resolve how I could deal with abstract elements in my own work. Kelly’s work continues to be a touchstone in my own studio practice.


Despite this interest in his work I have never seen a solo show of his paintings or sculptures. I have regularly come across pieces in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Otterlo near where I live, but normally only one or two at a time. So it was with considerable anticipation that I arrived at the new Voorlinden Museum, on the outskirts of The Hague to see that elusive solo exhibition, ironically enough, just a few months after the artist’s death.
Kelly himself acknowledged the connection of his work with nature and the world around us. The Voorlinden museum in this regard presents a fantastic context. The architecture itself is reduced and and lean, no decoration here, less still in Kelly’s work. Always close by is the natural world, seen through the expansive glass walls of the museum.
The paintings are given the chance to breath their intense colour, the geometry of the forms cutting across the immaculate walls.
There is an attention to detail in Kelly’s work that is at once simple and fascinatingly complex. An edge that to all intents and purposes looks straight, but just by the smallest of margins isn’t, or one of his curves resting, and seemingly waiting to pivot, on the most fragile of points resting on the ground. But above all in the difusely top-lit gallery spaces of the museum it is the colour that captures the attention. Immaculately laid down surfaces with a rich intensity.

There are many other interesting pieces on show elsewhere in the museum, but in the context of he Kelly show, Open Ended by Richard Serra and Skyspace by James Turrell are particularly enjoyable combinations. Serra’s huge curving arcs envelop you as you walk through them, the rusting steel surface of his sculptures share nothing of the immaculate surface quality of Kelly’s work. However, for both artists the geometry of the edge is crucial. In that regard the edges of Turrell’s Skyspace installation work could hardly appear sharper. From the reclining benches around the sides of the room you look up through the sharp square opening in the roof to the limitless space of the sky above. The awareness you have of the surface of the canvas in Kelly’s work is replaced by an abiguous sense of surface that you know, in reality, is completely absent.. The slowly passing clouds so carefully framed up by the work taking on a feeling of the most full-colour projection possible.

The Voorlinden museum

Mark Rothko in the ‘side chapels’ of Gemeentemuseum in The Hague

I studied in London and as an art student made regular trips to the Tate as it was then known, before the setting up of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. On these trips I became only too familiar with the brooding presence of the large dark reddish canvases of the Seagram murals made in the late 1950s. These are I think the only examples of Rothko’s work that I have seen clustered together in a group, otherwise it has generally been just isolated artworks that I have come across in various European museums and galleries. So the chance to see a whole show of his work in the Gemeentemuseum, alongside the paintings of Piet Mondriaan, an artist who in many ways paved the way for Rothko and the other abstract expressionists, has been noted down in my diary for some time.

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The Tate paintings ooze a depth in their mood and indeed in their colour. I am very familiar with Rothko’s work from secondary sources such as the internet and books. I knew that there are plenty of paintings that make use of a higher range of palette, and yet, this was still the surprise in The Hague exhibition.  Often there is that familiar depth in the tone and the colour, but layer on top of this is are second or third colours that deliver a feathery intensity shimmering in the indistinct ground colour.

Also included in the exhibition are a number of works on paper made close to the end of the artist’s life. One in particular that catches the attention is an untitled work from 1968. It’s a relatively large piece, on a sheet of paper that is maybe 140×100 cm and shows a ground of two deep shades of blue, part of which edges towards black. The second quarter of the painting moving downwards glows an almost golden yellow. It’s a composition that seems to sum up so much of Rothko’s work, a deep, almost menacing depth, complimented so often with areas that lift themselves out, calling for our attention. The painting has a quite heavily worked surface, and in some ways gives away more of the artist’s process than many of the larger canvases do, we clearly see the traces of the artist’s brushes as he works across the surface. This particular work, hangs near a doorway, not necessarily in a space that lends itself to catching the museum viewer, yet it is fascinating to watch it do just that as visitors move from one space to another.

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The spaces of the Gemeentemuseum lend themselves enormously to the show.  There are rooms that display the work in groups, with uncluttered space to move around in, the classical museum experience if you like. But there are a number of spaces that function almost as a side chapel in a cathedral and have been given a single large Rothko canvas, with a seat in front of it, an ideal space for contemplation.