Interview with Charmion von Wiegand, by Margaret Rowell, June 20, 1971
from the catalogue for the Piet Mondrian Centennial Exhibition, Guggenheim Foundation, 1971
MR: Charmion, you were one of Mondrian's closest friends during his last three years in New York. I would like to record some of the circumstances of your friendship and through the filter of your memory try to rediscover certain aspects of Mondrian's life — creative and other — during the New York period. One thing that intrigues me is that you are a woman and you were obviously much younger than he. It seems surprising that such a strong friendship should grow up between you.
CvW: Yes, I was about half his age. But friendships have nothing to do with age or sex; they just happen between people who are somehow innately able to understand each other. It was coincidental that I was particularly inclined to understand Mondrian and his Theosophic philosophy, due to the fact that I grew up in San Francisco, my father had exposed me to Oriental philosophy, and I had even looked into Theosophy on my own. So Mondrian's ideas were not foreign to me.
MR: Was Theosophy as a discipline still very important in Mondrian's life?
CvW: One could say that he had gone beyond it. He had digested it as a discipline and it had become implicit to his life.
MR: Did he belong to a Theosophist group in New York ?
CvW: No, not to my knowledge. Again, Mondrian had gone beyond organizations or groups of any kind for himself, by that time, just as he had gone beyond closed form. To him, they represented, limitations, a division in the total unity he sought to achieve, and a restriction in the context of his universal philosophy. When he first came here he joined the American Association of Abstract Artists, primarily, I think, because his friends here (Holtzman, Holty) wanted him to but he rarely if ever, went to the meetings. He would say to me, "You go, Charmion, and tell me what is happening."
MR: So Mondrian's ideas, although new to you, were not altogether foreign because of your exposure to Theosophy, on which much of Neo-plastic theory is based. How did you first react to his paintings?
CvW: The first paintings I saw by Mondrian were in the Gallatin Collection here in New York. My first reaction was that they were mathematical compared to the art I was interested in and I did not understand them. At the time Mondrian arrived in New York, I was writing art criticism and I had been a painter in my own right for some fifteen years. I was interested in Expressionism and Picasso and had recently written an article on Guernica for the magazine Decision. As for my paintings, that was a period of landscapes, in which I was having trouble with spatial relations. The background kept coming up to the surface plane. Without knowing it, I was approaching the plane in a semi-realistic manner.
I didn't meet Mondrian right away, although many of my friends did, his work was widely discussed, and some of it was reproduced. It was in the pamphlet Five on Revolutionary Art that I first saw his name in print and decided that it was time I met the man. I was sure, when I went to his studio the first time, that I would find it excessively disciplined. How wrong I was! From the first moment I met Mondrian, I was a total convert to his way of thinking and seeing. Our contact was a rare experience which only occurs once or twice in a lifetime. And from that first meeting, my eyes were transformed. When I went out into the street again, I saw everything differently from before: the streets, the buildings, my total visual environment.
MR: When was your first meeting with Mondrian ?
CvW: That was on April 12, 1941. I have published a precise account of this encounter in the Arts Yearbook, no. 4, 1960, so there is no point in my repeating it here. However, just to confirm what I said earlier, one could say that Mondrian was my Guru. He changed the direction of my whole life and for that I will always be grateful to him. I stopped painting for a year and a half and plunged myself into Neo-plasticism, going to the New York Public Library every day and reading everything I could get my hands on (which meant all the European magazines on abstract art). Mondrian and I corresponded frequently (he had no phone, so we wrote each other little notes). During the first year, I saw him at least three times a week and had dinner with him once a week. We usually went to a little French restaurant called Le Moal on the corner of Third Avenue and 50th Street. Mondrian liked it because it had checkered tablecloths and was full of French sailors who sang at the bar, and it reminded him of Paris. It also had a juke box which he liked.
MR: I know you saw and talked with Mondrian very often during the three years between April 1941 and February 1944. Did you ever actually watch him paint?
CvW: Oh yes, many times. Of course, I didn't witness the conception of the idea, just the execution. And it didn't take me long to understand that Mondrian's art was entirely intuitive, not mathematical as I had once thought. Through Carl Holty, Mondrian discovered tape in America and I remember seeing him push the collared tape across the canvas until the intervals and the relations of the planes were "right". He did everything by eye. A mathematician friend once showed him that his compositions could be analyzed according to the Golden Section. This had never entered his mind — as far as I know, he worked entirely intuitively.
Mondrian was never finished with a painting, which further proves that he had no predetermined compositional ideas. He would change a painting over and over again and he loved to show them to his friends (such as Hans Richter, and Moholy-Nagy whenever he came to New York from Chicago) and test their immediate reactions. I once told him how someone had said that he would as soon call in a plumber or the ice-man and ask them what to do about a composition: should he move this line here, or make this plane larger in relation to the whole? He laughed and said that was probably true, but a plumber had to earn a living, and would not have time to really look at his paintings anyway. The truth of the matter was that it did not really matter who it was; he was just appealing to a human response and went his own way anyhow.
MR: This continuous reworking of a painting seems to explain the numerous canvases of the late years which bear a double date: 1935-42, 1936-43, for example. Apparently Mondrian brought many paintings with him from England, and, whereas they were rather classic and European in their composition, he modified them, once here, to make them more dynamic. 1
CvW: Yes, he did exactly that. He was terrifically impressed by the dynamism he found in New York and wanted to make his paintings more dynamic. They were too classically balanced once he looked at them with American eyes. But rather than start a new painting with a new idea, he tried out his new ideas on his old paintings. In a way these were warming-up exercises for the new paintings which would come afterwards, trial-runs for the new ideas. And since he wasn't selling much out of his studio, and he had his first one-man exhibition at the age of almost seventy, 2 the paintings were there. Good examples of his alterations are the small unbounded planes of colour that appear in paintings of this period. They were added to existing compositions to upset the initial classic balance and introduce a "dynamic equilibrium".
MR: These short bands of colour are found in two of Mondrian's tall vertical paintings dated 1935-4. 3 Presumably these were started in Paris, where the compositional structure was set down, and the small bands of colour were added in New York. I have heard you refer to these paintings as "Gothic" paintings. Do you think Mondrian would agree to this term?
CvW: That Was Mondrian's term for them. But in the end, he decided that they didn't work. There was too much emphasis on verticality and therefore the equilibrium was destroyed. He felt this was true of New York skyscrapers: "They are too tall," he used to say. By nature, he had a strong Gothic feeling which he tried to discipline and control in order to reach the classic balance or dynamic equilibrium for which he strove. One thing that always struck me about Mondrian was that you felt that his lineage went way back. I once said to him, "Mondrian, what were you like when you were young?" and he replied, "I was always the same, Charmion, I was born old!" He meant what they call in Theosophical terms: to have "an old soul," which indicates that one has been reincarnated many times. 4 Mondrian was convinced that he had already lived other lives.
Mondrian was attached to a great cultural tradition through his Theosophical interests but he was totally Western in his artistic training and form of expression. One realizes that fundamental principles can be the same but time, place, laws of diversity and one's relationship to history change the results of their application. The guiding principles of Mondrian's art are the same as those in Chinese art, but the effects are entirely different.
MR: Did Mondrian follow Theosophical theories of colour?
CvW: Not really, or at least not when I knew him. He had his own theory which was simply to stick to the primaries: red, yellow and blue, and the neutrals: black, white and grey. But his hues changed in every picture. His red was never the same red, nor his blue the same blue. It had to be in perfect equilibrium with the whole painting and the proportions of each plane. He was very aware of how colour interaction can change a hue and make a red look bluer or a blue look redder. He was also aware of their psychological impact, but they had no symbolic value as in Theosophical colour theories.
MR: How do you explain Mondrian's switch from black to collared lines in the late paintings?
CvW: I think he fell into it through intuition. Once he started experimenting with the collared tapes, he started seeing black as too graphic. Up to then, he had used black and white to solve structural problems but in the last stages, he started thinking in total colour terms, and his expression became purely plastic.
I asked him if using the collared lines was not more difficult because the varied intensity of red, blue and yellow does not maintain the surface plane as easily as the black lines. He was aware of that but confident of finding proper solutions.
MR: New York City 1 5 is, of course, an excellent example of this.
CvW: Yes, but it might surprise you if I told you that if Mondrian had had that painting in his studio, he would have changed it and put in little collared squares to syncopate the rhythm, like he did in the Boogie Woogie paintings.
MR: In reference to the Broadway Boogie Woogie, I have always been intrigued by the squares within squares that one finds here for the first time.
CvW: I was so shocked by those squares the first time I saw them. I couldn't believe that he would do that. I had studied everything published on Neo-plasticism that I could find and the first time I saw them I exclaimed: "But Mondrian, it's against the theory!" I remember him standing back from the painting, squinting his eyes, and saying, "But it works. You must remember, Charmion, that the paintings come first and the theory comes from the paintings."
MR: Could we talk a little more about the Boogie Woogie paintings, since I know you were often at his studio during the two years he worked on them ?
CvW: The New York City paintings in collared lines, 6 the first of the kind that he made, were put aside around the time of his first exhibition at Valentine Dudensing's (1942), and after that exhibition he began work on the two Boogie Woogie pictures: the first one, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 7 and the second. Victory Boogie Woogie. 8 He worked on both of them simultaneously and finished Broadway Boogie Woogie first. 9 I remember discussing with him at that time that he had spent over a year's time on two pictures and he said, "Well, I did a lot of other work besides on other pictures." I asked him why he had not made a series of paintings rather than a continuously changing composition of Victory Boogie Woogie and said, "Why, Mondrian, it seems to me as if you have twelve pictures buried under this one canvas." He replied, "It is not important to make many pictures but that I have one picture right."
MR: Do you know how and when the idea for the Boogie Woogies, and particularly the Victory Boogie Woogie, took form ?
CvW: I remember the first drawing for the Broadway Boogie Woogie. It was in collared lines which were very wiggly and light. It had something of the same effect as New York City I, but it was more open, in the centre and Mondrian had added small block rectangles. My earliest recollection of anything to do with the Victory Boogie Woogie was one day when I went to visit Mondrian and he came pattering down the corridor to greet me, waving a little piece of paper. "I dreamed a lovely composition last night," he said, thrusting the piece of paper before my eyes. It was the beginning sketch for Victory Boogie Woogie. That was in early 1942.
I remember (I recorded it in my notes) that it was on June 13,1942, that I first saw Mondrian actually working on the Victory Boogie Woogie. A big diamond-shaped canvas stood against the south wall, but it had not yet been painted white. We began to discuss it. "I want to balance things too much," he said, pointing to earlier canvases around his studio.
Then he began moving tapes on the new diamond one. It was close and sticky in the studio and at first I was confused by his approach. After an hour, I got into it, and was able to follow what he was doing and suggested he move the picture into the alcove where we could observe the painting from a greater distance. Back and forth he trudged, laying down the collared lines and sticking little tapes at the intersections, changing the lines so they went over or under. The left corner ended with a yellow bar. That came off. The two red crosses next to it were changed to yellow, to blue, back to red. The horizontals were run over the next long yellow line. The right corner gave the most trouble: a blue cross with enclosing red horizontals. He found a solution in cutting off the blue lines top and bottom and leaving empty space above and below the cross. It was difficult and subtle, in the way the lines interwove and the differences created by crossing an intersection on the horizontal or on the vertical axis. Each small dab of tape changing a colour at the intersection changed all the relationships.
Mondrian wanted it to be free, asymmetrical, and equilibrated, but without classic balance. "How I make you work," he would say. I made suggestions freely and he tried all of them. "No, I don't like that, it's less victorious," he said, when the long red vertical balancing the yellow central axis was changed.
This first stage of the Victory Boogie Woogie was in collared lines in red, blue and yellow and at the end of that day (June 13, 1942) he said it was complete, and I made a crayon sketch of it. 10 However, he expressed displeasure that I had done so when I mentioned it to him. The next time I saw the picture, he had already begun to break the lines into small squares or mosaics of colour and to alter the sizes of the planes. The planes in turn became liberated of the lines and took on their own rhythm which appeared in counterpoint to the staccato movement of the lines.
It was in late January 1944 that I visited Mondrian the last few times and saw the
Victory Boogie Woogie in his studio. The first time was a Monday when I dropped in without notice and, finding him with a bad cold and not looking well, I did not stay long. We looked at the Victory Boogie Woogie together. I found it very wonderful and it seemed to me to be finished; I asked him how much he was going to do on it further. He said he felt that it was all right except the very top. As I recall the top part, it had grey planes with a pale yellow.
On Wednesday of the following week, I went up to see him again and I found Glarner present and Mondrian in bed. He told me that Harry Holtzman had gone for a doctor. While they were busy in the room, I was asked to wait in the studio, where I saw the Victory Boogie Woogie in its final stage. That was the day Mondrian was taken to the hospital. He was never to work on the Victory again.
Later I realized what a radical change had taken place in the Victory during those last ten days. The picture which had seemed to me complete was covered once again with small tapes and looked as though he'd been working on it in fever and with great intensity. It had a more dynamic quality and there seemed to be more little squares in various colors. The earlier picture seemed in retrospect more classical, more serene and less complicated. The effect of a more dynamic intensity and restlessness was certainly due to the addition of collared tapes and papers, because there were practically no papers on the canvas when I had seen it the time before. It was all painted except for one or two small papers; now these were superimposed with tiny squares. Some of the larger single colour planes seemed to have been divided into two colors. But fundamentally, there was little change except for a more intense staccato movement.
MR: What do you think is the importance of Mondrian today?
CvW: Mondrian's effort was to develop a new conceptual structure of the twentieth century which would be liberated, flexible and equilibrated, and it seems to me that he followed in the direct line of Cezanne, Picasso and Leger in inventing this new vision. He was not interested in anything romantic and considered himself a pure realist. In the paintings which he completed in Europe, the structure is intact, classical and perfect in itself. It leaves no way out for other painters. But in his last work, the Victory Boogie Woogie, he transgressed his classical European heritage by integrating the American environment, thereby achieving a universal solution. Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie provided future generations with inspiration for their work and this is one effect of Mondrian's inner vision which seems to me important for all art after him. He opened a door as important as that opened in the fourteenth century for European painting: the door to an international and universal art, expressive of the unified world.
In another context, Mondrian's importance today is illustrated by the fact that our whole environment has been unconsciously as well as consciously influenced by his discoveries in pure plastic art. He liked New York because of the American sense of colour which was closely related to his ideas of colour: direct, brilliant and primary. He increased our awareness of our environment and our environment has changed perceptibly because of his vision.
MR: And Mondrian the man ?
CvW: Mondrian was of slight stature with finely articulated joints. In fact, I always felt that the scale of his paintings reflected a sense of human scale which was intimately related to his own person.
I would compare his mentality to that of a Tibetan lama. This is not as strange as it sounds. Madame Blavatsky, the famous Theosophist, wrote about Egyptian cosmology. But Theosophy also draws a great deal on Indian Buddhism. There is a strong relationship between the two. Mondrian was ascetic in all aspects of his existence. In his life as in his art there were never any extremes. This is the Buddhist way, where knowledge and awareness of all extremes are sublimated and transcended in a new unity.
His ascetic bearing made one aware of an incredible self-discipline. This had been imposed on him partly through the extreme poverty he knew all his life and partly because he had a sole, unique goal, toward which he channelled all his energies. Any feelings or cause for distraction which might interfere with his work were consistently pruned from his existence. Notwithstanding this, he was a total human being, endowed with a strong intellect, spiritual power, and sensuousness, and this comes across in his art. His art is not bloodless. He used to say it was "sensual" and I would say, "No, Mondrian, you mean sensuous." He had difficulty distinguishing between the two. But I would support this by saying that whereas Malevich's painting is sensual, cruder, more biological, with an animal sensuality about it, Mondrian's art is sensuous.
For Mondrian, life and art were really one thing. His ideal was "true life" which he defined as human life freed from external (objective) and internal (subjective) oppression. And art for him was a means to approach this end. Abstract art was not the creation of another reality but of another vision—the true vision—of reality. His vision was humanistic and universal, and he subjugated his ego to this quest for a true vision of reality. That to me is the definition of a great artist and a great man.
The catalogue numbers below refer, of course, to the Centennial Exhibition.
1 For further information on this period of Mondrian's art, see R. Welsh, "Landscape into Music-Mondrian's New York, Period," Arts Magazine, vol. 40, no. 4, February 1966, pp. 33-39, which was based in part on conversations with Miss von Wiegand.
2 At the Valentine Dudensing Gallery, New York, January- February 1942.
3 See Cat. no. 119. A similar painting belongs to James H. Clark of Dallas, Texas.
4 See Sketchbooks, footnote p. 30.
6 See Cat. no. 129 and Seuphor, c. c. 435, 436. See TM Cat. for discussion of the unfinished New York City paintings.
7 Cat. no. 130.
8 Cat. no. 131.
9 In fact, Broadway Boogie Woogie was shown at the 1943 Dudensing exhibition and went directly to The Museum of Modern Art from there.
10 See Fig. 16.