January 24, 2013  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Avant-Abstraction: Kupka and Mondrian Represent
Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944). Chrysanthemum. 1906. Charcoal on paper, 14 1/4 x 9 5/8" (36.2 x 24.5 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos

Piet Mondrian. Chrysanthemum. 1906. Charcoal on paper, 14 1/4 x 9 5/8″ (36.2 x 24.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand P. Bartos

Among the groundbreaking artists included in the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, currently on view in MoMA’s sixth-floor galleries, are František Kupka (Czech, 1871–1957) and Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944). Like the other luminaries represented in the show, beginning in the second decade of the 20th century, Kupka and Mondrian jettisoned figuration and pioneered an art of pure form. As with virtually all artists who eventually turned to abstraction, they both initially worked in a figurative vein, and examples of their earlier, representational works—from MoMA’s drawings collection—happen to be on view elsewhere in the Museum. So before or after you take in Kupka and Mondrian’s reduced verticals and horizontals in Inventing Abstraction, be sure to visit the fifth floor to see examples of the Symbolist organicism that came before.

Two Kupka works on paper from the turn of the century can be found in Gallery 11, as part of contemporary artist Trisha Donnelly’s current Artist’s Choice installation. In Admiration (c. 1899), the shadowy, dream-like setting, with its fantastic, monstrous figures, manifests Kupka’s debt to the mystical poetics of Symbolism. And the fluid arabesques that form a tripartite frame in View from a Carriage Window (c. 1901) demonstrate a strong Art Nouveau influence, which Kupka would have absorbed while studying in Vienna in the early 1890s. Even the shoreline of the Brittany beach seen through the window adopts the style’s trademark sinuous curves as it winds towards a far-off castle.


Piet Mondrian. Red Amaryllis with Blue Background. c. 1907. Watercolor on paper,
18 3/8 x 13″ (46.5 x 33.0 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection

Nearby in Gallery 9, two Mondrian studies of flowers—the charcoal drawing Chrysanthemum (1906) and the watercolor Red Amaryllis with Blue Background (c. 1907)—can be seen. Mondrian’s repeated depiction of flowers during this period reflects an interest in nature that has often been linked to Theosophy, a branch of spiritual thought that stresses the existence of a universal harmony beneath the visible world. (Kupka, Vasily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich—all represented in Inventing Abstraction—were also known to have an interest, to varying degrees, in Theosophy.) While these faithful depictions of natural subjects might seem to be the antithesis of the reduced grids for which Mondrian became famous, they prefigure the artist’s obsession with form. “I enjoyed painting flowers, not bouquets, but a single flower at a time, in order that I might better express its plastic structure,” Mondrian once said. With this intention in mind, we can regard the amaryllis’s erect stem and the chrysanthemum’s dense cluster of petals as studies in form.

While such works are visually far from later abstractions, the spiritual undercurrents that motivate them not only persist in, but arguably propel Kupka and Mondrian’s subsequent transitions to non-figuration. The same impulse that led these artists to seek the sacred in nature’s forms ultimately led them to transcend nature for something even more essential, more universal: an “ideal,” in the words of Mondrian, that “is something other than the mere representation of natural appearance.”