Piet Mondrian Painted Masterpieces Under His Masterpieces

A two-year-long project undertaken by Fondation Beyeler and La Prairie to preserve four late Piet Mondrian masterpieces uncovers something surprising: The influential Dutch master often painted new drafts over each other in pursuit of his visions instead of starting from scratch.

“Mondrian Evolution” at Fondation Beyeler. Photography by Mark Niedermann

Many have come to regard Piet Mondrian, a pioneer of abstract art and founder of the De Stijl movement, as one of the 20th century’s greatest and most widely influential artists. Yet few understand exactly how the Dutch painter landed on his signature style—squares and rectangles of white, yellow, blue, and red rigidly framed in straight black lines. As the exhibition “Mondrian Evolution” at Fondation Beyeler suggests, he embarked on a decades-long journey that steered his direction from figurative painting to rigorous abstractions. Now synonymous with his name, Mondrian’s style has influenced every corner of the creative industry, from Ellsworth Kelly canvases and cocktail dresses by Yves Saint Laurent to entire building facades.

Celebrating the artist’s 150th birthday and on view at the Swiss museum until October 9, the show forgoes a linear timeline to instead present Mondrian’s early formalist paintings alongside his later abstractions—a format that finds overlap among painterly renditions of a forest at twilight, frenetic Cubist experiments, and minimalist canvases adorned with colored tape. 

Underlining this setup (and Mondrian’s oeuvre at large) is his painstaking pursuit of natural harmony and beauty, as well as his decades-long process of distilling the medium of painting down to its essence. “Works by a master like Piet Mondrian hide a lot in the details,” says Markus Gross, Fondation Beyeler’s head conservator, noting that he was notoriously tight-lipped about his process. “A line is not simply a line; a color field is not simply a color field. There’s much more behind it.” 

A Mondrian painting at Fondation Beyeler’s conservation studio. Image courtesy La Prairie

Of course, presenting such a comprehensive look back at one of art history’s most seminal figures was no easy task and required meticulous conservation efforts, so the museum leaned on the patronage of La Prairie. The Swiss skincare brand is widely known as purveyors of ultra-luxe facial creams and its signature skin caviar packaged in a sleek cobalt blue bottle—the same hue beloved by late French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose Manhattan studio neighbored La Prairie’s atelier in the early ‘80s. With art running in its DNA, the brand helped kick off the two-year-long Piet Mondrian Conservation Project, which focused on preserving four of the artist’s works from the Beyeler Collection ahead of the show while peeling back the layers of Mondrian’s artistic intent.

What the conservators found paints Mondrian as somewhat of a perfectionist. Rather than starting paintings anew, he revised his works repeatedly to better capture new ideas and meet his own exacting standards. Using infrared technology and high-magnification devices, the conservators uncovered multiple revisions on a painting called Tableau No. 1, revealing a hidden date underneath its signature of “P M 21–25.” 

The conservation studio at Fondation Beyeler. Image courtesy La Prairie

The findings, which also reveal evidence of wipes, scratches, and scrapes, suggest that Mondrian viewed his paintings as a process and that his boldest experiments may have occurred on the canvas—and were painted over. Now that the show has opened and the project has wrapped up, Fondation Beyeler plans to publish the findings so that historians and anyone interested in Mondrian can benefit from a greater understanding of his practice and indelible impact on visual culture. 

“A conservation project is always the result of a long process,” says Gross, who also carried out similar projects for works in the Beyeler Collection by Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, and Henri Matisse. “We observe the artworks in our collection and document their condition constantly, and attach great importance to this process. Art is an important part of our lives—it testifies to how people see and understand the world, so it’s essential to preserve artifacts so we can remember, learn about, and honor those who were involved.”

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