A Magnificent Acquisition

Piet Mondrian's Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow, and Red is now part of the University's art collections, thanks to a gift from the family...

Piet Mondrian's Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow, and Red is now part of the University's art collections, thanks to a gift from the family of its original owners, supplemented by financial support from an anonymous donor and the Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. James Cuno, Cabot director of the Harvard University Art Museums, described the oil painting, executed in 1922, as "both a beautiful work and an ideal object of technical study, historical research, and lasting aesthetic contemplation."

Cambridge is a center of Mondrian scholarship. Art historian Angelica Zander Rudenstine organized a 1995 retrospective of the artist's work for the National Gallery in Washington and served as general editor of the exhibition catalog, published as Piet Mondrian, 1872-1944. Her collaborators included Mondrian specialist and Pulitzer professor of modern art Yve-Alain Bois, who wrote the important art historical essay for the catalog. Harry A. Cooper '81, Ph.D. '97 (who wrote his dissertation on Mondrian and is now associate curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum), served as curatorial assistant for the exhibition.

According to Rudenstine, who calls the canvas an "extraordinary example of Mondrian's classic period," the artist contracted influenza in the spring of 1925. "His close friend, the Dutch critic and composer Paul Sanders, provided care and support. He wrote to his brother Martijn, describing the artist's condition and financial problems, and asking whether he would purchase a painting. Martijn sent money, and in return Mondrian gave him two paintings, of which the present work was one. It remained in the family ever since," and, until now, had been exhibited only once--at the 1995 retrospective.

Created during the first burst of Mondrian's "neo-plastic" paintings (late 1920 through early 1923), the 1922 Composition and related works no longer juxtapose planes of color, Bois notes. Indeed, the blocks of color have migrated to the periphery of the canvas. Only three primary colors appear, and then only once, surrounding a large off-center square of "non-color," demarcated by a pattern of bold lines which "sets in motion a system of weights and counterweights that prevents the constitution of the square as a stable figure."

Although Mondrian's art has often been mistakenly seen as geometric or mathematical, recent scholars have noted the intuitive nature and meticulous execution of his works. In this regard, says Rudenstine, the Composition's "pristine condition is a tribute to the family, who understood its quality and have protected it for more than 70 years. Mondrian's preoccupation with the painterly subtlety of his surfaces, with the relationship of each compositional element to the others, and of the canvas to the frame (always constructed by the artist), has often been overlooked. Frames have been discarded or replaced, and restoration has sometimes been undertaken without sensitivity to the preservation of the artist's own brushstroke. The surface, the texture, and the frame of the Harvard painting remain as they were when Mondrian completed the work, a remarkable gift to all who will have the opportunity to learn from it in the future."

 

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