Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Mondrian at Turner Contemporary, Margate

The Red Mill, 1911
I would love to know what Mondrian might have made of The White Stripes. The American rock duo's celebrated second album, released in 2000 is titled De Stijl, after the artistic movement that Mondrian started in 1917. The album cover, included in this exhibition at Margate's Turner Contemporary, riffs on the grids and blocks of colour that are typical of Mondrian's most familiar late work. Of course, this being The White Stripes, the only colours are in fact black & white and red.

My interest in knowing Mondrian's reaction revolves around one issue that I hadn't credited enough, and that's that red colour. Clearly, Mondrian was as concerned with the primacy of the paint on the canvas as the figurative content of the landscapes he was producing in the early 1900s. Coming into contact with Theosophy, which looks to examine the divine in life and nature, caused Mondrian to attempt the same sort of investigation in his painting. Individual colours (often the 'primary' colours of blue and yellow) are separated out in his subsequent paintings, often rendered in a pointilist style with the red introduced as a congruent, vital central colour. The accompanying booklet uses the picture of the The Red Mill as its frontispiece and I can see why.

The exhibition, over three and two-half rooms of the first floor of the gallery seems to have this at its centre but there's much more: the beautiful draughtsmanship of the early pictures; almost abstract landscapes that would have you thinking about his kinship with Paul Nash, even before reading about it; the cubist-like canvases that are yet a world apart, as he's simply not trying to do the same thing.

The exhibition is really super, necessarily curated with fewer pictures than a Tate-sized blokbuster, but carefully selected to make its point. Personally I could have done with just a little more light in the first room. Otherwise the hanging gives the canvases plenty of space and hangs them at a good height (I'm 6ft exactly) and without too much barrier fuss so that one can get in and really absorb the brush stroke and impasto. A strong show.

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