We caught up with Mondrian biographer Nicholas Fox Weber to discuss what it is about the Dutch modernist painter that captures him, and the reasons why the artist’s personal life has remained so elusive
When and how did your interest in Piet Mondrian begin?
When I was 10 years old, my mother won a prize at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut with a watercolour she had painted of a pheasant shot by my father. I was obliged to go to the opening, and was not happy to be surrounded by clucking grown-ups, and to be offered crustless tea-sandwiches, which I found effete even if I did not know the word. I asked my father permission to wander up a circular staircase. Fifteen minutes later I came downstairs and told dad that there was something I loved as much as skiing and hiking to mountain tops, my two passions in life. He came upstairs and said, ‘Very good, Nicky, that is a painting by an artist called Mondrian.’ It was, I learned decades later, the first Mondrian ever purchased by an American museum. That’s where the interest began.
What made you decide to write a new Mondrian biography?
Having written several large biographies already – Balthus, Le Corbusier – about five years ago I asked Nick Serota, a sympathetic reader of my work, who was left among the major artists of the twentieth century where no one had written a biography. He replied, ‘Léger and Mondrian.’ Having been conquered by a Mondrian at age 10, I jumped at the idea.
Who was Piet Mondrian? We know he had an almost devout approach to his art; was this at the expense of a life (he left a fiancé in Holland and never married)?
I have spent five years thinking about this question, and could send you my working manuscript, about a thousand pages thus far, but it would be insufficient as an answer. I can simply say he was a man with an unparalleled devotion to painting and to the impact of the visual on our entire way of life. It was at the expense of nothing; he was one of the most satisfied people I have ever encountered, supremely content without being the least bit smug about it, having made the right decisions for himself and kept to them. If the rest of us might not want to abstain from sex and live alone and never acquire any material possession other than the occasional item of clothing or art supplies, it worked for him, wonderfully, and he achieved a miracle for humanity, which was his goal.
Why has his personal life remained so elusive? Is it simply that his art was such a rich vein for critics, journalists and biographers that only now people are digging deeper into that side of him?
One of the issues is that the first person to write about him in detail, Michel Seuphor, created myths that have little validity. Seuphor had many insights as well, but his presentation of someone quite remote was not the whole picture. Mondrian himself was incredibly revealing, in his own writing, but because he was so wordy and obtuse, few people have bothered to penetrate those texts, even though they have been published. I do think that his depths have been accessible for a long time though. And I have found newspaper articles and unpublished texts written during Mondrian’s lifetime that reveal an enormous amount about the human being.
Despite assertions from critics that neo-plasticism was the zenith of his practice, he always argued that his work continued to develop. Certainly, Victory Boogie Woogie suggests another phase of progression. What might subsequent Mondrian’s have looked like?
This is a great question, but it is hard to come up with an answer. I think he was working toward great cacophony, less traditional rhythm, and, always, increased freedom.
What is your favourite work of his and why?
I do not have a single favourite work. I have many that I adore, utterly. These include The Red Cloud 1907 and about 40 of his abstract compositions. The reason – the ‘why’ – is that they make me intensely happy; they fill me with a sense of rightness in the world.
He had very limited commercial success in his lifetime. What would he make of the exhibitions, studio recreations and merchandise in his name?
I think of this all the time. I think he would be appalled by the merchandise. It does not fulfil his goal of eradicating the differences between art and the rest of life; rather, it takes what is serious and profound and cheapens it. Similarly, I think he would disapprove completely of the appearance today of the house he grew up in, at least until age eight, and the rest of the nonsense using his name in Amersfoort, his home town. The exhibitions would probably please him, though. As for the studio reproductions: I think he might have been okay with them, but he intended people to enveloped by the neo-plastic, not to observe it from the outside.
Who – creatively speaking – are Mondrian’s heirs?
Nicholas Fox Weber is working on a comprehensive biography of Piet Mondrian and will discuss the results of his research for the first time at Mondrian the man, a biographer’s perspective at Tate Liverpool on Friday 27 June 14.00-15.00, booking essential
Nicholas Fox Weber is the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and author of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism
Interview by Mike Pinnington