Piet Mondrian a pioneering modernist?

Piet Mondrian a pioneering modernist?

An abstract artist whose work was rooted in the language of landscape, Mondrian pared back his canvases to convey only essential forms — a process which, he said, was ‘not the creation of another reality, but the true vision of reality’

Mondrian’s first job after graduation was drawing bacteria at the Leiden University in the Netherlands

He was never a commercially successful artist. Mondrian’s early works were landscapes in the Hague School tradition: that is, broadly naturalistic scenes of the Dutch countryside, characterised by their subdued colour and muted light. He particularly liked to paint windmills on and near the Gein, a small waterway outside Amsterdam.

For much of his long career, he produced watercolours of flowers as a sideline to support himself.

He only ever had one dedicated collector: Salomon Slijper, a Dutch real estate developer. Slijper acquired work mostly made before the end of the First World War and, on his death in 1971, bequeathed it all to the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Numbering almost 300 pieces, that museum’s Mondrian collection is today the largest in the world.

He was inspired by Fauvism, Pointillism, Luminism and Van Gogh

The end of the first decade of the 20th century was a noteworthy time for Mondrian. He was beginning to create art that might be called progressive.

Fauvism, Pointillism, Luminism and Vincent van Gogh all proved sources of inspiration — as can be seen in a painting such as 1908’s Windmill in Sunlight (part of Slijper’s bequest to the Kunstmuseum Den Haag).

In these years, Mondrian also paid regular visits to Domburg, a coastal town in the province of Zeeland. He produced numerous paintings of its seaside, sand dunes and piers. His palette had grown markedly lighter and more colourful than before, his brushwork sketchier and more spontaneous, and there was a definite move away from naturalism towards abstraction.

He settled in the French capital and became an adherent of Cubism, the style recently pioneered by Picasso and Georges Braque.

Mondrian’s Cubist work tended to be more abstract than that of the founding duo. His subject (often a tree) is commonly unrecognisable, reduced to interlocking black lines and planes of colour.

He created his most famous work while living in Paris

Refining his previous practice, he now hit upon a signature style: grid paintings consisting of horizontal and vertical black lines, which created rectangles and squares that he filled with passages of a primary colour, white or grey.

The orthogonal structure translates the effervescence of New York.

In New York, architectural gigantism, perpendicular urbanism and frantic traffic have a great impact on exiled European artists, just like Mondrian, who arrives there in 1940. This work is typical of Mondrian’s last research, after his neo-plastic period and black grids. His vertical and horizontal lines vibrate with colour, creating a luminous optical dynamic and an impression of movement. The dense criss-crossing over the entire surface magnifies the USA’s “new energy”, boosted by the discovery of the frantic boogie-woogie beat.

Here’s to glorious Venice

Here’s to glorious Venice

This Italian city’s distinct architecture with its water canals has captivated artist for centuries.

The intricate network of canals ensures that water is a constant presence throughout the city. Magnifying its atmosphere, light can be seen shining between buildings or at the end of a narrow street, bouncing off the water’s surface and causing reflections to dance along walls or on the undersides of bridges.

Artists like Canaletto, Turner, Moran, Sargent, Manet, Cross and Henri Le Sidaner responded in their own unique styles to this enchanting city.


An important centre of maritime trade the Venetian-born painter Canaletto, popularised many of the key painterly vistas of the city in his exquisitely rendered vedute, recording the cityscape with a precision and clarity.


He produced a rich group of pencil studies, watercolours and oil painting portraying the unique atmosphere of the lagoon — the blend of mist and fog that crept in and blanketed the city blurring the lines of the buildings, monuments and gondolas as they moved through the water.


Influenced by Turner, Moran, selecting a similar view to the artist’s Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom House Venice: Canaletti Painting (circa 1833, Tate Britain, London), infusing the scene with his own subtle approach to colour and virtuosic handling of paint.  


The experience of gliding through the city’s intricate network of canals and waterways aboard a gondola, offers a fascinating perspective on Venice. ‘One way of looking at such facades is from a gondola,” wrote Joseph Brodsky, as quoted in Watermark (2013), ‘this way you can see what the water sees…’  It was this alternate perspective on Venice that sparked Edouard Manet’s imagination most, providing the artist with inspiration for a pair of canvases during his visit to Venice in 1874. This was the artist’s second and final sojourn in the city. Seen from the level of the water, Manet vividly captures the sensation of travelling through the city by boat in Le Grand Canal à Venise.  


Similarly, John Singer Sargent often worked from the bow of a gondola, focusing his eye on the local play of life that filled the streets in quieter stretches of the city. In his exquisite watercolour, The Façade of La Salute from 1903, Sargent conveys a dynamic sense of the congestion that could strike within Venice’s waterways. 

Loose yourself in the mindscapes of MC Escher

Loose yourself in the mindscapes of MC Escher

Recognition came late in life for MC Escher. Only in the 1960s, did he become a countercultural icon, feted by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Mick Jagger.

Escher had an intuitive understanding of mathematics, which proved crucial to his success as an artist. Beyond intuition, he also enjoyed reading about mathematical concepts, many of which — infinity, reflection, symmetry, tessellation, perspective — crop up in his work.

Another well-known work, Print Gallery (1956), above, depicts a man in an art gallery viewing a print of a port scene — and among the buildings in that port is the very gallery in which he stands. Escher was here making use of a mathematical process known as ‘recursion’.

The Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) once said of his image-making: ‘You have to retain a sense of wonder, that’s what it’s all about.’

A printmaker of distinction, Escher is renowned above all for his visual riddles and puzzles, which routinely result in heads being scratched. A floor might become a ceiling, an exterior might become an interior, or stairs might rise infinitely but lead nowhere.

This summer (2022), the largest ever Escher retrospective was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Prices for his prints have shown a marked rise in recent years: in total, nine works by Escher have fetched more than $150,000 at auction, seven of those since 2019.

Warhol’s Marilyn

Warhol’s Marilyn

On 9 May, Christie’s  20th/21st Century sale week in New York concluded with auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s Global President, hammering down Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn for a record $195,040,000, making it the most expensive 20th-century artwork ever sold at auction.

Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn became not only the most expensive 20th century artwork to sell at auction, but also the second most expensive work to sell at auction of all time — just behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold at Christie’s in 2017.

Central to Warhol’s pantheon of pop icons, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn immortalises Monroe as the embodiment of celebrity, while cementing her image into the art historical canon. As an emblem of the American Pop Art movement, Marilyn represented the optimism and individuality and of the post-war Renaissance, fame, and celebrity. And yet, 60 years after Monroe’s untimely death, Warhol’s image has become so much more than the symbol of a single artistic movement. Marilyn is a masterpiece, not bound to time or place.

ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)
Shot Sage Blue Marilyn
signed and dated ‘Andy Warhol / 64’ (on the overlap)
acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen
40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1964.

Consider how you interpret colour

Consider how you interpret colour

Georges Seurat (1859–1891), Poseuses (1886-8)

Poseuse debout, de face (1886)

All painting is a form of optical illusion, but pointillism, the technique Seurat pioneered in the 1880s, aims to deconstruct the act of seeing itself. He was keenly interested in how the eye interprets colour, and drawn to the theories of the chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. Chevreul explored the workings of colour after he became director of the historic Gobelins tapestry factory in 1824.

He observed that two colours, when placed near to one another, would look like a third colour when viewed from a distance, and called the effect ‘simultaneous contrast’.

Chevreul advised painters to incorporate such colour contrasts into their work, referring to its affect as ‘harmony’; Seurat was interested in the way it evoked emotion. This visual manifestation of emotion as a sense of blurred vibration, is part of what makes his works so captivating. His Poseuse debout, de face (1886), serves as illustration in this argument. See how the particulate blue light floats in front of the model’s body, colouring her skin, but also catching her up in a swirl of atmosphere, a little cyclone of vibrating beingness. Although the model stands in a studio, the colourful aura reminds one of the air on a beach at dusk, when one can almost see the negative ions shimmer, all forms revealed as a swarm of atoms, electric.

Michelangelo’s first nude – a drawing rediscovered

Michelangelo’s first nude – a drawing rediscovered

A nude man surrounded by two figures comes in pen and two shades of brown ink. His shoulders hunched, his arms crossed. The stance that of the shivering man waiting to be baptised by Saint Peter in the fresco The Baptism of the Neophytes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence.

Marking an important shift in the development of Renaissance art, it soon became a site of devotion for artists as well as churchgoers, among them the young Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). 

He made several studies from the frescoes, including a recently rediscovered drawing, A nude man (after Masaccio) and two figures behind, that will be sold at Christie’s Paris on 18 May in the single-lot auction.

While the position of the central figure in Michelangelo’s version is the same as in Masaccio’s fresco, he has added a more defined musculature.

Michelangelo made the figure much more robust and monumental, while at the same time keeping the fragility of the figure, who is exposed and shivering.

He did this by subtly shifting the position of the feet and redrawing the head a little, but especially by emphasising the back and the buttocks of the man.


Part of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, the Brancacci Chapel in Florence was painted with a cycle of scenes from the life of the apostle by Masaccio (1401-28), together with his colleague Masolino and later completed by Filippino Lippi.

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