Who Was Piet Mondrian Before He Painted His Iconic Abstract Grids?

A new exhibition explores the evolution of the Dutch artist’s style, 150 years after his birth

Piet Mondrian's "The Red Cloud"
Piet Mondrian’s The Red Cloud is one of a number of the artist's pieces in the Switzerland exhibition. Kunstmuseum Den Haag

Piet Mondrian’s name is indistinguishable from his signature style: blocks of reds, blues and yellows against a black-and-white grid. But few know that the Dutch painter began his career with landscapes and Cubist works. Not until the 1920s, when he was in his 40s and 50s, did Mondrian start to experiment with the works that would come to define his career.

A new exhibition at Switzerland’s Fondation Beyeler, aptly titled “Mondrian Evolution,” examines this creative shift. Held 150 years after Mondrian’s birth on March 7, 1872, the show is organized both chronologically and thematically. Curator Ulf Küster hopes to show each painting on view in the context of Mondrian’s entire repertoire.

“So surefooted do the post-1919 grid paintings seem, so orderly, that it is tempting to see them as somehow inevitable,” writes the Art Newspaper’s Charles Darwent. “Everything that went before—the 1890s genre paintings, the eye-popping theosophical Symbolist works, the Cubist canvases made in Paris after 1911—was merely a preamble to those Neoplastic compositions.”

The exhibition is a labor of love by Küster, the senior curator at Fondation Beyeler, who worked on the show for three years. The museum’s own collection holds seven Mondrians, including Tableau No. 1 and Lozenge Composition With Eight Lines and Red (Picture No. III).

Piet Mondrian's "No. VI / Composition No. II"
Piet Mondrian’s No. VI / Composition No. II is one of many of the artist’s works featured in the exhibition.  Tate

But most of the artworks on display—82, by Küster’s count—are on loan from other institutions. They include The Red Cloud, which came from the Hague’s Kunstmuseum; Woman With Spindle, which the curator tells the Art Newspaper came from a private collection and is “not often seen”; and Composition in Black and White, With Double Lines, which is effectively making its “European debut.”

“Mondrian Evolution” isn’t the only exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of Mondrian’s birth. At the Kunstmuseum in the Hague, “Mondrian Moves is a “multisensory” show that encourages visitors to dance in front of the art and smell evocative scents that the New York TimesNina Siegal likens to “furnace coals” and “men’s deodorant.”

Curator Caro Verbeek tells the Times that this approach aligns with how Mondrian viewed his own works.

“You can say that Mondrian wasn’t even a visual artist,” she says. “He was a composer. He was looking for that equilibrium and he used visual art, but only as a gateway to something invisible that lies behind those paintings.”

Küster, on the other hand, explores Mondrian through a more traditional lens.

“I still think that he is a visual artist, really,” the curator tells the Times. “But one should define what a visual artist means. The experience of looking at his art is not limited to the eyes.”

Piet Mondrian's "Evening: The Red Tree"
Piet Mondrian’s Evening: The Red Tree, created before his iconic style emerged Kunstmuseum Den Haag

At the same time, Küster sees his focus—reinvention and innovation—as thematically similar to Verbeek’s. Mondrian was always moving forward, always tinkering with his vision and creating something different.

As Küster tells the Art Newspaper, Mondrian’s grids were constructed in up to six layers. In one case, Mondrian signed a painting three times in four years, never satisfied with the final version.

“Mondrian’s abstract paintings are the result of a long process between intuition and precision, as well as incessant and intense personal research,” writes Sonia Braga in Architectural Digest Italia, per a translation by Smithsonian magazine. “Mondrian considers abstraction and its theoretical effects as a process of approaching truth and absolute beauty, his foremost aspiration as an artist.”

Mondrian Evolution” is on display at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, through October 9.