Mondrian chez Monet: Death & Devotion

mondrian sunflower and devotionWhile I was initially skeptical of the very premise of Figurative Mondrian: A Secret History, running through January 26 at, appropriately, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris (whose permanent collection of its namesake’s work traces Claude Monet’s own progression from caricaturist to late-‘Water Lillies’ and ‘Japanese Bridge’ abstractionist — there are none so clairvoyant as those who can barely see), an examination of a selection of the oeuvres featured suggests that at least the Marmottan, as opposed to many of its sister institutions in Paris and New York, has not forgotten that one of the fundamental missions of a fine arts museum is to continually re-evaluate our understanding of historical artists. (As opposed to using the greats as platforms to launch their own fleeting fancies, as the Musée Petit Palais is now doing in marking the bicentennial of the birth of Gustave Courbet by pairing a paltry dozen works by the Modern Master with many more by a contemporary midget.) My initial objection was that one can’t simply lop off the early stage of an artist’s career from the rest and elevate it from a necessary foundation on which what followed was constructed to an independent oeuvre worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with what artists who made their reputations in that genre accomplished. (If our most representative modernist and surrealist, Picasso and Duchamp, started out as, respectively, eloquent figuratives and last-generation impressionists, it was because these were the worlds they were born into and these were the schools in which their masters created and taught.) And that the most important legacies these formative stages offer is the proof that before he went off the reservation, the artist demonstrated that he had mastered the fundamentals. Before you break the rules, you need to prove you know what they are. Even James Bond had to show he had the rigor to enter Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he was granted a license to kill.  (And even Martha Graham had to pass by Leonid Massine — in whose version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” she played the Chosen One — before she branched out from the ballet tree to create her own Modern system) What the Marmottan was thus characterizing as an oeuvre worthy of an expo in its own right had previously seemed to me to fall more appropriately into this category, Piet Mondrian’s necessary rites of passage to establish that he knew how to depict nature before he set out to denature it, an ‘apercu’ that he’d started out with forests populated by trees before he got to empty spaces dissected by lines. And not much more. This impression was based mostly on Alberto Busignani’s monograph “Mondrian” (Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, in Dominique Fort’s translation, and Sadio Editore, Florence, 1968.) But even the two oils above disprove Busignani’s contention that by 1909-1910 — and already hinted at in 1908 — “the abstraction of the subject absolutely forbids [Mondrian] from creating a painting of story.” You don’t have to be a Moses Pendleton (to evoke Modern Dance’s most famous sunflower-worshiper) to see story in the “Dying Sunflower I” oil on carton at left, measuring 63 x 31 cm, or “Devotion,” the oil on canvas at right, measuring 94 x 61 cm. Both images  © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands. — Paul Ben-Itzak

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