One Fine Show: Piet Mondrian at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

“Mondrian: Foundations” charts the path of the artist's continuous reinvention as he moved from the conventions of representation to something entirely new.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A pastel hued painting of a beach on a clouded day
‘Beach with Five Piers at Domburg,’ 1909, Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944), Oil on canvas on board. Gift of Maria and Conrad Janis by and through the Janis Living Trust. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There’s a business school staple about a woman who approaches Pablo Picasso in a bar and asks for a drawing of herself. He dashes off one of his one-eyed wonders on a napkin, gives it to her, and says, “That’ll be $50,000.” (The story’s probably apocryphal, so we might as well use a convenient currency.) She’s understandably upset on several levels, but he goes on to explain that what she’s paying for is all the years he spent learning how to draw well, and realistically, before he could become the king of the avant garde.

Whatever else that story is supposed to teach you, it is true that the artists we think of as experimental had to learn to walk before they could fly, and this is evident in “Mondrian: Foundations,” a recently opened show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that collects eleven paintings and seventeen works on paper by the master of modernism, with special emphasis on his earlier career, when he had a less well known realistic style.

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The best-known works of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) emerged in the 1920s, which feels so early in the course of art history, given how important those white-sectioned canvases were to the development of new ideas in art. The blocks of color within feel like powerful and mysterious oases; it’s like you’re seeing the color for the first time. The business school crowd probably isn’t interested in this angle of the Picasso story, but visual art has an element of technology to it. It can be improved within the individual, but also across successive generations.

The earliest work in this show, The Large Ponds in the Hague Forrest (1887), flirts with Impressionism in its reflections in the water, and was made when the artist was only 15 years old. You see him experimenting with nature quite a bit in this era. It’s unexpected to see someone so cold and precise in his later work developing his skills with the wonderful and ethereal Marigold in a Bottle (1905-1925)—though even then he was calculating, breaking rules about Dutch landscape formats that advised one-third land and two-thirds sky. This period culminates with the pointillist Beach with Five Piers at Domburg (1909), a seascape that plays with ideas of movement and color while still being essentially geometrical, concerned as it is with the curve of the surf and the lines of the piers.

It’s in the 1910s that the lines start to dominate his work, in sketches of scaffolding in Paris and even in a self-portrait in charcoal (1911), where his cheekbones are supernaturally angular. His Apple Tree (1912) and Eucalyptus (compositional study) (1910) depart from those earlier nature works, in that they are less still lifes, more collections of gestures that imply the existence of botany. There’s a rewarding narrative here, and probably some kind of lesson too.

Mondrian: Foundations” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through April 28.

One Fine Show: Piet Mondrian at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts