Nelly van Doesburg from the catalogue for the Piet Mondrian Centennial Exhibition, Guggenheim Foundation, 1971
Some Memories of Mondrian
Having been asked to record some of my personal memories of Piet Mondrian, I am complying with mixed feelings. Like my late husband, Theo van Doesburg, Mondrian never considered the events of his everyday life of great importance to his activities as a painter. It is well known that Mondrian's Paris studio on the rue du Depart was decorated with the same pure colours and geometric severity found in his abstract paintings. He kept few personal possessions, not even a library, and he would destroy all mail received although only after diligently reading it first. I further recall that Mondrian and Does once executed a painting together with the express purpose that all traces of individual participation be removed. This does not mean that either man lacked a strongly developed personal character. Indeed, each was quite individual in temperament, and one sensed at the root of their friendship the so-called law that "opposites attract". Because my own relationship to Mondrian resulted from my role as the wife of van Doesburg, it is inevitable that many of my comments will depend upon this element of contrast between the two artists.
To judge from his letters, 1 Mondrian's friendship with Does existed from the years circa 1916-17 when they collaborated in founding the De Stijl group. Apparently Mondrian visited van Doesburg fairly often in Leiden, where the latter was living during World War I with his wife Lena. Although these visits by Mondrian from Laren frequently were connected with the editing by van Doesburg of the essays which were to appear in the De Stijl magazine, both men seem to have enjoyed each other's companionship from the start. Already during these difficult war years bonds of friendship were formed which Mondrian enjoyed with only a handful of persons throughout his life. Each man was invariably solicitous about the other's health which, because Mondrian was unusually preoccupied with this subject, often demanded much consideration from his closest associates. In return, he was equally concerned with the personal welfare of those he liked and admired. He was also very observant of ordinary social protocol, frequently bringing some small gift when invited to dinner or making some other such gesture on appropriate occasions. Perhaps because of his strict upbringing, his social demeanour was always quite correct.
My own first meeting with Mondrian took place in early spring 1921, shortly after having married Does in The Netherlands. 2 After stopping over in Antwerp and Brussels where van Doesburg presented illustrated lectures on abstract art, we arrived in Paris, staying, as I recall, in a hotel called the Voyageur on the boulevard du Maine near the Gare Montparnasse. Mondrian was then still living at an address on the rue de Coulmiers, although he already was making plans to return to the block of artists' studios on the rue du Depart where he had lived before the war. This change of address involved the Dutch painter, Conrad Kikkert, the Belgian woman painter, M. Donas and, if I'm not mistaken, the sculptor Archipenko, with whom Mondrian was acquainted. Despite the demands on his time which these arrangements made, Mondrian greeted us warmly and took evening meals with us regularly at a nearby restaurant. Having known Does since approximately 1919, 3 I had, of course, heard Mondrian spoken of frequently and, because I was still rather young, the prospect of this first meeting was quite exciting, but made me somewhat nervous. To my great relief, we immediately felt quite comfortable together, which, as I later was to learn, was not always the case between Mondrian and his friends' wives and acquaintances. In fact, Mondrian could be quite direct in indicating his coolness or antipathy toward certain types of persons. In these instances, his behaviour would border on the rude. One should beware of thinking of Mondrian in the popular and sentimental terms of the defenceless and misunderstood artist who suffers his humility in silence. Especially in Dutch, his remarks about people often were quite cutting and could be expressed with a mordant wit. This contrasted with van Doesburg, whose irritability was expressed in more directly aggressive verbal outbursts, which though quickly forgotten by himself would leave lasting wounds in those affected. Conversely, both men normally were quite considerate of the feelings of others, and I record this occasionally intolerant strain in Mondrian's character chiefly because it seems to have escaped the notice of previous writers.
After this brief visit to Paris, Does and I left for a visit to Menton near the Italian border in southern France where the De Stijl sculptor, Georges Vantongerloo, was then living. Thereafter, we travelled and worked much in Germany (the Weimar Bauhaus period) before returning to Paris again after spending several weeks giving Dada performances with Kurt Schwitters in The Netherlands. It was approximately late spring 1923 when we arrived in Paris and Does began to work, together with C. van Eesteren, on the architectural projects which would be exhibited at the De Stijl exhibition held in the fall at the Galerie de L' Effort Moderne of Leonce Rosenberg. Our reception by Mondrian again was quite warm, and we even stayed in his studio a few days before moving to a hotel on the rue d'Assas not far away. It did not take long before we found an atelier on the rue du Moulin-Vert near the Alesia subway stop in a building complex where later Giacometti was to have his studio. And, although not too many months after this we moved again, this time to a studio-house in the Paris suburb of Clamart, 4 it was clear that the Dutch De Stijl movement was now solidly based in Paris rather than, as previously, being divided between The Netherlands, Germany and France.
It was in these years of reunion during the mid-1920s in Paris that both van Doesburg and I saw Mondrian most regularly and from which my most vivid memories of him date. He regularly visited us in Clamart for Sunday dinner and conversation even though this meant a trip by train and a walk of some distance from the station to our residence. On our part, we often journeyed to Paris, often to share a meal which he had prepared with considerable effort himself 5 or to participate during the evening in the cafe life of Montparnasse. There were also the evenings when we joined Mondrian in an evening of dancing at either the Jockey Club or the Bal-Bullier, which was located opposite the Closerie des Lilas on the boulevard du Montparnasse. We all were also great enthusiasts of the performances at the Cirque Medrano in Montmartre of the Italian Fratellini family of clowns, and afterwards the subway ride back to Montparnasse was often a scene of great merriment for both Piet and Does. We would then spend the rest of the night at the Cafe du Dome waiting to take the early train back to Clamart. Contrary to the general impression he gave casual acquaintances, Mondrian was not without a sense of humour and a capacity to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life. In short, these years represented a period of close personal and professional association between Mondrian and van Doesburg, which, although differing little on the surface from the artistic life of the times in Paris, naturally brought out many aspects of Mondrian's character—some already legendary, others less well-known—which deserve to be recorded.
First, there is the question of Mondrian's many personal mannerisms. Although in my opinion he remained throughout his life typically Dutch in his behaviour and thinking about life, he nonetheless made a personal fetish about the adoption of French customs. He rarely missed an opportunity to proclaim the superiority of French culture to all others, especially the German — and this despite the continuing indifference of France to his own painting. He made a ritual of rolling his cigarettes like the average French worker. Although his own cooking remained basically Dutch, he vocally proclaimed the superiority of French cuisine and made a point of teaching me to cut potatoes in the French instead of the Dutch manner. He would pronounce even the names of his Dutch friends in French, which, as in the case of Dr. van Eck (changed to Dr. d'Eck), to my Dutch ears had a strange, unintentionally humorous ring. This public, somewhat naive Francophilia had an arbitrary, though by no means snobbish, quality to it. Typically, when I later visited him in England, Mondrian had adopted the English cigarette and other national habits with the same dedication previously shown toward France. I suppose the same thing happened when he moved to the United States. Whatever its deeper psychological motivation, this habit reflected Mondrian's great wish to be a part of the social environment in which he was living. In his life at least, Mondrian sought to be a part of the contemporary world, which in the 1920s to us all meant Paris.
As is well known, Mondrian was a great devotee of social dancing. By the time I met him in Paris, he had already given up the waltz, and, if I remember correctly, he took lessons in such modern steps as the fox-trot, tango, etc. Whatever music was being played, however, he carried out his steps in such a personally stylized fashion that the results were frequently awkward and rarely very satisfactory to his partners. Yet, this form of social intercourse meant much to Mondrian, and, though undertaken with his usual seriousness, afforded him much pleasure, especially whenever he had found a sufficiently attractive, which is to say young and pretty, partner. His attitude toward the dance as a form of theatre was equally characterized by a love of the "modern" and the popular. He particularly loved to see performances of the American "Ballets-negres", and I remember his enthusiasm for a troupe led by the then novel sensation in Paris, Josephine Baker, who was appearing at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. He also enjoyed both the Swedish ballet directed by Rolf de Mare with Jan Berlin as featured dancer and the Russian ballet of Diaghilev, although he was disappointed at the Picasso decors used for the latter productions. Above all, it was his own devotion to dancing which preoccupied him most. This affected even his attitude toward friends and acquaintances, who would be forgiven all other faults if only they had wives or companions young, attractive and willing enough to accompany him to the dance floor.
This brings us to the question of Mondrian's relation to women. Although he was in his fifties when I knew him in Paris, the subject of women was ever on his lips. He would interrupt any type of conversation in order to comment with boyish enthusiasm upon the physical attractiveness of some admired example of the opposite sex. His taste was catholic in this respect, ranging from the refined beauty of a number of female acquaintances to the more direct appeal of pin-up posters. 6 He was completely captivated by the charms of Mae West, who at the time was quite young, but nonetheless used artificial make-up in a way that Mondrian found attractive. Indeed, his ideal wife would have been precisely this kind of youthful love goddess, whose chief virtue of character would be the patience to spend long hours in a corner of his pristine studio knitting or watching him paint — a Mae West in crinolines, so to speak. Perhaps Mondrian himself realized that these two ideals were difficult to combine, as his often repeated disappointments in love graphically illustrated. Like Brancusi, whose personality was otherwise so different and who was much less inhibited in his enjoyment of female company, Mondrian had adopted a pattern of life which did not allow any realistic prospect of ordinary domestic relationships. Each of these artists was so devoted to his profession that there was, in fact, little room left over in their lives for the daily companionship of any woman. It is as difficult to imagine any ordinary woman feeling comfortably at home either in the sparsely furnished atelier of Mondrian or amidst the clutter of statuary with which Brancusi surrounded himself. This is not to say that Mondrian did not feel a need for female companionship. Its absence in his life, I sensed often, was regretted deeply by Mondrian and came as close as anything could to constituting a personal tragedy. To some extent this unfulfilled need was relieved by the attention of various female acquaintances and friends, such as two Polish girls living in Antwerp who occasionally would visit him in Paris and share an evening of dancing with him. Yet, something always seemed to "happen" which prevented the creation of more lasting bonds. Probably underneath it all such bonds would have been felt to constrict him as an artist, and, in any case, it would have taken an extraordinary type of woman to adapt to the life provided by Mondrian.
Mondrian's many personal idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, it would be wrong to consider him fanatic in their observation. For example, his so-called antipathy toward natural beauty was by no means an uncompromising dislike. True, he did sometimes choose a seat in a restaurant so as to avoid viewing the green foliage of the trees along the boulevard outside. And within the artificial surroundings of his own studio, the placement of ashtrays, table settings, etc., could not be altered for fear of disturbing the "equilibrium" of the total decor which he sought. Yet, this did not prevent him from taking Sunday strolls with Does and myself in the woods at Meudon. On such occasions he could jest, with mock-ironic intent, about the dangers of staining his clothing green from the reflections of the grass. In fact, his appreciation of nature remained quite keen, even though in his art he had abandoned natural beauty as the direct source of his painting. Moreover, he was appreciative of naturalism in the painting of others. One of his personal friends was the Dutch realist painter Eekman, who lived with his wife in Bougival, and another was the Swedish Cubist, Hellesen. He even admired the work of Dali, albeit more for the painter's bonne technique than for the style which he practiced. Otto van Rees, Archipenko, Survage and a Dutchman named Colin, who produced semi-abstract advertising posters for the train and subway stations of Paris, also numbered among his circle of friends. Although most artists within this circle favoured some form of progressive art, there was by no means any insistence upon conformity to a genuinely abstract style. Mondrian was quite interested in accompanying Does and myself to the various Dada soirees we attended, and they addressed each other, respectively, as "Dada Does" and "Dada Piet" in correspondence which I have preserved. We all would visit exhibitions by artists of quite varied styles and artistic outlooks, since there might be something of value in even those styles most diametrically opposed to abstraction in art.
However, it was to van Doesburg that Mondrian turned most frequently during the period circa 1923-25 in discussions about art. Although he never was very happy about the importance within the De Stijl movement which van Doesburg had attached to architecture, Mondrian continued to place great value upon the discussions of theory in which he and Does regularly engaged. Mondrian particularly appreciated the talents of Does as an editor of his own writings. Does also was considerably more fluent in foreign languages than Piet, not only speaking French and German with ease, but having learned Italian by intensive study in Leiden in order better to understand the Futurist movement. Mondrian also accepted Theo's advice on books to read and especially liked Il Pilota Cieco by Giovanni Papini (in Dutch translation as De Blinde Loods) for its seemingly "abstract" structure. Ironically, on one occasion Piet felt compelled to warn Does about the writings of a certain I. K. Bonset, not realizing that this was a pseudonym for van Doesburg himself. In general, whereas the latter was a voracious reader of scientific and philosophic authors such as Henri Poincare (e.g. La Valeur de la Science), Einstein, Bergson, Nietzsche, Hegel, etc., Mondrian remained loyal, even in the 1920s, to the Theosophists, Mme. Blavatsky and Dr. Schoenmaekers. Each artist attached great importance to the theoretical basis of his creative activities, and, with such a divergency in their intellectual interests, it seems remarkable that their styles remained so close for such a long time. Both before and after 1925, when Does created his own Elementarism and reintroduced the use of the diagonal, he remained unlimited in his admiration for Mondrian as a painter. At every exhibition where they were both represented, he would try to see that Mondrian's work was sold first, knowing that his friend had to live on the basis of his painting alone, but also believing that, if only Mondrian were accepted, recognition for himself and other De Stijl artists would follow naturally.
In any case, neither differences in intellectual outlook or even the disagreement over the use of the diagonal line ended the personal friendship between Piet and Does. Of course, because the years 1926-28 were spent by van Doesburg largely in Strasbourg working on the design of the interior of the Cafe Aubette, this precluded any great personal contact between the two men. Nonetheless, upon our return to Paris, Mondrian once again became a visitor to our household, and discussions upon the character of abstract art continued to take place. Mondrian was deeply affected by the early death of Does and wrote a piece for the van Doesburg commemorative issue of De Stijl in 1931. Despite the economic necessity which forced me, after the death of my husband, to take a position at the Musee de la Danse in Passy, Mondrian and I remained good friends, and he would often meet me after work for dinner somewhere in Passy. Our paths also crossed frequently within the Parisian artistic sphere of which we both remained a part. It is my impression that Mondrian's way of life changed little during the 1930s from the patterns which he had established for himself during the previous decade. Despite the indifference of the Dutch and French publics to abstract painting, not to mention its suppression in both Germany and Russia, Mondrian never doubted the validity of his art and its theoretical presuppositions. As I stated at the outset, it was above all his activities as a painter which gave his life a special meaning and for which he was willing to make any personal or material sacrifice without so much as a thought of regret. It was this steadfastness of purpose which explains many of his personal habits and which doubtless contributed much to the sustained high quality of his painting.
NELLY VAN DOESBURG
1. Preserved at the De Stijl archive, Meudon, by Mrs. van Doesburg (Ed.).
2. On March 17, after reaching the legal age to marry without family permission.
3 We met at an exhibition of the Section d'Or in The Hague.
4 We found this atelier thanks to a tip from Mondrian.
5 He would take the whole day in order to purchase the food and prepare the meal. Normally, Mondrian worked at his painting six days a week.
6 As pointed out already by Mrs. van Domselaer-Middelkoop ("Herinneringen aan Piet Mondriaan," Maatstaf, The Hague, vol. VII, no. 5, August 1959, p. 269). These were displayed on a studio wall.