Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 20 June features two wonderful works by Piet Mondrian, an exceptional still-life from 1901 and a painting of a Gladiolus flower created in the artist’s London period in the 1930s.
T wo works by Piet Mondrian, offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, beautifully present a rare side of Mondrian’s artistic temperament that is often overlooked. Mondrian the representational painter is largely unknown, even though he was a student of nature throughout his life. While navigating his career, Mondrian grappled with various artistic styles, acting upon his interests and inclinations, relishing the enjoyment of experimentation. A fascinating œuvre was thus created and an extraordinary painterly development ensued, through which we can chart Mondrian’s move from naturalism to abstraction. Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge and Gladiolus are exquisite examples of his naturalistic work.
Mondrian started out as a naturalistic painter under the influence of the Hague School of Impressionism and only began to paint his so-called “abstractions” in 1917, in his mid-forties, under the influence of Cubism. Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge is a captivating work executed in 1901. After graduating from the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam in 1897, Mondrian created naturalistic drawings and paintings for the better part of a decade, influenced by academic realism, Dutch Impressionism and Symbolism. The artist’s perception of surface and depth translates beautifully into the playful arrangement of the apples, imbuing the fruit with a tantalising three-dimensional and photographic quality. Compositionally united through a delicate balance of muted and subtle tones, it is an extraordinary example of Mondrian’s remarkable skill in conveying the effects of light.
In 1909 and 1910, Mondrian experimented with Pointillism and by 1911 had begun to work in a Cubist mode after seeing works by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso at the first Moderne Kunstkring exhibition in Amsterdam, triggering his move to Paris in 1911. There, from 1912 to 1914, he began to develop an independent abstract style. Still life with a Ginger Vase II, painted in 1912, shows how the artist depicted a very similar motif to Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge with a much greater level of abstraction with a grid framework that interpolates the objects on the table-top. Mondrian’s works of this period are characterised by a strong central motif (here the gingerpot) around which the rest of the picture revolves in a symmetrical fashion.
A key figure in the development of abstract art, Mondrian exemplified innovation and the essence of change in artistic expression. Mondrian’s flower paintings make up an extraordinary corpus of works and Gladiolus shows his unwavering and continued passion for this motif. Painted in London in the 1930s, Mondrian went to England in reaction to the rise of Nazism where he lived at 60 Park Hill Road in Hampstead, near fellow artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. In Gladiolus, a single pale-yellow flower rendered in oil stands against a light mauve background and what appears to be a window sill in the background. The petals are composed of broad strokes of yellow, green and white hues, intricately defined by thin lines of royal blue. In a rare autobiographical statement of 1941, Mondrian wrote ‘I enjoyed painting flowers, not bouquets, but a single flower at a time, in order that I might better express its plastic structure.’ Devoted to naturalistic realism, Gladious is a wonderfully contemplative work, expressing his interest in theosophy, a type of philosophical mysticism that sought to disclose the concealed essences of reality. ‘I too find flowers beautiful in their exterior beauty, yet there is hidden within a deeper beauty’, he once wrote.
Even the decor of his studios changed over the years in accordance to his artistic tendencies and ultimately his love of nature – and in particular of flowers – was never far from his working practice. Although Mondrian created images of flowers for commercial gain, he enjoyed such subject matter, and found in flowers – and still life in general – a way of expressing an experience of contemplation, purity and nature. Demonstrated by Gladiolus, his flowers seem like portraits, even self-portraits, holding the kind of contradictory meanings that he concentrated on in his abstract paintings; they can be proud or fragile, or both. Alone in space, the poet David Shapiro makes the insightful observation that the flowers ‘are the real nudes in the œuvre of Mondrian.’