Dutch artist Piet Mondrian lived a nomadic life, caught between the two World Wars, and he transformed each new studio and home into a reflection of his current practice. Walls and furniture were washed in stark white; rectangles of cardboard painted in primary colors were gridded on all four walls. This little-known aspect of the artist’s life is chronicled in Piet Mondrian: The Studios, out now from Thames & Hudson.
Edited by Dutch designer Cees W. de Jong, the book includes images of Mondrian’s studios, as well as art he created while in each residence. For example, his early years as a respected landscape painter in Amsterdam saw him lodging at Sarphatipark 42, a building created for artists, where he’s pictured among traditional wooden furniture with framed trees and rural scenes installed salon-style on the walls. Later he moved to Paris, until the outbreak of World War I when he left for the Dutch artist community of Laren. After returning to Paris again, he fled the encroaching fascism of World War II and relocated to London. As he moved to each new space, his studio aesthetic became more refined, more devoted to the hard geometries and intense colors that characterize the work he’s famous for today.
Mondrian’s friend Maud van Loon recalled the experience of walking up to his Paris apartment at 26 rue du Départ as a sort of passing between two worlds, as the “stairwell was horrific, terribly shabby, unsightly …Then you walked through his door and into a brilliantly white studio with a color plane here and there. As you stepped inside, you were in Paradise.” Even at his brief residence in London at 60 Parkhill Road, just before the Blitz encouraged another move to New York in 1940, he painted his DIY fruit crate furniture bright white to immerse his whole life in his current artistic direction.
Mondrian wrote in 1927 about his ideas on his rather extreme interior design:
The interior of the home must no longer be an accumulation of rooms formed by four walls with nothing but holes instead of doors and windows, but a construction of coloured and colourless planes, combined with furniture and equipment, which must be nothing in themselves but constituent elements of the whole. And the human being? In a similar fashion, the human being must be nothing in himself, but rather a part of the whole. Then, no longer conscious of his individuality, he will be happy in this earthly paradise that he himself has created.
Some of these writing excerpts are published for the first time in English through Piet Mondrian: The Studios. Alongside the photographs and text are diagrams of his homes and studios, some based on first-hand recollections if no photographs were available. His last studio at 15 East 59th Street in Manhattan is the best documented, as after his death in 1944 of pneumonia and burial in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, his friends opened it to the public and invited Fritz Glarner to document its interior.
The colorful, right-angled details of this final studio reflect the jazz influence of New York on Mondrian’s art, where black lines were replaced with yellow, blue, red, and other frenzied hues, like in “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942–43) that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art. Photographer Fernard Fonssagrives described his visit following Mondrian’s passing as “if I was able to look at the lost thoughts of the man who had just died. A man obsessed with a vision that was entirely his own. I took my photographs in silence. The only sound came from the traffic on Madison Avenue, but it only accentuated the intimacy and loneliness in the studio, with life outside rushing by.”