Art historian Hans Janssen hopes to reveal the true nature of a man “who embraced life and was completely fascinated by painting,” in his new biography, Piet Mondrian: A New Art for a Life Unknown (in Dutch: Piet Mondriaan. Een nieuwe kunst voor een ongekend leven), according to artnet News.
The book demystifies claims of the Neo-Plasticist artist as being reclusive and unemotional. The Dutch painter, says Janssen, was actually quite passionate. He enjoyed the company of women, music, food and dancing, among other things.
How well do you know the life and art of Mondrian? Read on for seven interesting facts that could change the way you think of the master artist—pulled from Janssen’s new biography, as reported in artnet News. Enjoy!
Science Lead to Art Strategy
Mondrian worked at the Leiden University in the Netherlands as an assistant to professor Reindert Pieter van Calcar circa 1910. Specialized in cholera, the professor performed a vast range of quantitative and experimental research. Mondrian would assist in drawing bacteriological specimens in the laboratory.
During 1901-20, Leiden researchers were awarded three Nobel Prizes. Janssen contends in his book that the artist’s experience at the university had a considerable effect on “theoretical breakthroughs in painting—a strategy of looking, measuring and experimenting with nature.”
From Dreams of Ministry to Divine Art
Although the book tries to de-emphasize the artist’s curiosity of Theosophy, Janssen writes, “Mondrian has grown up to become a painter, but the need to expose the essence has induced him to seriously consider becoming a church minister, or a conductor.”
His celestial pursuits held a more all-encompassing role in his life than just a muted interest. Mondrian was convinced the art-making process was “directed and led by the intuitive” and powered by “unknown forces.”
Surviving an Epic Epidemic
Mondrian was a survivor. In 1918 he contracted the Spanish flu, which claimed more lives than the Great War (the number of deaths ranged from 50 to 100 million). Researchers believe Mondrian contracted influenza from his close friend and housemate, Jo Steijling, who was a primary school teacher.
The artist suffered from the symptoms for months but didn’t let the disease hinder his creativity. He continued making art in his studio throughout his battle with the Spanish flu, writing to a friend in 1929: “While I have had the flu I have noticed how concentrated one unwillingly becomes, and that the work is the better for it.”
Down on the Farm
Mondrian returned to Paris after World War II ended. At this time the city was evolving into a center for experimentation, partying and creativity. Although the artist enjoyed his nights out, he started having “severe doubts” about his career path. He considered moving in with his friend, Ritsema van Eck, in Southern France to lead a simpler life.
“You understand that once I am convinced that it will be financially viable because of [Neo-Plastic] work, I shall be of,” Mondrian wrote. “I shall simply pick olives in the South. I can earn 12 [francs] a day there, and people live off that.”
Hey, Big Spender
With the support of great friends and reasonable accommodations, one might think Mondrian was fairly well off. However, the artist loved going out to eat and lead a fairly extravagant lifestyle. “Mondrian knew all the restaurants where one could eat well,” states Janssen.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the finer things in life (I certainly can relate to being passionate about food), but his lavish routines made his wallet a little too light for comfort. To try to be thriftier with his cash flow Mondrian started cooking from home, finding that he ate “much better and more cheaply.”
However, Janssen notes Mondrian’s frugal attempts lead to him being less social and more studio-centric (which is a good thing for those of us who enjoy gawking at his art)
Quite the Romantic
If you were under the impression Mondrian was a lonely man whose only love was for Neo-Plasticism, think again. You see, Mondrian had another special interest: women. He would take them out on long walks, to romantic dinner dates and dancing at the clubs.
Basically, as much as he loved the ladies, they loved him, too. Mondrian had “an uncomplicated interest in women, one that was unusually intense but at the same time enlightened and honorable,” explains Janssen in the biography. “He was also highly attractive to women. … He lived simply, but took pleasure in the finer things in life.”
But was he a gentleman? Debatable. Mondrian had an affair with the daughter of poet Dop Bles, who was a good friend of the artist. Dop and his daughter Lily, who was 19 at the time, stayed with 57-year-old Mondrian in Paris in 1929.
Continuing their fling for several years, Mondrian eventually asked Lily to marry him. But, young Lily wasn’t having it. In 1932, she denied his proposal in a letter because she wanted someone her own age. (Go figure.)
Who Likes to Boogie?
Mondrian sure did. And no, I am not referring to his unfinished artwork, “Victory Boogie Woogie.” The artist loved to dance. Throughout his life, Mondrian regularly went out dancing with friends and even took dance classes.
What’s more, Janssen reports that the artist was “obsessed” with the popular dance movement circa 1920s, the “Charleston,” which is named after the South Carolina city. This isn’t that surprising since Janssen also notes in the biography that Mondrian loved jazz music.
“All over the world, however, the dance was frowned upon because it was viewed as immoral, lude and overtly sexual,” explains artnet. “As Janssen puts it, [Mondrian] ‘felt compelled, in 1926, to give an interview to the Dutch press threatening never to return to the Netherlands if the ban on the Charleston was enforced.’”
Want to learn more about Mondrian and his art? Dance your way (or take a bus or plane) to the “Mondrian to Dutch Design: 100 years of De Stijl,” which includes a display of the Gemeentemuseum’s entire “300-strong collection of Mondrians.”
The exhibition will remain open until September 24, 2017.