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) centrepompidou.fr
Charles Darwent's book, 'Mondrian in London', will be published in October
Charles Darwent visits Tate Liverpool to see Nam June Paik