* This piece was published this week in an abridged form in the Daily Mail. Here is the full, unedited version.
I always loved Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and admired Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.
But Victory Boogie-Woogie by fellow Dutch artist Piet Mondrian? No, I hadn’t heard of it either – until a recent trip to Holland.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the death of the Dutch abstract artist – famous for his brightly coloured grid-like designs – and two major new exhibitions will celebrate his legacy this summer.
Mondrian and Colour, focusing on his early works, opens at Turner Contemporary, Margate, in May. Focusing on his later work, Mondrian and his Studios, opens at Tate Liverpool in June.
I’ve come to Holland for a preview of works to feature in both exhibitions, tracing a route by train from Amersfoort, the small town near Utrecht where Mondrian was born in 1872, to The Hague, where many of his works are collected in the Gemeentemuseum.
On the morning I arrive in the canal-side town of Amersfoort, spring tulips are exploding into colour amid the maze of tiny streets and wave-lapping waterways.
The Mondriaanhaus, the former home where the family lived until 1880, is now a small but compelling museum devoted to Mondrian’s life and work.
It includes a permanent exhibition of his early paintings and a recreation of the Paris apartment-studio at 26 Rue du Depart, where he lived and worked from 1921 to 1936. Curator Marjory Degen says:
“There’s a lot more to Mondrian than the straight lines and primary colours we think of.”
“I’m fascinated by his philosophy. He wanted to let go of the natural world and achieve a cleaner, more prefect vision of paradise,” she adds, sitting in the recreated Paris studio, a video installation of a bespectacled Mondrian smoking a cigarette projected onto the red-cushioned sofa.
Half-drawn squares of primary colours add bright, clean lines to the walls around us.
Later that day in nearby Utrecht I wander the historic streets of 12th-century old city, exploring the medieval passageways around Dom Square and dipping into the cloistered gardens of Dom Cathedral, where daffodils and crocuses bring splashes of primary colours to gargoyle-watched tranquility.
Over a local wheat beer in Café Olivier, a buzzy little beer café with a fine line in lunchtime goodies and interesting brews, I find myself spotting nods to Mondrian’s love of colour and form all around me.
The De Stijl movement of abstract art, of which Mondrian was a leading light, was born out of the First World War and set out to deliberately challenge the ideas of the traditional art establishment.
The Gemeentemuseum at my next stop, The Hague, devotes a whole new wing to De Stijl. I spend a lazy morning the next day perusing the artworks, including works by Theo van Doesburg and Janus de Winter, the canvases full of egalitarian straight lines and vibrant colours.
Like other art movements, such as Bauhaus and the Viennese Secession based around the work of Klimt, it makes look at the artworks differently, finding new forms in the brushstrokes.
The museum also houses the world’s largest collection of Mondrian’s work – some 298 items backed with regular temporary exhibitions.
It traces his artistic development from dreamlike landscapes to embracing color after he relocated to Paris in 1919, eschewing his rather staid reputation to celebrate the music and vitality of the jazz age. His subsequent move to New York in 1940 cemented his love of grid-style lines and the syncopation of jazz.
“Every morning I walk through the gallery and see Schiele and Picasso. But then I see Mondrian’s Composition with Grey Lines (1918) and I fall in love all over again,” says Hans Janssen [pictured above], head curator of modern at the Gemeentemuseum.
“If you deliver yourself to the painting, then it is very rewarding. It becomes the love of your life.”
After exploring the gallery, I catch the tram back into the old town to explore the cobbled streets and Gothic buildings around the central square, Buitenhof.
Nearby, The Mauritshuis, home to Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring, recently re-opened following two years of renovations that put the world-famous painting back at the heart of the new exhibition space.
Afterwards, I grab a window seat at Dudok, the elegant cafe with its rack of art magazines and enticing aroma of fresh coffee, and indulge in a spot of people watching while tucking into a large cappuccino and a slice of traditional Dutch Apple pie, served warm with cinnamon ice-cream.
Dinner that night is at Catch by Simonis, a harbourside fish restaurant across town in the Scheveningen area. It forms part of a huddle of lively little bars and restaurants at the far end of Strandweg, an expansive seaside promenade that curls around the sand dunes of The Hague’s seaside district.
After tucking into oysters and pan-fried plaice, washed down with a crisp glass of white, I catch the tram back to my hotel through the moonlight-embracing streets.
The primary colours of the shop signs and straight lines of the tram tracks are reflected in post-downpour puddles like the brushstrokes of Mondrian’s multilayered, albeit sometimes challenging, works.
I didn’t know much about Mondrian before I came to Holland. But now, some 70 years after his death, I see him everywhere around me.
Van Gogh and Rembrandt may have captured a moment in time but Mondrian has, I feel, become part of Holland’s eternal landscape.
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* Read the edited story at Daily Mail Travel, Art is all around in Inspiring Holland.