Try — just try — to read the name “Mondrian” and not think of right-angled windows of gray-white paint bordered by thick black bars with little bricks of primary blue, red, and yellow inset throughout. That’s what happens when an artist becomes a brand, rare as they are: “Van Gogh” conjures sunflowers, “Monet,” water lilies. You get the idea: Absolute fame obscures absolutely, and there’s always more to the story.
That being so, it’s easy to see Piet Mondrian — born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan Jr. in 1872 in Amersfoort, Holland — as Modernism’s reigning fussbudget, a maker of prim pictures as calculated as they are austere. I hope you’ll come to “Mondrian: Foundations,” opened recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, with those preconceptions intact, the better to have them blown completely away.
I’ll never forget going to the Museum of Modern Art for the sprawling 1995 Piet Mondrian retrospective with my expectations set in stone. I was a student, and of course knew everything. I arrived to find landscapes and trees, loose seaside scenes and technical drawings of flowers, interiors, and — shockingly! — people, more than I could count; but they all still felt like points on a line, leading from one epiphany to the next. (Mondrian makes the most logical progression of any artist I can think of, year to year, era to era; it’s as though you could plot it on a graph, which I suppose is apt.) It remains one of my most satisfying art experiences: to have been so sure, and so wrong. It’s an enduring lesson for life.
“Foundations,” pocket-size — 28 works, most part of a recent gift from the Janis Living Trust — is still satisfyingly holistic. Its tight and tidy arc spans Mondrian’s off-the-rack beginnings — typical little landscapes of the Dutch countryside — all the way through to his final years, where he surrendered his grid to the kinetic verve of 1940s New York, with a jazz scene he loved (just as there was a before, there was also an after). Compact as it is, the show is packed with learning, if you want it; Mondrian’s rise runs alongside European Modernism itself, a separate-but-equal strain with echoes in the culture that might just be deeper and long-lasting.
To be fair, I don’t know if there’s another artist who offers a road map to his own creative evolution quite like Mondrian, ever in forward motion. But “Foundations” reveals Mondrian to be less technician and more furtive romantic — no, really — grasping for ways to depict the world that felt both true to himself and its rapid change.
“Foundations” really starts at the beginning: “The Large Ponds in the Hague Forest,” 1887, the first painting Mondrian is known to have made, at 15. I won’t dismiss it — I mean, for 15, it’s great. But it’s also dully unsure, a careful copy of classic Dutch landscape painting hoping for the best (did I mention he was 15?). But it foreshadows a truth about Mondrian: that not being sure turned out to be the very best thing about him.
A short passage on landscape crescendoes with “Beach with Five Piers at Domburg,” 1909, a loosely expressive little canvas with flights of color — lavender skies, creamy pink sand daubed with purple and blue — that presages the formal rigor to come. Read along, and you’ll see an artist determined to take steps with every canvas and stroke.
The piece is preceded by the gloomy softness of “Post Mill at Heeswijk, Side View,” 1904, a classic lowland scene of a windmill in profile. Mondrian needing to point that out in the title seems notably fussy, but says something else, too. To me, it speaks of a general frustration with trying to capture the world as it is, an impossibility. Abstraction flows from that discontent, though there were steps yet to take.
“Foundations” tracks them with just enough works to mark the path: The dark energy of “Geinrust Farm,” 1907, with a looming stand of ragged, roughly-painted trees, is as loose as “Five Piers,” and as shadowy as it is bright. Taken together, it’s not much of a leap to “Eucalyptus (compositional study),” 1910, a gnarl of black paint swiped in energetic strokes across the canvas, on abstraction’s edge.
In 1912, Mondrian would move to the avant-garde hotbed of Paris — ever forward — and see Cubism, the brainchild of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, firsthand. Picasso had painted the eruptive “Demoiselles d’Avignon” years before, in 1907, upending the nascent Modern movement, and Mondrian felt himself lagging. “Foundations” has the tremendous gift of one of Mondrian’s tree pictures from that same year, a giant leap: “Apple Tree,” 1912, a coolly oblique charcoal drawing with spare, angular marks and shading — a picture not of a thing, but of its essence as he saw it. Cubism gave him that gift — a departure point from which he never looked back.
The show concludes — or does it begin? — with “Composition with Blue, Yellow and Red” from 1927, a classic Mondrian canvas sharply portioned out, just so. But it should look different to you now, another stop on a journey full of feeling and question. Those grids and lines and little bricks of color aren’t declarations — they’re aspirations, that the world can be brought down to size, to be understood, to be harmonized with an elemental gesture of beauty and order. (Deeply spiritual though not religious, Mondrian was fascinated by theosophy, a belief in a higher plane of perception and being. He was a founder of the “De Stijl” movement in 1917 among Dutch artists, architects, and designers, who believed highly-ordered abstract vision could bring about universal harmony. Ah, well.)
If the story ended there, it would be so tidy, a perfect arc. And it would be harder to make the case for Mondrian, the hopeless romantic, which even in his most severe pictures I believe he was. But his final chapter crystallizes his journey as not just stylistic but emotional: In 1938, while living in London, he met Peggy Guggenheim, by then a champion of a rising American abstract avant-garde.
With the Blitz an ever more pressing concern, he moved to New York in 1940, and found a world of vibrant expression that wobbled his grids into frantic motion. “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” his very last painting, made in 1942-43, is ode to the jazzy chaos of the city, whether in the clubs or out on its jam-packed streets. A new link in the artist’s long chain, the painting, owned by MoMA, isn’t here, but a graphite study for it is, in a vitrine in the middle of the room. It all but vibrates with the jump and verve of a city made alive in sound while at home in Europe, silent streets told only of people huddled underground awaiting the next bombardment.
The pencil markings plot out the carefully controlled chaos of the finished piece, an irregular grid of bright yellow punctuated by blocks of color that feel to me like the organic disorder that can happen despite best-laid plans, and the joy of unruly happenstance. The artist moved ever forward, to the last.
Through April 28. Museum of Fine Arts, 425 Huntington Ave. 617-267-8300, www.mfa.org