Mondrian in Disneyland
 

 

The February 1989 edition of Art in America contained an excellent article by Els Hoek (originally published in in Dutch in the periodical Jong Holland in November 1984) and translated from the Dutch by Wendy Shaffer.

The article examines Mondrian's correspondence during his time in London (1939-1940) with his brother Carel. It took me a long time to get hold of this article and, for those who are interested, I reproduce it below - if any interested party objects to my putting it on the Web I will happily remove it, but I believe that detailed, informative and fascinating articles such as this should be available to Mondrian enthusiasts.

Mondrian in Disneyland

 Sixty-six years old, driven from Paris by impending war, and living alone in a minuscule London flat, Mondrian sent his brother Corel a series of whimsical postcards and letters. In the excerpts below, the artist reveals his love of good friends and simple living—as well as a surprising passion for Walt Disney's "Snow White."

 BY ELS HOEK

 Piet Mondrian was a prolific letter writer. And it is fortunate indeed that the many friends and acquaintances with whom he corresponded were not as zealous as he in protecting the privacy of that communication: once Mondrian had read a letter, he was in the habit of "solemnly burning it." 1 As for his own letters, those that have survived are for the most part suitably adapted in style and tone to their recipient. For example, to architect J.J.P. Oud, Mondrian wrote restrained, practical letters, while to Theo van Doesburg he elaborated all kinds of theories of art, interspersing these musings with pure art-world gossip. Whatever the tone, however, the main theme in virtually all his letters was art. Not so in his correspondence with his youngest brother, Carel.

Mondrian's contact with his family was largely maintained via Carel. Occasionally he would send a card to his sister, Stien, or to Willem and Louis, but he kept much more closely in touch with his youngest brother. In Mondrian's lettersPostcard from Piet to Carel postmarked 10th December 1938 to Carel we hear little about art, or Mondrian's workPostcard from Piet to Carel postmarked 2nd October 1938; apparently this did not interest Carel enormously. What we do find are discussions about philosophies of life, and in particular about religion. Their strict Calvinist upbringing — "the education of the old gentleman" as Mondrian calls it in one letter — caused Carel difficulty in the strongly Catholic southern Netherlands. When Carel decided to convert to Catholicism, in 1930, Piet, who had early thrown off the shackles of institutionalized religion, made his opinions discreetly known. In a letter dated July 3 of that year, he writes that in life, just as in art, freedom exists only if restrictions are done away with. He goes on to say: "I personally find the Roman church too much of a 'form,' so you will understand if  I  can't  go  along  with  that  church."  But  he  softens  this  by immediately adding: "Of course, for many people such a 'form' is necessary for a while."

In the correspondence between the brothers, less weighty subjects are also discussed. The postcards and the letter printed here, written at the time of the artist's move from Paris to London in 1938, reveal a side to Mondrian's nature that is otherwise unfamiliar to us. The dogmatic, stiffly formal man we generally imagine him to be is here pleasantly qualified. 2

"In the evening when the dwarfs return from work, I hear their music in the distance, a very cheering sound .... I have my gramophone ... Sneezy and the others like that too."

 Picture postcard from Piet to Carel Mondriaan,  undated,  postmarked  Oct.  2, 1938; "Doc" from the Walt Disney film "Snow White" [Text on reverse]

Nice of you to come and take a look. Thanks also for your kind letters. At present I find things pretty agreeable here. The landlord had the room cleaned by Blanche Neige [Snow White] and the walls whitewashed by the squirrel with its tail. I'll write as soon as I have time. That ugly shrew "war" has fortunately departed for the time being, thank heavens.

Postcard from Piet to Carel postmarked 10th October 1938Postcard from Piet to Carel postmarked 10th October 1938Picture postcard from Piet to Carel Mondriaan, undated, postmarked Oct. 10, 1938; Snow White Tells the Dwarfs a Fairy Story [Text on reverse]

Dear Carol and Mary. Thanks for your card. I'm kept busy just now settling in and writing letters, and plan to send you a long letter. The dwarfs are too busy to help me themselves, but send squirrels and birds. Best wishes from Piet. Cheerio!

Letter from Piet to Carel Mondriaan, Oct. 28, 1938 [This letter consists of five sheets of pale blue airmail paper, written, with the exception of page three, on both sides. In the top left-hand corner of the paper is the Air France vignette: the "blue circles" that Mondrian refers to in the letter.]

28-10-1938
Dear Carel and Mary, here's your letter at last. I've made the time to write, because I've been wanting to tell you about things here for so long now and to say how glad I was to receive your letters. It's not very often, is it, that you really find someone who understands who you essentially  are.  And  additionally  so  for  me  here, because I'm largely "thrown upon my own resources" again. I have more friends here, and they don't live as far off as in Paris. But everyone has his own things to do, don't you know. One very comforting feeling is that my best friends, as well as a painter and his wife, live just a few minutes from here. The friend has a studio in the garden that I can see from my window, because his wife is a sculptress and also requires a studio, and they have children too. I can see the roofridge of his studio from my window. My room measures 7 by 4½ by 3¼ and has the advantage over my studio in Paris that the windows are on the long side so that I have more space to work with. It was a real piece of luck that I was able to get this room at a cheap price. Compared with French money, everything is more expensive here—but the funny thing is, and I don't know the explanation, once you actually live here, you can manage with the same amount of money and the quality of everything is better. Now I realize this, it really doesn't make any difference whether I'm here or in Paris, and it does look as if there are better chances of selling work here. As you know, most of my buyers either came from America or London. I've already written you that the air here is so much better and the lassitude that I recurrently felt in Paris has completely gone. My health is vastly improved since I came here. I'm doing all right with my English, though of course I have to make somewhat of an effort. It's not nearly such a difficult language as French. I'd finished my usual stationery and the English paper I have now is rather thick, so I'm using this French pad that I brought with me from Paris. That explains the blue circles. I'm just scribbling down things all jumbled up, because there's so much I want to tell about life here.

I had a resident's permit for one month, and now I'm going to ask one for a year, and have to go into the heart of London for that. The air is far less clean there than where I'm living. Where I live is something like [word crossed out] Montparnasse in Paris, or Montmartre, so not the countryside.  But  the  buildings  are  so  spaciously placed, that it combines countryside and city. I sent you a card that gives an impression of one of the streets. The hotel where I stayed was in that street, as you rightly guessed. I crossed out the name so as to avoid confusion with the address. I live just around the corner. In front of all the houses you see those low brick walls and an iron gate, then a small garden and four steps leading up to the front door. You have your own door key — there's no porter. You come inside and there's a short wide entrance hall with a bronze-colored carpet so that you can enter without making a sound. A telephone with a nickel chair beside it. A small table where the letters are laid — the various lodgers take these from the letterbox and then collect their own — to the left a mirror and a painting, to the right at the end a curtain (velvet), a tap, opposite that a door behind which lives an elderly lady, then my door.

Letter from Piet to Carel postmarked 28th October 1938The stairs from the hall lead up two stories. On the first floor are the communal bathroom facilities. I only use the W.C. there, not the bath — that has to wait till I have time (the dwarfs went for much longer without a bath!). I make my "toilet" in my own room, as I did in rue de Depart; for a start it's warmer that way, and also you never know how clean a shared washbasin is, and if you clean it yourself you're just doing this for someone else to make it dirty. So I've had to purchase several washing-up bowls (including for vegetables) and a jug, but I'm perfectly contented with things like this. In Raspail I was always cold in that little room upstairs. I've had to arrange everything in my room so that you don't notice these washing facilities. The landlord had the walls whitewashed, so it's really like a studio. There are sash windows, a bit like those in Winterswijk, but they reach to the floor, so that I can easily step out onto the balcony that's in front of the second window. Standing in front of this was a small, high table; that was a piece of luck, since when I arrived I had nothing but the bed and mattress that Nicholson (the friend I mentioned) lent me. I'd brought sheets with me, but had to buy a woollen blanket, and had to supplement my bedding with coats, since it was fairly nippy. Then I was lent another blanket, and the birds flew over with a brand-new blue stitched quilt. It is filled with feathers, and a sight better than the old cotton one that Carol had to make do with at Raspail! and that I didn't manage to bring with me in my hasty flight. I was particularly puzzled about what to use for a worktable,  but  after  considerable  fruitless searching the squirrels appeared with a trestle like XXX that can be folded. I bought a large board to go on this and now have an excellent table. A small folding table, that I'm writing on now, and a couple of stools made of unvarnished wood (I'm not going to trouble to paint them, they're very beautiful as they are)—complete my furniture. Electricity is free, but there's a coin operated gas meter for my heater and cooking ring that I have to pay for. But that means, of course, that you never build up a gas bill! Actually, it's the same way as it used to be in Amsterdam. But it does seem as if things are differently made here, because everything cooks much quicker and the room is delightfully warm. So things are much better for me here than at Raspail, where it only began to be bearable on 1 Nov., when the central boiler was lit.

Have you  had such exceptionally fine weather most of the time, too? There are still trees in the garden with green leaves! The chestnut has turned yellow, and some leaves are beginning to fall. Now you begin to see  houses through the trees, though only in the distance. The birds live in that sort of "woody" part where the dwarfs also have their house. Only it seems that there are also some unpleasant birds too. If I woke up in the night, I would hear a sound as if someone were hammering. Then it sounded as if there were rats or mice scratching. But there's the corridor on that side and someone I mentioned it to suggested it was birds looking for scraps of food. Still, it's not of great importance. Apart from that, you don't really notice people in the house except when someone telephones in the corridor, and the soft sound of a radio. In the evening when the dwarfs return from work, I hear their music in the distance, a very cheering sound. I have a suitcase now containing some of the things I'd stored with a forwarding agent in Paris, as well as a chest containing papers — these provided me with a lot of work. I have my gramophone here too with 12 of the latest records that I managed to save out of the many that I possessed. So I also have a record with the music of the dwarfs on it, and quite often play it. Sneezy and the others like that too. Even in Breda they apparently have the delightful postcards of the dwarfs that you sent. They're sold out here, but I hope there'll be a reprint. I've not seen any postcards of Hampstead (the district where I'm staying) but I've not really had the chance to look thoroughly. I'll do so later, and then you'll be able to get an idea of what it's like here.

I forgot to tell you about the other lodgers here: upstairs, office workers and business people and downstairs, a young police constable with his wife, who acts as kind of landlady—that is, she collects the rent and so forth. But I'm hardly aware of these people, only sometimes the house has a smell of delicious roast beef or fish. I make my meals much as at Raspail. At first, in the hotel and before I got myself organized I didn't eat very scientifically, though I was able to select the right food combinations. There aren't any cafes here, but there are tea shops and Mary would absolutely drool over the delicious (looking) cakes. You don't see crowds of people in the streets, because it's so wide and spread out. And no one in a rush, everything is calm, not like that frantic feeling you get in Paris. Maybe they drink too many aperitifs and too much wine there! I like it very much indeed here—partly because the birds carried me to a very good spot. Everything is more spacious here, in comparison Paris seems like a toy city. The same goes for buses and underground — even for me it is quite a complicated business to sort these out. Because my friends don't have the time to explain all these things to me, they have their own work. Once Nicholson did come with me, and on another occasion someone took me by car to my destination. It seems as if the dwarfs have come home, at least I can hear their jazz echoing faintly through the garden. Gives me a warm feeling. In fact it's the radio in the basement. There are some annoying things too. For example, the landlord here let me go a month with windows that didn't shut properly, because two ropes attached to the weights were broken. There are curtains (dark brown coarse linen) and inner blinds, but these don't reach right to the top. Fortunately, it wasn't yet very cold. Yesterday I had it fixed at my own cost, and maybe I'll be reimbursed. There are also funny things sometimes when you travel by underground. Sometimes you have three undergrounds one above the other so that these "Montmartre" escalators get terribly steep. Once I went down into the underground by lift but you had to take an escalator up, which was all right despite the height. But on the way back I had to go down all that distance by escalator, and I can tell you that's no joke the first time you do it. It's so steep you think you're going to fall into the depths. It's easy once you know, but you suddenly start to sink downwards, and that feels very odd. Fortunately, a kind person helped me. In that respect people are different here from in Paris. I told this story later to the tortoise, who said, "I would most certainly have tumbled down."

Well, the most important thing is that I can get going better with my work here. I see that my work is greatly  influenced by these different surroundings. Today I've just completed my plans for a large canvas. Now I think I've told you all the most important news. In a minute I'll take a look at Carel's list of questions. The threat of imminent war made life quite anxious here, but there wasn't that sense of oppression that you got in Paris.  People  were just calmly getting  ready. Thousands of children were evacuated to the country. In the parks, air-raid shelters were built, but I didn't see that. In the neighbourhood where I live, people who were able to made gas-free rooms in their houses. One rainy evening two gentlemen came to my house with gas masks. Because I'd just arrived they didn't have one for me, but I was given a form saying that I could collect a mask at the town hall. There it was carefully fitted and I was shown how to wear it. All free of charge. Nicholson and his wife took their children to a safer place and other people were planning what to do. I could lodge with someone here in the countryside. I was virtually alone, but I didn't feel frightened. Then we were relieved to hear the good news.

So you see what a lot has happened in a short time. I kept feeling that it all showed a kind of guidance, and still think there is a form of higher control. I also received  invitations from America, one to  lecture in New York. But they arrived too late, when I was already here. I was most grateful in those difficult days for your invitation to stay with you. But you'll appreciate that this would be far from helpful for my work. So I had to opt for something difficult, rather than pleasant. Me too, I'm very sorry that we're now farther separated than when I was in Paris. But if things go well and I sell some work, then I can come to Paris and see you people. It would probably be quite difficult for you to come here at the moment. You're the only ones that I sometimes tell a few things about my life here. I'll write a short letter to Louis, and you can give him my news. I've not written to Willem for a long time, but will do so. Stien knows how things are from you two, I suppose. I'll send her a few words at Christmas. In answer to Carol's question about the function of a depute, it's more or less the same as a member of the Dutch Tweede Kamer. I boarded the train at Gare du Nord and crossed the Channel by boat—fine weather Dieppe/Dover. Set off from Paris at about 12 o'clock and reached London by 7 o'clock. I've also sent to Paris for the other things, the canvases, the large chamber screen, folding chair, a suitcase with magazines and books, to be sent here. I can store that much here. The rest that I left behind is only ballast anyway. I've already got the standing work lamp here. Your little teapot too. I sold one of my easels to people I knew in Paris, and had to leave the other one aboard ship! It doesn't matter, because I work on the tabletop I mentioned and when I want to look at a painting, I stand it on one of the stools and lean it against the wall.

Carel and his wife Mary Mondriaan-Van den Berg visiting Mondrian in his studio at 278 Boulevard Raspail, August 1936As I wrote to you, it doesn't work simply converting the English currency to work out expenses, because in reality (in practice) you manage just as well. I changed both Dutch and French money into English in Paris so I don't exactly know the correspondence of English to Dutch. But 30 guilders was sent to me here, for which I think I got more than 3½ pounds. So I think the exchange rate is something like 26 Dutch guilders to 3 English pounds. But here too that has a more or less similar value. At present I'm managing all right, but if you can see your way to a small present in the future that will always be welcome, even if it's only to buy some fruit or suchlike. Mary is right to say that Carel can write to me about money matters. But if you two have to scrimp on things yourselves, I wouldn't like it. I hope to hear from you when you've time to write. I was very cheered by your  postcards. That really makes you feel close. It takes me a lot of effort to write long letters too. But now you had to know a bit about everything, didn't you? So long as we hear news about each other in this way from time to time. Or send postcards or a "Dwarf." Good-bye for now, many regards and all the very best from Piet. Never think I don't care about being further away from you people.

Cheerio.

I hope this letter will reach you before Sunday. You'd better not show it to Louis, that wouldn't be nice for him. Just tell him all the news.

Although he made his little room into a "sunlit south of France," Mondrian found wartime Britain too difficult. The U.S. was now the only land where art could flourish freely.

Commentary

This lengthy letter from Mondrian to brother Carel and his wife, Mary, is full of interesting insights into his stay in London — a sojourn that was to last from September 1938 to September 1940. Mondrian recounts his first impressions of the city and provides a detailed description of the neighbourhood, house and room where he is living. He tells about his daily life, describes how he manages on minimal resources and speaks in unexpected metaphors of his helpful  friends,  He  makes  references — at  first  utterly  obscure — to dwarfs, birds, squirrels and tortoises. This playful encoding displays his somewhat childlike enthusiasm and delight in Walt Disney's film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The letter itself provides an entertaining addition to the reminiscences of some of Mondrian's friends and acquaintances from this period — a set of firsthand accounts first published in 1966 in Studio International 3

Mondrian left Paris on Sept. 21, 1938. He had spent the past 19 years there quite happily, but now that the threat of war was growing, many of his fellow artists were leaving, and the changing artistic climate placed him in a fairly isolated position. He no longer felt at home. 4 At the end of this letter Mondrian tells of his journey from Paris to London, via Dieppe and Dover, without mentioning that he was accompanied by Winifred Nicholson. She recalls clearly, in the Studio International article, certain whimsical characteristics of her companion. For example, Mondrian was overwhelmed by the view out of the travelling train, not because of the landscape, but because of the telegraph poles jutting into the horizon at regular intervals. 5

Once in London, Mondrian was welcomed by the "good friends," Ben Nicholson and his second wife, Barbara Hepworth. He had met them in 1933 through the Abstraction-Creation group, and the couple had visited him several times in Paris, Nicholson and Hepworth, together with their three children, lived in a studio complex called "The Mall," in Hampstead. Hepworth worked there as sculptor, and Nicholson had a studio in the garden of 60 Parkhill Road, That was the address where, after a short stay in a hotel, Mondrian was able to make his home. Thus he found himself in a "nest of gentle artists," as Herbert Read was to describe the artists' community that developed in Hampstead in the mid-1930s. This group consisted of Nicholson, Hepworth and Read, as well as Naum and Miriam Gabo, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and an artist relatively unknown outside England, Cecil Stephenson. 6 These "gentle artists" tried their best to make Mondrian's life in London as pleasant as possible. They assisted him in his hunts for cheap furnishings, helped him to find his way around, visited him regularly, invited him to meals and went out of their way to find buyers for his work. In spite of all their efforts, Mondrian still felt like an outsider, but this was probably chiefly due to the kind of person he was. "He was not a man with whom you could have personal relationships," wrote Naum Gabo in 1966. 7

In this letter to Carel, Mondrian expresses in particular his gratefulness to these London friends; he gives each of them an identity taken from Walt Disney's film Snow White: they are like the animals that save the princess when she is left behind in the forest. Thus Nicholson and Hepworth are the birds who "carry him to a pleasant place," and Naum and Miriam Gabo are the birds who "fly to him bearing a brand-new blue quilt." 8 It is not so easy to identify the squirrels who brought him the trestles for a worktable. Clearly, the way in which this well-known fairy tale had been filmed absolutely charmed Mondrian, and more—he saw with humor how the story mirrored aspects of his own existence. The letter is full of parallels between people and events in Mondrian's life, and figures and scenes from the film: friends are likened to the helpful animals, neighbors and housemates to the dwarfs, and their radio music is compared with the "heigh-ho, heigh-ho" song that the dwarfs sing in chorus as they make their way to and from work. For someone who doesn't know the film, the scene with the tortoise by the escalator is a puzzler; but here, too, Mondrian is faithfully following a scene from the film: he is referring to the tortoise who can't manage the stairs in the dwarfs' house. Besides this letter, Mondrian sent his brother several postcards that continue the Snow White comparison. Mondrian bought some of these postcards, but when stocks were finished, he drew others himself. On these he portrayed himself as Sleepy and his brother as Sneezy. When we read in his  letter about the feeling of tiredness that so often overcame him in Paris, it becomes clearer why he identified himself as the sleepy dwarf. If the choice of Sneezy rested on a similar basis, then we might assume that Carel was highly susceptible to the common cold. And finally, Mondrian refers to his gramophone recording of the film score, which he confesses to playing frequently.

It is most striking that in his further correspondence from this period, we find no reference to Mondrian's enthusiasm for Walt Disney. Nor do the English friends who knew him then have any recollection of his talking about what was apparently a passion of his. It seems as if it was only his youngest brother who shared the secret of Mondrian's private pleasure. On the basis of this apparent understanding, we could assume that Mondrian saw the film together with Carel and Mary. However, this could not have been when they visited him in the summer of 1936, because the film was only released in February 1938. There is, however, a reference in a later letter written by Mondrian from  New York to "the film that we saw together." 9 If by this the artist means Snow White, as seems highly probable, then Carel and Mary must have visited him in Paris on another occasion in 1938.

When Mondrian left Paris, he did so in a hurry and only took what bare necessities came readily to hand. His paintings, books and papers, as well as some furniture, were put into storage and were to be sent after him as soon as he had a settled address. The rest of his belongings were either sold or given away. A good friend of his, Maud van Loon, bought the painter's easel and was given as a gift the collection of gramophone records, together with the wooden box in which they were kept. 10 Mondrian wanted to take the other easel with him, and tried to do so; why, is a mystery. It was awkward to transport, and anyway in Paris he was already painting on a tabletop. 11 The easel must have been essential for some other reason. Most likely it was the one on which he used to display his completed canvases, and which was sawn and painted in such a way that it was a work of art in itself. Certainly it would have been difficult to sell, since Mondrian's exuberances had rendered it unusable as a common, garden-variety easel. 12 But in the end he had to leave it behind in Paris, and when he displayed his paintings in London, he had to prop them up on stools, as he explains in the letter.

Mondrian had scant means, but within no time he contrived to transform his sombre rented room into a place that breathed the atmosphere of "a sunlit south of France," as Nicholson put it. There do not appear to be any photographs preserved of this room, nor do we have a very detailed description of it, but from remarks made by friends we gather that, just as in Paris and later in New York, the furniture and interior decorations were done unstintingly in primary colors. 13

Meanwhile, the section in the letter referring to Mondrian's keeping his "toilet" arrangements in his room makes clear that, just as previously, he wanted to avoid having his studio marred by references to everyday activities or objects. Cesar Domela's anecdote about the box of matches that Mondrian returned after use to precisely its previous resting place is an excellent — and perfectly typical — illustration of his punctiliousness. 14 In his Paris studio on rue de Depart, living and working quarters were partially separated by means of a cupboard and an easel on which cardboard pieces had been stuck; kitchen equipment was discreetly hidden behind a curtain. Such an arrangement was quite easy to make there, because of the irregular shape of the room. 15 But in London, Mondrian found it much more difficult to hit upon a functional decorative scheme, certainly before he had his "large  furnishings," which remained for some time in storage in Paris. The long letter refers as well to another of Mondrian's habits: the "scientifically balanced" diet. His friends knew of this interest of his, and would laugh at him about it, "We used to tease Mondrian, insisting that he existed on carrots alone," Miriam Gabo recalls. 16 But their teasing often was coupled with an almost protective concern. Naum Gabo wrote in 1966: "He couldn't look after himself properly. He was terrible [sic] thin, and seemed to live mostly on currants and vegetable stew, because he followed the Haye diet." 17

The dietetic teaching of Dr. Howard Haye was especially popular in France. Mondrian, always  fascinated by alternative medicine, 18 discovered this system of dietetics in 1936. In a letter to his brother Carel in March of that year, he describes the system in great detail; it was based on the idea that the right combinations of foods were the essence of healthy eating, Mondrian says, "For example, meat, eggs and fish do not combine with potatoes or farinaceous foods." In fact, it was not  recommended that you eat large quantities of meat or farinaceous products, and sugar was to be shunned totally. Vegetables, fruit and milk, on the other hand, were highly recommended. 19 It was not only because this dietetic teaching made large claims for itself that Mondrian was attracted to it; he also liked its scientific approach, When Jean Gorin, in early 1937, referred to it simply as a diet, Mondrian quickly put him right: "Ce n'est pas un regime, c'est une alimentation scientifique." ["It's not a diet, but scientific dietetics."] 20 And in the letter dated March 1936 to his religious brother Carel, he concluded: "You see, faith counts for a great deal, but it is science that will find the answers!"

On the whole, Mondrian was content in his new surroundings. The city was large, but friends were near. The clean air was good for him, and the people in London were calm, friendly and helpful.  Furthermore, the light in his studio was better than what he had had in Paris; the place was warm and just within his means. But the most important thing was the favorable influence that the new  surroundings had on his work. This is not the place to discuss stylistic changes in Mondrian's post-1938 work and the possible connection between them and his change of locale. It is striking, however, that Mondrian himself saw London's influence in the composition that he made on the day he wrote his letter, just as, in 1920, he connected his arrival in Paris and the furnishings of his studio there with concurrent changes in his work. 21 The titles he began to give his work also clearly refer to his new setting: Trafalgar Square, Compositie London, etc.

This letter of the 28th also partly explains Mondrian's decision to go to England at this particular time rather than join the contingent of his friends leaving for America—which was, after all, the land of his dreams. It was the realm of film, of fashion, of Josephine Baker and Mae West—and, above all, of jazz. Mondrian's friend and admirer, Harry Holtzman, had tried to persuade him as early as 1934 to come to America, using the argument that only in that country would art in the second third of the 20th century be able to develop freely. Mondrian already thought himself too old to make such an accommodation. 22 His refusal is all the more striking in view of the fact that American interest in his work grew markedly in the 1930s, while German and Swiss collectors, who had been his chief buyers since 1925, became more reserved. This shift was partly because of the world economic crisis, but also attributable to the growing interest in figurative—that is, surrealistic—art, "Oh, I'd make it all right in America; if I were younger I'd go there, because it's stalemate here in Paris; you can hear for yourself how sentimental everything's getting," said Mondrian in 1937 to Mevrouw Domselaer, as the strains of a waltz wafted from a neighboring house. 23

In addition to his sales in New York, Mondrian had recently sold a couple of paintings in London. In 1936, at the "Abstract & Concrete" show, in all probability two of the three canvases he exhibited were bought. Rarely was his artistic acceptance so concretely validated during this period. 24 This show of support must have helped give him the idea that there was a possible market for his art in England, an idea supported by the publication of Circle in 1937. Mondrian describes this as "a beautiful book" in a letter he wrote to his brother on July 30 of that year; the book gave him the opportunity to publish his essay "Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art," a project he had been working on since the end of the 1920s. 25

Once he had made the decision to leave Paris, Mondrian contacted both American and English friends. There was immediate reaction from the English: they arranged his crossing at short notice, and Mondrian left Paris without waiting for invitations from America. When these did in fact reach him in London, he was already comfortably settled in his new home.

As things turned out, the artistic situation in London was scarcely an improvement upon that in Paris. It was only in small circles of colleagues and cognoscenti that Mondrian's work met with real interest — the big buyers stayed away. At any rate, so Mondrian implied in a letter to Jean Gorin, after the opening of the exhibition "Living Art in London" at the London Gallery in early 1939: "C'etait  comme a Paris, je n'ai vu pas beaucoup de monde a 1'ouverture: la plupart artistes." ["It was just the same as in Paris; there weren't many people at the opening, and most of them were artists."] 26 This exhibition illustrated how Surrealism was also gaining ground in England. 27

Meanwhile, the political situation grew still more tense during 1939. Mondrian's friends prepared to evacuate, and tried to persuade him to come, too. But Mondrian had not the slightest desire to live in the countryside; it would be impossible for him to work there. Then during a bombing raid in London in 1940, the next-door house was hit; Mondrian decided to go to America after all. Holtzman, he admitted, had been right: "For art it was too difficult in London .... I see that the United States is now the only country where art can flourish freely." 28 

Translated from the Dutch by Wendy Shaffer.
Grateful thanks to: Wim van Dam; Sjarel Ex; Herbert Henkels; Mr. and Mrs. Hoek of Roosendaal, Holland; and Mr. and Mrs. Theunissen of Venio, Holland.
Photographs by Ko Karman. This article was originally published in Dutch in the periodical Jong Holland (Nov. 1984).

1. From a letter from Mondrian to Theo van Doesburg, dated Dec. 10, 1920, Slijper Archive, library of The Hague Gemeentemuseum. Other letters by Mondrian may be found in the following publications; J.M. Joosten, "Documentatie over Mondriaan (1, 2 and 3)," Museumjwmaal, 13 (1968), pp. 208-16, 267-70 and 321-26. L. van Ginneken and J.M. Joosten, "Documentatie: Kunstenaarsbrieven Kees Spoor (2)," Museumjownaal, 16 (1970), pp. 261-67. R. Kostelanetz, Moholy-Nagy, London, 1971, pp. 176-77.
As well as the above-mentioned, several publications include passages from letters by Mondrian (for example, to J.J.P. Oud and Theo van Doesburg). In 1984 a book was published dealing with the friendship between Mondrian and Arthur Lehning, and this examination included as well the extant correspondence. A group of art historians is preparing a complete collection of Mondrian's letters, scheduled to appear in English in 1990.

2. There are eight letters and two picture postcards from Piet to Carol Mondriaan in the Slijper Archive, library of The Hague Gemeentemuseum. The correspondence published here was in the possession of the family when this article was in preparation; it changed hands in 1983 (see Auction Catalogue Manuscripts, Sotheby's, London, Nov. 17, 1983). There are photocopies of the letter and postcards in the National Offices for Art History Documentation, The Hague.

3. Charles Harrison, "Mondrian in London: Reminiscences of Mondrian by Winifred  Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Miriam Gabo, Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo," Studio International, 172 (1966),  Pp. 286-92.

4.  "He wanted to leave .... Suddenly he didn't care for Paris any longer. After all, he had already distanced himself more and more from his fellow artists, he didn't seem to care about his studio any more, he felt threatened." Maud van Loon, "Mondrian in Paris," De Groene Amsterdammer, Dec. 7, 1946.

5. Winifred Nicholson, in Harrison, "Mondrian in London," p. 287.

6.  Herbert Read, "A Nest of Gentle Artists," Apollo, 77 (1962), pp. 536-38.

7. Naum Gabo, in Harrison, "Mondrian in London," p. 292.

8. "I seem to remember that Gabo and I supplied a cot and a blue quilt to keep him warm." Miriam Gabo, in Harrison, "Mondrian in London," p. 289.

9. Letter from Piet to Carel Mondriaan, dated Oct. 8,1940, Slijper Archive, library of The Hague Gemeentemuseum.

10. "He cleared up his belongings with an extraordinary and drastic thoroughness: he sold some things and gave a lot away .... He gave me his gramophone records and an old savings bank book with hardly anything in the account." Maud van Loon, "Mondrian in Paris." The artist's easel, gramophone records and packing case are now in The Hague Gemeentemuseum.

11. See Michael Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Life and Work, New York, 1956, p. 156.

12. For details concerning the treatment of the easel and its status in the studio, see C. Blotkamp, "Mondriaan—Architectuur," Wonen TA/BK, 4/5, 1985, pp. 48-49.

13. In  1966,  28 years later,  Ben Nicholson  and Barbara Hepworth describe the transformation of the room in virtually the same manner: "It was a dreary room overlooking ours, but in a week, Piet Mondrian had turned it into his Montparnasse Studio. He got cheap furniture from Camden Town —painted it white, his wonderful squares of primary colours climbed up the walls," recalls Hepworth. And Nicholson describes it as follows: "He almost immediately transformed the dull, rented room into a sunlit South of France...; this he did not only with the presence of his work but with orange boxes and the simplest, cheapest kitchen furniture bought in Camden Town and then painted an immaculate,  glowing white." Harrison, "Mondrian in London," pp. 290-91.

14. Betty van Garrel heard this story from Cesar Domela himself; see "Cesar Domela, de laatste overlevende van de Stijigroep," Haagse Post, May 26, 1973, p. 57.

15. See Nancy J. Troy, "Piet Mondrian's Atelier," Arts, Dec. 1978, pp. 82-87.

16. Miriam Gabo, in Harrison, "Mondrian in London," p. 289.

17. Naum Gabo, in Harrison, "Mondrian in London," p. 292.

18. In a letter dated Sept. 25, 1928, to J.J.P. Oud, Mondrian describes how he was cured by a "Sequa treatment" from an Indian masseur of the Sufic sect.

19. Letter from Piet to Carel Mondriaan, Mar. 2,1935; Slijper Archive, library of The Hague Gemeentemuseum. The book in which Haye expounds his dietary principle, entitled The Medical Millennium, was published in Pittsburgh. Mondrian had a copy of the 17th edition, from 1933, a volume that he had been given by Jean Helion, who wrote the following dedication inside it [translated from French]: "To my dear friend Mondrian, hoping that this little book will confer upon you perfect health." This book was part of the Mondrian estate, and is now in the archive of Harry Holtzman in New York. Further information concerning this archive can be obtained from the library of The Hague Gemeentemuseum.

20. Letter from Mondrian to Jean Gorin, Jan. 30, 1937, published in Yve-Alain Bois, "Lettres a Jean Gorin," Macula, 2 (1977), p. 133.

21. See Els Hoek on Piet Mondrian in Blotkamp et al., De Stijl: The Formative Years:  1917-1922, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1986, p. 114.

22. Harry Holtzman, "Mondrian and the Liberation," in Mondrian: Drawings, Watercolors, New York Paintings, Stuttgart, The Hague Gemeentemuseum, and Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1980-81, p. 23.

23. M. van Domselaer-Middelkoop, "Piet Mondrian: In Memoriam," Maatstaf, 7 (1959-60), p. 291.

24. The exhibition "Abstract & Concrete" was held in Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool and London (Alex Reid and Lefevre galleries). The catalogue gives the following titles for works by Mondrian: Composition A, Composition B and Composition C. With the aid of a photograph of the exhibition in London, these were identified respectively by Nicolette Gray, who organized the exhibition, as a first version of the work Compositie met Rood Geel en Blauw (Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue), 1935-42, in the Clark collection, Dallas; Composite B met Rood (Composition B with Red), 1935, bought by Helen Sutherland, London; and Compositie met Rood, Blauw en Geel (Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow), 1935. With reference to other work by Mondrian that was or is in English collections, see D. Lewis, "Mondrian in London," Museumjoumaal, 1 (1955), pp. 83-85.

25. Letter from Piet to Carel Mondriaan, July 30,1937, Slijper Archive, library of The Hague Gemeentemuseum. Jane Beckett first suggested (in "Circle: The Theory and Patronage of Constructive Art in the Thirties," in the exhibition catalogue Circle: Constructive Art in Britain, 1934-40, Cambridge, Kettle's Yard Gallery, 1982, pp.  11-19) that the publication of Circle gave Mondrian confidence in England as a country offering scope for abstract art.

26. Letter from Mondrian to Jean Gorin, Jan. 26, 1939, published in Bois, "Lettres," p. 13.

27. See Beckett, "Circle," p. 19.

28. The comment by Mondrian (in an unidentified letter to a friend, referred to in Harrison, "Mondrian in London," p. 285), combined with Holtzman's argument from 1934, as presented in Holtzman, "Mondrian and the Liberation," p. 23.

Author: Els Hoek is an art historian and critic living in Amsterdam. She is presently working on the second volume of a history of the De Stijl movement (1922-31), to be published in this country by the MIT Press.

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