Reading between the lines with Mondrian and Bridget Riley

Riley speaks of the fortuitous events that led to the upcoming exhibition at Tate and the significance of Mondrian's artistic evolution


The temporary closure of the Gemeentemuseum, in The Hague, for a two-year programme of renovation and building work, has created an opportunity for a substantial group of paintings, watercolours and drawings by Piet Mondrian to be shown at the Tate Gallery (26 July-30 November).

The Gemeentemuseum, the single largest repository of Mondrian in the world, is loaning around sixty works which will be presented alongside ten additional pictures supplied by the Tate’s own collection or from other sources, including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and several private collections.

Although the exhibition is a cameo show in comparison with the comprehensive Mondrian survey held in The Hague, Washington and New York 1994-96, it does include material which was not seen in the recent show, including an extraordinary series of trees which maps the artist’s development over two decades from the observation of nature to the brink of abstraction.

Senior British abstract painter Bridget Riley, herself much influenced by Mondrian, has been invited to give an artist’s eye view of his work and has selected the works with the assistance of Sean Rainbird, a curator of the Tate Gallery’s Modern Collection. “Mondrian” is at the Tate Gallery from 26 July to 30 November and is sponsored by AT&T.

Bridget Riley told The Art Newspaper why Mondrian remains as important to art at the end of this century as he was at the beginning. Mondrian is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. He was recognised among the avant-garde in the Twenties and his fame spread rapidly throughout the international art world in the Thirties. Between the Forties and the end of the Sixties, he was held in higher regard in advanced circles than either Matisse or post-Cubist Picasso.

For many painters who, like me, grew up during that period, he was an immense figure. His insights and achievements underpinned a huge range of artistic ambitions, both in east and west Europe and in New York itself. I learned many things from Mondrian but perhaps the two most important were firstly, his concept of Abstract/Realism, by which he meant that for a painter what happens on the canvas is “real”: the relationship between the lines and colours that he creates there constitutes his “reality”, and that this “realism”, in turn, becomes the point of departure for the abstract artist.

Secondly, Mondrian always wanted to find out. He continually pushed out the limits of what he could do, trying to penetrate and develop his “realism” at a very sophisticated level. This re-creation and revision of his own premise was so successful that when he died he had, astoundingly, arrived at what was virtually a new beginning.

The present exhibition at the Tate came about because the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, which has the largest holding of Mondrian’s early work, is closing for renovation. These are the museum’s greatest treasures and are not usually lent, but on this occasion the museum generously and unexpectedly offered the Tate a selection. I was surprised and honoured to be invited to make this selection along with Tate curator Sean Rainbird. This all took place rather quickly in December. It is certainly good news that the Tate can be responsive to an opportunity such as this. But it is not only a stroke of good fortune and great privilege for the Tate to have such a distinguished body of work suddenly made available. It is also very timely, considering the new interest in Abstraction.

In this exhibition, Mondrian’s development, so remarkable in its sustained daring, is traced through its principal stages. We see the shifts in his intentions as he discovers more about what it is that he is trying to achieve. We follow the gradual emergence of different problems and their resolution as they become clearer to him. Aside from the beauty and fascination of Mondrian’s paintings, the exhibition may also further an understanding of the issues at stake for an abstract painter and why it is that these remain as open a challenge at the end of the twentieth century as they were at the beginning.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Reading between the lines'