Prince Charles hates right angles.
“Why has everything got to be vertical, straight, unbending,” he asked in a speech at the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1984, “only at right angles and functional?”
Mondrian, the Dutch painter, would have disagreed. For him, straight lines and right angles had a metaphysical quality: They revealed a universal harmony beneath the surface of representational beauty.
Mondrian (1872-1944), along with Kandinsky and Malevich one of the founding fathers of abstract art, is the subject of a spectacular exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. This is what the center, which often gets lost in highfalutin’ projects, does best -- shows with a sharp focus, rich documentation and superb loans.
It starts and ends with several rooms devoted to De Stijl, or The Style, a loose association of Dutch artists, founded in 1917, to which Mondrian belonged for a while.
In the same year, Mondrian, already in his forties, found the rigorously geometrical style for which he is known today. From then on, the common denominator of his canvases was an asymmetrical grid of black lines forming rectangles of various sizes mostly in the primary colors: blue, red and yellow.
The show includes some of his earlier, more conventional works. Looking at them, you understand the verdict of the jurors when he twice failed to win the Prix de Rome: “Application: good. Talent: fair.”
In 1911, he discovered Cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque in an Amsterdam exhibition. They changed his life. He moved to Paris and stayed there until the outbreak of World War I forced him to go back to Holland.
It was during those war years that Mondrian met Theo van Doesburg, a talented painter and writer and the driving force behind De Stijl who tirelessly promoted an austere clarity that would purify art and life. This almost sounds like the Bauhaus philosophy; in fact, Van Doesburg did teach in Weimar.
There were other, more esoteric, influences. As a young man, Mondrian had toyed with the idea of becoming a Calvinist minister. In 1909, he changed tack and joined the Theosophical Society of Amsterdam, thereby subscribing to the belief that it’s possible to attain wisdom through disembodiment.
Back from Paris, he fell under the spell of a guru named Mathieu Schoenmaekers, who preached the gospel of a “Nieuwe Wereldbeeld,” or New Image of the World. It was in homage to Schoenmaekers, whom he later dismissed as a charlatan, that Mondrian called his mature style “Nieuwe Beelding,” clumsily translated as Neo-Plasticism.
The show plays down the more dubious sources of Mondrian’s art. Otherwise, it follows his development -- from the Cubist period to the late, less dogmatic New York paintings, which dispensed with the black grid.
When Mondrian arrived in the U.S. from war-torn Europe, he was a famous man -- thanks to the 1936 MoMA survey “Cubism and Abstract Art,” which included nine of his canvases.
That was quite a change, compared with the lean years in Paris where he had lived again from 1919 to 1938: His austere Neo-Plasticism proved to be virtually unsalable. To make ends meet, he had to produce tons of harmless watercolors with flowers on the side.
His Paris studio on Rue du Depart near the Gare Montparnasse has been lovingly reconstructed from photographs -- “a poem of right angles,” as the architect Le Corbusier, who shared Mondrian’s taste, called it. It doesn’t exude what I would describe as creature comfort. Friends compared it to a “hermit’s cave.”
The same applies to the furniture and the houses inspired by De Stijl of which there are several models in the show: You need the self-denial of a monk to enjoy such clinical purity.
“Mondrian/De Stijl” runs through March 21, 2011, at the Pompidou Center, Paris. Information: http://www.centrepompidou.fr or +33-1-4478-1233.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)