Stand By Mondrian | Chapter 3 - Prost, Modernism!

Chapter 3 Prost,

In 1920 a Dadaist happening held in a pub in Cologne scandalized the city. At that time, the avant-gardes were organized into groups in which different creative minds had to coexist. Unlike the Dadaists and the Surrealists, De Stijl was more compact and pragmatic, oriented not to symbolically subvert the order and provoke the bourgeois culture, but to the functional transformation of the collective space. Mondrian openly condemned the Cologne episode: art could not be abandoned to human instincts, but had to transcend them.

« What happened in Cologne shows that art must not be destroyed but transformed in a radical sense »

After a period of isolation in his studio in Montparnasse, Mondrian slowly started over meeting old and new friends. He came into contact with the Russian artist El Lissitsky, who later set up an exhibition of abstract constructivist art in Hannover. Lissitsky became an important figure for the development of exhibition displays, including the notable Russian pavilion that designed for the "Pressa" Fair Cologne, in 1928. Printing and advertising were becoming serious industries, but Mondrian’s art seemed apparently far from that.

6. Pimp My Mondrian

The grid system from which Mondrian had apparently expelled any reference to the subject, was in fact inhabited by himself and had become one with his person. In a sense, it can be considered his philosophical selfie. If you randomly superimpose the colored grid to a selfie, you get an interesting effect: the colored areas often cover part of the face, revealing other areas of the scene that would otherwise go unnoticed. The focus is no longer only concentrated on the face, but also on the colored areas and other details, eliminating the difference between the center and the periphery of the image as in a Mondrian’s painting. This type of image recalls the facial recognition process used by some algorithms, which break down an image by analyzing recurrent patterns. By applying the colored-grid filter, the identity of the user is partly obscured, and therefore secured: will he choose to renounce to a part of his ego?

In his youth, through acquaintances related to theosophy, he had come into contact with a Dutch Masonic lodge to which the architect Mies van der Rohe also joined. They had never met before that day in Hannover, during the constructivist exhibition, when the architect invited Mondrian to his Berlin studio. It was an enlightening encounter. It is almost certain that Mondrian showed van Der Rohe his seminal project for the Pavilion of Harmony, as among the architect's notes there are several references to a "new conception of space based on rhythm and color" suggested by a friend. In 1929, Mies van Der Rohe created the famous German pavilion for the Expo of Barcelona, ​​characterized by an innovative free plan and flowing spaces, in which interior and exterior merge. Somehow, Mondrian had succeeded in materializing that ideal and utopian space he dreamed of thirty years before.

A common friend, the Swiss Max Bill, as a graphic designer enthusiastically embraced the tenets and philosophical views of modernist movement. His graphic work was based on cohesive visual principles of organization and purist forms - modular grids, sans-serif typography, asymmetric compositions, linear spatial divisions, mathematical progressions. It was he who suggested to Mondrian that the grid system was probably the most important achievement in applied art, comparable to the invention of perspective in painting, and that Mondrian himself had inspired it. According to Bill, the grid system would have integrated every aspect of the visual experience of everyday life, at any level.

Mondrian saw in the grid system the keystone to resolve the inner opposition that had affected his entire life. The great art that had generated the perspective, the window from which anyone would have observed the world for centuries, could descend from the wall of eternity into things, finally embracing the utopian progress of modernity. His painting began to envelop itself, following a new rhythm. Two innovations appeared: the parallel double line and the colored line. With the double line, Mondrian seemed to quote and copy himself at last, while with the colored line the traditional separation between drawing and color, which even Cubism had not renounced, disappeared. Mondrian had overcome Picasso, and he was ready to go to the discovery of new horizons - those of the Far West.

7. From Grand narratives to storytelling

Perhaps the story of Mondrian is the last grand narrative of Modernism, which symbolically ended after the war in the United States, settling its legacy in that country for decades on. Using this grand narrative by reducing it to a fictional storytelling is an attempt to tell the story again, and differently. Because the feeling is that we can’t simply escape the need to narrate, even if the grand narratives are no longer possible, as they said. In their place, a more modest storytelling has come, weakened in its claims, potentially faking, ironic and functional to the productive system. For many, this has represented a return to order and even to the super-ordering and control of social media driven apparatuses. But you can also see it as a process not so distant from secularization, that at best has showed art fading into design.

He attended the first concert of Armstrong in Paris: jazz music, the highest American artistic expression of the moment, attracts him so strongly towards New York. His friends had always thought that jazz was the antithesis of his painting, but perhaps it was the natural continuation of an obsessive search for balance through rhythm, made up of repetition and variation. With the advent of the World War II, Mondrian was forced to take shelter in London with a family friend, Samuel Shenton, who particularly loved the flatness of his painting. Some of his works were exhibited in the infamous exhibition of "degenerate art" organized by the Nazi regime. The caption dedicated to him: “Mondrian is perhaps the best example of generative degenerate art".

« The flat surface, as a modern way of using art to call attention to art, implies a worldview connected with the Genesis »

In 1940 Mondrian decided to move permanently to the United States, renting a studio in New York. America, with its skyscrapers and busy streets, was a monumental work of art in motion. Noises, traffic, perpendicular streets, sparkling lights and Broadway enchanted him. The grid of windows that covered the skyscrapers appeared as the large-scale transposition of De Stijl’s ideas, but also of his Parisian atelier. What he saw moving in the streets was the end of the art itself and its new beginning, in a syncopated fashion.

Madison Avenue was already crowded with advertising agencies, and recalling what El Lissitsky told him about the power of the media he realized how right he was. Painting was nourished by these suggestions, and his grid system then seemed a direct transposition of the main streets of New York, with the yellow (of taxis in constant motion) instead of black, and an explicit reference to them in the titles of the works. All that jazz: the new trend of boogie-woogie struck him to the point of appearing in the title of his last work, almost as a testament to a research lasted more than forty years, reaching a radical identification with the urban fabric.

8. Boogie Google

What could be the equivalent of boogie-woogie today? Perhaps Mondrian would have been surprised by some flavor of rap. Definitely not the g-rap, more likely a kind of Big G-rap. Rhythm, total identification with the street, improvisation, and a search engine under the hood. The speed with which the words are sequenced, the mouth-algorithm that parse them based on their average usage and possible associations recalls the power of Google. Of course, in the 1990s drum & bass, glitch and IDM appeared on the scene, which with their polyrhythm could better match Mondrian's latest research. However, it is precisely the program of integration between art and life that is at stake in the hyper-realism of rap, in which fired bullets are often real. What happens when the avant-garde becomes mainstream? In Japanese hip hop, cut-up techniques, the appropriation of styles and language have dominated a language that for its construction of sentences did not seem to be usable in rap. Listening to those pieces is very similar to a surrealist or dadaist experience, coming out of cultural elites and overflowing into the streets.

America bigger than life, America that won the war. Mondrian made new friends and went back to good society. His agent, Peggy Guggenheim, was not so interested in the work of a young painter, Jackson Pollock, and it seems it was Mondrian who convinced her that he would be the future of painting. He met another painter who had emigrated from old Europe, Hans Hofmann, who would soon be one of the first to merge Mondrian's geometric research with American action painting. "It’s all-over, it’s all-over!", was repeating the criticism about Pollock's style, but that surface devoid of center and periphery had been inhabited by Mondrian for almost 30 years.

A few days before his death, Mondrian found himself with his new friends for an evening at the jazz club. With him, among others, were Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock, Hoffmann, the critic Clement Greenberg, the young architect Robert Venturi, and a noted science fiction writer with a passion for the occult, Ron Hubbard. Mondrian, who had finally learned to dance, after a few steps with Peggy, sat exhausted next to Venturi and pulled out, for the last time, his little brown notebook. He was next to a young and promising architect, full of doubts about the work of masters such as van Der Rohe, so he showed him the project for the Pavilion of Harmony, recalling how it had inspired the great architect.

« How did you come up with that idea so early? » Venturi asked.
And Mondrian replied:
« Stroopwafel. I think it’s a dutch recipe, because they’re quite perfect. I always liked them. The pattern more than the syrup. »

Then he proposed a toast to America and to the triumph of Modernism: "Proost, Modernism!" But everyone understood "post modernism", and the story went on as we know.

— the End —