Mondrian / De Stijl, Centre Pompidou, Paris

This fascinating show charts Mondrian's journey from Dutch landscapes to abstract grids, and his obsession with geometry – and the colour green

Arriving in New York from London in October 1940, Piet Mondrian went to see his friend and mentor, the abstract painter Harry Holtzman.

Gazing out of the window of Holtzman's Manhattan flat, the exiled Dutchman suddenly froze. With a trembling finger, he pointed to the trees that then stood, one per block, along Park Avenue. "You did not tell me, Harry," hissed Mondrian, "that you lived in a rural area."

One thing that may have struck you about Mondrian's famous grid-pictures is the absence of green. Red, yes; yellow, yes; definitely blue. Black, of course, for the grids, and white as a compositional foil or counterpoint. But green, no. Green was all kinds of bad things – a secondary colour, mixed from two primaries, and the colour of nature, of trees. Mondrian wrote that he wanted his art to contain "nothing specific, nothing human". Really, though, he wanted it to contain nothing natural. Psychoanalysts have spent the years since his death in 1944 theorising as to why this might be – a fear of sex is the predictable answer – although nothing explains the elemental power of Mondrian's grids and rectangles, their ability to set up a rival nature to nature.

So the first thing that strikes you about the Pompidou Centre's two-part exhibition, Mondrian/De Stijl, is the preponderance in it of trees. The point of the first show is to reposition Mondrian as a founder of De Stijl, a multidisciplinary magazine-cum-movement whose eliding of fine art, architecture and design pre-dated the Bauhaus and helped shape it. By concentrating on the artist's Paris years (1912 – 1938, with a break back in Holland for the First World War), the second part of the show toots the Gallic horn – which is fair enough. When Mondrian arrived in France, he was a 40-year-old painter with a traditional Dutch repertoire of windmills and ginger jars. What he found in Paris – Cubism – set him on a path that led, in five brisk years, from more or less naturalistic painting to a geometric abstraction so pure that it made Picasso's look lily-livered. That abstraction, as much moral as aesthetic, was called Neoplasticism.

The Neoplasticist path led Mondrian as far as it could from trees, even if that is where his grids had started. The earliest work in the Pompidou's masterly double show is a charcoal drawing called View of two farm buildings hidden by saplings. As befits its place and day – Holland, 1905 – it has a wavy-branched Symbolist feel, like a Dutch Edvard Munch. The next drawing, too, is of trees, but it was made seven years later and in Paris. Still representational, Study of trees is highly stylised, the subject of its title organised into vertical trunks and horizontal boughs, all flattened against the picture plane. In the same year, 1912, Mondrian paints Composition Trees 2, by now hardly naturalistic in any usual sense but showing a fascination with the tension between horizontal and vertical lines, between geometry and colour. Trees, by now, are an excuse for geometry. The following year saw the first of the so-called "plus-and-minus" pictures, in which Mondrian reduces his subject to a loose grid of algebraic signs. The earliest of these works, also charcoal on paper, is called Tree.

So what happened between 1914 and his visit to Holtzman's flat? There is no single answer, although an intriguing one is suggested by the Pompidou. This is a reconstruction of Mondrian's fabled studio at 26 rue du Départ, now buried in the foundations of the Montparnasse Tower. Michel Seuphor, a fellow artist and friend, called the room where Mondrian toiled away at Neoplasticism for 20 years a "studio-sanctuary". It was more than that.

Mondrian's atelier was a composition of vertical white walls and a horizontal black floor, its walls hung with rectangles of primary colours that could be moved about. It was, in other words, a Mondrian. By shifting things around, the artist could play with new systems of grids and colours – rhomboidal compositions, the double line that appears in his work after 1932 – but he could also be true to his philosophical beliefs. When the happy day came that all art was Neoplastic, there would be no separation between easel painting and architecture. Mondrian's grids are open-edged, his canvases meant to be left unframed. The point of them was to set up an energy which would be disseminated into space, along walls and floors, making the world a better place. If that sounds a bit New Age – Mondrian was a Theosophist – then I can only beg you to hop on the Eurostar and stand in the last rooms of this show, to soak up the power Mondrian could generate with three colours and straight lines. Trees? Who needs 'em.

To 21 March (closed Tuesdays)

Charles Darwent's book, 'Mondrian in London', will be published in October

Next Week:

Charles Darwent visits Tate Liverpool to see Nam June Paik

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum