Mondrian and Jazz

Broadway Boogie Woogie. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)


Geoff Winston attended a conference: "Mondrian, Nicholson and 20th Century Abstraction" at the Courtauld Institute, 3 March 2012, and writes:


The Courtauld's excellent one-day conference, based around the exhibition Mondrian and Nicholson In Parallel , opened with a fascinating paper by Hans Janssen, from the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, on 'Rhythm in Nature and Art', focussing on Mondrian's art, and his interest in jazz and experimental music.

Mondrian, it emerged, was an keen attendee at cultural events and exhibition openings, in Amsterdam, Paris (in the 20s and 30s), London (1938-40) and New York (1940-44) and was much more sociable and gregarious than his somewhat severe paintings and buttoned-up outward appearance would suggest.

In Amsterdam, the artist had championed the minimalist music of a composer friend, Jacob van Domselaer, and became apoplectic in his remonstrations with the city's highly conservative audience, whose reaction had been lukewarm and negative at a premiere of his piano music in 1915. Mondrian was a keen dancer - it is reported that he had his own style - and in a country where public dancing was banned until 1924 because it was considered too modern, he attended the notorious dancing parties arranged by artists in the face of this prohibition. He became particularly taken with the role of rhythm in music and painting, and Bach's fugues figured prominently in his discussions with Van Donselaer.

Mondrian was present in June 1921 at the first Paris performance of Luigi Russolo's 'Intonarumori' at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées - probably in the last row, Janssen suggested. This was also attended by Stravinsky, Ravel, Milhaud and the bêtes noires of the Paris scene, Les Six. It became a riotous affair, introduced by the Futurist's founder, Marinetti and heckled by Dadaists led by Tristan Tzara. It prompted Mondrian to write a short treatise on 'The Italian Futurist Bruitiers’ where he wrote, 'Musical art today is seeking the amalgamation of the most dissonant, strange and strident sounds. We are moving towards sound-noise.' How prescient! Mondrian noted, too, that the cabinets that held the music-making machines were painted red, yellow and blue, an interesting link to his own palette.

In Paris, Mondrian was introduced to jazz which the black American soldiers who had remained there after WW1 had brought with them, starting a cultural tsunami with the introduction of American bars and with them the Shimmy, the Foxtrot and the One-step. This music epitomised for Mondrian the primacy of rhythm and beat, as opposed to what Janssen called 'decorative emptiness', a term which could apply equally to music and art, and gave rise to Mondrian's article, 'Jazz and Neo-Plastic' in 1927. ‘Jazz, above all, creates the bar's open rhythm,' wrote Mondrian, 'It annihilates. ... This frees rhythm from form and from so much that is form without ever being recognised as such. Thus a haven is created for those who would be free of form.' Strong stuff!

Mondrian was convinced of the importance of improvisation in the liberation of form, Janssen explained, and when he moved to New York he became a devotee of its jazz scene. In 1940-41 he danced the nights away with the painter Lee Krasner, who was to become Jackson Pollock's wife in 1945. He was a habitué of Minton's Playhouse, in Upper Manhattan, where Thelonious Monk would show up around 3am with other musicians after they'd finished playing elsewhere, where he'd experience Monk developing his own style, with its 'dissonant harmonies, sluggish tempos, broken chords and disorientation of the listener' as Janssen put it.

Janssen noted that Mondrian's painting and Monk's music had a great deal in common, and speculates that they could even have talked together about structure and rhythm. Pianist Nelly van Doesburg became friendly with Monk when she stayed in New York in 1947. According to Janssen, when Monk explained his approach to timbre and dynamics to her, the musician made direct comparisons with the precision with which Mondrian placed a plane, a line or applied a colour.

Jazz coursed in Mondrian's veins. His major late paintings 'Victory Boogie-Woogie' and 'Broadway Boogie-Woogie' encapsulated the rhythm, energy and structural grid of the New York metropolis, and their titles were a statement of his feelings for the music. Or, as Janssen has written elsewhere, "Victory Boogie Woogie and the music of Monk have more in common than is generally assumed."

The exhibition at the Courtauld is a gem, with eight superb abstract Mondrians and ten beautiful Nicholsons attesting to the artists' mutual respect which blossomed during Mondrian's stay in Belsize Park - the exhibition cannot be recommended highly enough.

The Joshua Jaswon Quartet play at the Courtauld on Thurs 29th March in a late opening of the exhibition - DETAILS HERE

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