The Hague is back in de Stijl
At 100th anniversary, museums squarely celebrate Mondrian
You might notice it from the highway, in the form of a high-rise sporting a colorful grid on its exterior, or perhaps next to the train station, where the Hampshire Hotel Babylon shows off a flashy facade. Look farther, and bits of bold red, yellow and blue can be found splashed around this button-down city known mostly for its dignified embassies and government buildings. The colorful geometric patterns celebrate the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and the 100th anniversary of de Stijl (the Style), the modern art movement he and others launched.
While Mondrian is overshadowed by morefamous Dutch artists Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt van Rijn, he was considered a leader of modern art by the time he moved to New York City in 1940. (He died there in 1944, at age 71, and is buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in New York City.) Using geometric shapes, flat planes of primary colors and horizontal and vertical lines, Mondrian and his cohorts, including famed architect Gerrit Rietveld, went on to influence architecture, furni- ture, fashion and advertising.
The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum, which already holds the world’s largest Mondrian collection, is the focus of a year-long national program, “Mondrian to Dutch Design: 100 years of de Stijl.” Smaller shows and events are being held nationwide, including Rietveld exhibits in the architect’s hometown of Utrecht.
This summer, the Gemeentemuseum, decked out in swatches of Mondrian hues, will display its cache for the first time, spotlighting more than 300 works representing every stage in the artist’s extensive career. The “Discovery of Mondrian” retrospective runs from June 3 until Sept. 24. Earlier this year, the smaller, but insightful, show “Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck: Inventing a New Art,’’ focused on the two painters whose friendship helped spark a movement.
Regardless of which special exhibits are running at the Gemeentemuseum, viewers can always see Mondrian’s “Victory Boogie Woogie,” a frolicking composition of colors and
At The Hague City Hall, the “world’s largest Mondrian painting” heralds a year-long national program.
lines on a diamond-shaped canvas that is considered one of the 20th century’s most important works. Mondrian died before he finished the piece — you can still see pieces of tape stuck to certain parts. For years, the painting, inspired by his passion for boogie-woogie music and dance, was in a private American collection. In 1998, it was bought by a Dutch art foundation for about $40 million and is in the Gemeentemuseum’s permanent collection.
Mondrian’s designs also have lived on in commercial uses, from L’Oreal hair products to an iconic 1966 Yves Saint Laurent cocktail dress. Hague-based designer Michael Barnaart van Bergen has spun his own version of the mod dress, which is on sale at the Gemeentemuseum gift shop for about $250 — a bargain compared with the original, which went for $47,000 at auction in 2011.
Venturing out from the museum into the city, visitors can find evidence of a Mondrian metamorphosis, especially at City Hall, home to the “world’s largest Mondrian painting.” The exterior of the gleaming, white complex, which was designed by American architect Richard Meier, has been adorned in red, yellow and blue strips of adhesive foil. In the same complex, the tourist information center is decked out in the same colors and sells Mondrianthemed gifts.
At the nearby Hofvijver, a small lake with a walking path in front of the Dutch parliament, 14 pontoon cubes of primary colors float in another tribute to the artist.
Several shopping streets have gotten in on the act, partly assisted by the city, which provided 850 “Mondrian toolkits” with signs and removable colored foil for window dressing. One of the most festive streets is Frederik Hendriklaan, near the Gemeentemuseum, where it seems that most of the stores are decorated.
One of the most lively — outside and in — is Kikke Spulle “Fred” (No. 198), a lifestyle and decor shop, which spelled out the store’s name in Mondrian-like letters and has stocked its shelves with related products, such as place mats, salt-and-pepper shakers and purses.
“I can’t believe how popular they are,” owner Esther Cox said. “People keep asking me, ‘Do you have this with Mondrian, do you have that with Mondrian?’ It’s crazy.”
Cox enjoys seeing the city awash in color.
“I hear a lot about it from customers and am happy that the colors are not only in the centrum, but across the whole city,” she said.
Another Mondrian site worth seeking out, some 90 minutes east of The Hague, is the Mondriaanhuis in the beautifully preserved city of Amersfoort. (The artist changed the spelling of his name after he left the Netherlands.)
The museum is located in the house where Mondrian was born and lived until he was 8 years old. It was a run-of-the-mill history museum until this year, when the staff transformed it into an innovative exhibition tracing the artist’s development, as well as a repository for commercial prod- ucts showcasing his grid design. A Mondrian-patterned toilet seat is among the kitschiest.
Original art is not the focus here; the museum has only a dozen early Mondrian landscapes on loan from a private U.S. collection. But the lack of paintings doesn’t detract from the experience and perhaps even inspired the staff and its inventive production company, Tinker Imagineers, to be more creative.
The permanent multimedia exhibits focus on Mondrian’s profound love of jazz and American boogie-woogie and how those influenced his art. (The Gemeentemuseum’s summer show will include jazz influences as well.) The museum’s use of video, audio and color helps viewers feel the energy that drove Mondrian.
Mondriaanhuis curator Marjory Degen said that it seemed natural to incorporate music in the makeover.
“I researched what he listened to in what year, and I realized that the changes in his music also affected his work,” she said. “During his cubism work in Paris, he listened to ragtime. When he started using double black lines, his music was more up-tempo.”
The final production, a joyous five-minute piece shown in a small, closed room, focuses on Mondrian’s final years in New York, when he abandoned black lines and painted smaller dynamic color blocks.
Visitors sit around a 10-foothigh, semitransparent cube to watch scenes of Mondrian working interspersed with vignettes of 1940s New York City, to the background of the music he loved. Strips of color fill the cube, eventually flowing outside it and ultimately illuminating the walls and the audience — who find themselves inside a Mondrian painting in progress.
“We’ve noticed people staying to see it twice or even three times to let it sink in,” Degen said. “It’s quite an overwhelming show.”
FROM TOP: At the Hofvijver, a small lake in front of the Dutch parliament, pontoon cubes in primary hues float in one of The Hague’s many tributes to artist Piet Mondrian; the Mondriaanhuis, a museum in the house where he was born, is a repository for commercial products showcasing his grid design — including a kitschy toilet seat; visitors to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague view “Victory Boogie Woogie,” his unfinished final work.