Mondrian's brush with the boogie

Tate Liverpool adds to the inventory of cross-disciplinary inference this summer in an exhibition of work by jazz-loving artist Piet Mondrian

Connections between art and jazz have often been drawn and this summer Tate Liverpool adds to the catalogue of cross-disciplinary inference. Seventy years after the artist’s death, Mondrian and his Studios (6 June - 5 October 2014) will present the largest number of Neo-Plastic paintings by Mondrian ever assembled in the UK, with some never before seen in this country.

The gallery notes that “jazz was particularly influential on Mondrian and it was in his studio that he would listen to music on his record player. Mondrian listened to artists such as Ross Gorman, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters.

“The exhibition will highlight how jazz influenced Mondrian’s work, from archival images of Mondrian posed beside his beloved gramophone to record sleeves from his New York studio.

Mondrian and his Studios will also show examples of Mondrian’s Transatlantic works – paintings commenced in Paris, that were brought to London and then completed in New York. Photographic evidence shows that the starting and finishing points of Transatlantic works were sometimes very different. Famously he commented to the art dealer Sidney Jarvis, who noted how he’d revised one of his works in New York, that he’d given it more ‘boogie-woogie’. By adding more lines to works, Mondrian made them more rhythmically intense and the colour quite literally jazzed the painting up.

“Having been a long-time fan of jazz and dancing it was in New York where he encountered a new passion for boogie-woogie. Both jazz and boogie-woogie had an important influence on his work. Jazz is music primarily about rhythm, its essence is about syncopation and that’s what Mondrian ultimately got from and admired about jazz and boogie-woogie. In fact, it made such an impression, that his very last painting was called Victory Boogie-Woogie and can be seen in archival footage on display as part of the exhibition.”

Michael Tucker, Jazz Journal writer and sometime Professor of Poetics at the University of Brighton, had the following thoughts about the impact of jazz on Mondrian’s work:

“For Mondrian, jazz was a key example of the new kind of collective existence one might celebrate in the modern world, precipitating – in his mature abstract art – a kind of metaphorical or vitalised mathematics rather than any direct representation or illustration of the boogie-woogie so dear to this contradictory Puritan. If one buys into the metaphor, there is what the Mondrian specialist Hans Jaffé calls a ‘syncopated tempo’ in late works like Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie, as the previous, broadly disposed elements of primary colour and black and white in Mondrian's contemplative universe dissolve into a constantly shifting interplay of rhythmically energising measures or accents. Whether or not you hear any jazz in these works, they remain some of the most striking paintings of the last century.”

Mondrian in his Paris studio in 1933 with Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow Lines, 1933 and Composition with Double Lines and Yellow, 1933.

Photo by Charles Karsten.
RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.
© 2014 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International USA

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