Did the development of Mondrian's art from strict naturalism to pure abstraction really follow the same taut lines and clear patterns as his later style? Well, yes, says Tom Lubbock, but only if you see things his way
Mondrians: every home should have one. And since there aren't enough of the real things to go round, the forger's art could be put to good public service here. For only perfect replicas would do - and contrary to what you may be thinking, a Mondrian wouldn't be so easy to replicate. Those intense black grids like strips of patent leather, those white oblongs fitting so solidly between them like sections of a fridge or cooker, those luminous panes of primary colour: these things take painting.

The forgers would have their work cut out. And if they were tempted to fiddle around with Mondrian's own arrangements of line and oblong, thinking a little variation couldn't do any harm and that a few "new" Mondrians in the world might be nice too, they'd find (if they were sensitive forgers) otherwise. Small shifts make a vast difference and Mondrian's long-laboured balance of pictorial forces needs more than elementary design-sense.

Not that I've ever seen a Mondrian outside an art gallery, and presumably the homes that can afford one are the sort of homes that look rather like art galleries anyway. But I imagine that one on your wall would offer more than absorption for the eye. It would be an exhorting, exemplary presence: a pattern to live up to. And I don't think Mondrian himself would have been opposed to his work being "distributed" in this way. In his ideal world, practically everything - homes, streets, cities - looked like a Mondrian. All would be redesigned according to the universal spiritual principles, held in equilibrium, which he tried to embody in his paintings. He could hardly have achieved this single-handed. Oddly enough, even Mondrian tea-towels and ashtrays, which can seem such a consumerist travesty of his work, are actually in the spirit of his wide utopian projects.

The Mondrians I had in mind for replication are the ones from the late Twenties and Thirties: the classic abstract period. There aren't unfortunately more than a few of those in the Tate's new show "Mondrian: Nature to Abstraction". Most of the 60 pictures displayed are early Mondrian. There's a simple ad hoc reason for that. The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, which has a large stock of the early work, is being done up at the moment and has sent its pictures over on temporary loan. A few other works from the Tate and private collections have been added. So this is a story about development. We see Mondrian's beginnings as a Dutch landscape painter, coming by turn under the influence of Symbolism, Divisionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and we see this pretty comprehensively. Only at the end do you get a rather random dozen of the abstractions that have made the artist a byword.

Piet Mondrian is certainly a good candidate for the game of "what if he'd died at 40?" (ie in 1912). He was a slow, or better say a doggedly patient, developer, and the works up to that date show an art that is evidently serious, single-minded and often beautiful. And if you have a mind to find them, the earliest pictures show inklings of things to come. The very first, Forest, from about 1900, is a configuration of strongly vertical tree-trunks, but lent a great import by the horizon behind them that curves up to a point like a tent-top. These landscape scenes are first moody in a sombre way, later full of discretely bold colours. They're full, too, of imposed geometries and symmetries - motifs gathered into ovals, or set dead centre, or exactly reflected in water - that give them a more than natural significance.

This is also the period of Mondrian's big mistake, the triptych Evolution of 1910, three looming blue female figures - his only attempt to directly depict the Theosophical ideas he was committed to at that time, which looks like the worst album-cover in the world. But putting aside that deeply sincere aberration, if Mondrian had died at 40, he would count as an admirable and interesting painter, but we wouldn't really have a clue about his missing future. In 1912 he was in the thick of his engagement with Cubism without any clear sign of how he'd emerge from it.

Take the show as a whole, though, and it all looks different. A great distance is covered, but the evolution is so gradual as to appear almost inevitable - indeed, Mondrian is one of those artists whose work provides a step-by-step demonstration of the approach to abstraction. The exhibition lines up four pictures of trees from 1908 to 1912, in which the gnarled knot of branches is transformed into a linear framework of straights and curves. And it's only a step from there to the structured scattering of verticals and horizontals of the Pier and Ocean series. And it's only a step from there to...

Actually, I'm rather against these step-by-step transitions. They seem to prove something, but I'm not sure what. That abstraction is really representation by other means? That representation was really abstraction all along? Surely, when the image does completely go, something big has happened, and showing it as a graduated sequence makes it look as if the image had just dematerialised, leaving, so to speak, its ghost behind: the painting remains a picture of something, and if not of physical reality then of some higher or deeper reality. But I must admit that this was pretty much how Mondrian himself did see the process - as a progressing disclosure of those fundamental life-forces which were only imperfectly manifested in the natural world, and ever more perfectly in his "neo-plastic" painting.

So he wrote, and it wasn't a wishful attempt to make his work seem continuous. His development bears it out. What's noticeable is how Mondrian didn't go abstract - pure oblong abstract - nearly as soon as he could have. Rectilinear geometric painting was an advanced artistic option at least by 1914. Mondrian had been in Paris before the war, knew the news, and could certainly have jumped to it. He didn't. He spent the war years in Holland working on the very brink with his break-down analyses of church- fronts and with his break-down analyses of church-fronts and with the Pier and Ocean motif, never quite abandoning the visible world - not arriving at pure squares (at first floating on the picture plane) until 1917.

Which suggests that geometrical abstraction wasn't for Mondrian simply a break, in either sense: not a rupture or an opportunity he was on the look-out for. It was something he had to find through his ongoing work. It wasn't sheer abstraction - painting reduced to its formal components - that he was after. What he sought was a way of depicting ever more clearly and purely the world's basic forces, and this (as it were) turned out abstract. The floating squares turn to pure grids and coloured chequer- boards, and finally into the canvass-filling constructions of pure line and oblong.

But seeing Mondrian's development like this does put the Mondrian-loving viewer on the spot. If you follow it, it only makes sense on Mondrian's own terms - not an approach to abstraction as such, but a gradual revelation of spiritual truth. Mondrian's own terms, however, are not very easy to accept. They are, to put it bluntly, a species of mumbo-jumbo, the sort that sees the universe as the operation of vast binary principles, and makes rather simple-minded pictorial equivalents of them (male = vertical, female = horizontal, for instance).

And the development-story only makes explicit a problem that we should probably feel in front of Mondrian's mature pictures anyway - like the marvellous Composition with Blue of 1937 that closes this exhibition. Enormously significant, one wants to say, a lesson in something, a great source of strength, all the things that would make a Mondrian a life-improving addition to any home... somehow. And then you find yourself in a dilemma, caught between the trivial and the preposterous. Is it merely a superb exercise in tensely balanced form and taught rhythm? That sounds too close to saying pretty pattern or neat design. But try to go further and you end up talking very large and windy, talking far too much like Mondrian talked. But anyway, this is one of those Mondrians - real or well-replicated - that I'd especially like on my wall. And perhaps after a few years of co-habitation a clearer answer would comen

`Mondrian: Nature to Abstraction' (sponsored by AT&T) is at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) to 30 Nov. To pre-book tickets, phone First Call (0171-420 0200)