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Indepth Arts News:

"Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings"
2001-04-28 until 2001-07-22
Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA United States of America

The Harvard University Art Museums will present a groundbreaking exhibition exploring the transatlantic works of Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944). Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings focuses on a series of seventeen works created in Europe and finished in America during the artist’s final years. The exhibition is the culmination of extensive technical research on these paintings and the revisions that Mondrian made to them, and provides valuable insight into his working process. The project also encompasses multimedia kiosks in the exhibition, a web site, a scholarly catalogue, and educational programming both for scholars and the general public, all of which will advance the understanding and appreciation of one of the leading abstract artists of the twentieth century.

Drawing upon public and private collections in Europe and America, the exhibition will unite for the first time fifteen of Mondrian's seventeen transatlantic paintings, including works from the Museum of Modern Art, The Tate Modern, The Phillips Collection, and the Kimbell Art Museum. Harry Cooper, associate curator of modern art at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, and Ron Spronk, associate curator for research at Harvard's Straus Center for Conservation, are the principal scholars and organizers of the project. Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings will be on view April 28–July 22, 2001 in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard, before traveling to the Dallas Art Museum in the fall. The exhibition is supported in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings is the result of an important collaboration between the Fogg and the Straus Center. As a leading teaching institution and a major center for conservation, the Art Museums have long been committed to the integration of art historical and conservation research, said James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director. This project will provide a model for collaboration between curators, technical art historians, and conservators and will stimulate new thinking about integrating technical information into the aesthetic experience of exhibitions.

In 1938, Mondrian fled Paris, his home of twenty years, and moved to London before settling in New York in 1940, where he lived until his death in 1944. On arriving in New York, he began revising many of the paintings—some previously exhibited—that he had brought with him. He added lines and blocks of color in order to complicate and enliven the compositions—to give them more boogie-woogie, as he put it, referring to his latest musical enthusiasm. He inscribed the paintings with double dates to emphasize the singular importance of the revisions.

These works reveal a significant change in Mondrian’s artistic vocabulary, and there are various frameworks for considering them, noted Cooper. They can be viewed as unique documents of the 'intellectual migration' from Europe to America around World War II; as the means by which Mondrian dealt with his displacement and exile; and as important traces of the ongoing artistic dialogue between painting and music, or between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. However, any interpretation requires detailed knowledge of the revisions the artist made to the works, and this collaboration with the Straus Center has provided important new information on Mondrian’s working process as well as a platform for new art historical interpretation.

In some cases, the first (European) version was recorded through photographs, and in others, no records exist. This makes the series as a whole ideally suited to the kind of technical research—including X-radiography, ultraviolet and infrared imaging, microscopic observation, and pigment sampling and analysis—that has become an increasingly important part of art historical investigation. These technical documents were digitized and overlaid for further study, an innovative manner of examining such material that was developed in the Straus Center. Such in-depth analyses have more typically been applied to old master paintings, which generally lend themselves to the process because they were made in layers, from underdrawing to varnished surface.

By methodically applying this kind of technical examination to modern paintings, the project breaks new scholarly ground for the enhanced study and understanding of modern art, added Spronk. A major goal is to present the results in a way that illuminates the technical groundwork of the paintings without detracting from their aesthetic impact. An important premise for the project is that the appreciation of art can be enhanced by information about its creation when such information is presented in a way that is accessible but unobtrusive.

The paintings will be installed in one gallery with interactive kiosks providing access to the research findings. The kiosks will allow visitors to take a virtual tour of the paintings, layer by layer, and will also integrate ancillary materials, including archival photos of the artist and his studios, as well as additional critical interpretations of the work. A similar tour will also be available through the web site.

A scholarly catalogue will accompany the exhibition, with full-color illustrations, detailed entries, and digitized technical imaging of the works, including X-radiographs, ultraviolet and infrared images, microphotographs, and cross sections of paint layers. Essays by Spronk and Cooper will present, respectively, the technical findings themselves, and their effects on broader historical and critical consideration of Mondrian’s late works.

There will also be a major scholarly symposium on the technical examination of modern art. Among the speakers will be the world’s leading Mondrian experts as well as other eminent conservators and scholars in the field of modern art.

Piet Mondrian
Cat 12: No. 9, 1939-1942
Detail, lower right
(photography courtesy Phillips Collection)

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