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Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue

Video transcript

we are at the Museum of Modern Art and we're looking at Mondrian's composition number two with red and blue and the date is 1929 even though the canvas actually says 1925 with a little initial by the artist incorrectly well you know artists do that sometimes they make mistake they do and that especially happens when artists go back later and try to date paintings that they had done earlier we're looking at a really tough painting and here's a painting that the title certainly is a perfect reference this is rectilinear form it's this rectangle that has white and blue and red and black and that's in this is a kind of incredible pure abstraction and it's a wild thing to see after walking in from the previous room which has Monet's water lilies and paintings by the way art and Bernard which is all the form of this right figurative Western tradition and then you walk in here and it's in in modern it's so austere it is modernist in that and the white walls of the gallery look different everything even even the frames are incredibly spare I don't know that they're even framed okay yeah they're almost platforms how does a viewer get access to the meaning of a painting like this I mean can you just look at it and sort of feel a certain way about it is that enough or is this something that we really sort of want to pull apart an art historical matter I think probably both I mean I think the presence of the earlier Mondrian's in the gallery the ones that look more like analytic cubism shed some light on Mondrian use of a grid well yeah because in fact Mondrian did start replicating nature in a much more direct way sometimes with wild symbolist color but it actually does help when you look at these grids that Mondrian ends up with to understand that he began by really looking at analytic cubism and looking at the relation of the way an object falls over a ground and the way in which the ground between forms actually becomes ever more present ever more powerful there are those fabulous images yeah the tree the flowering apple trees for instance where the sky between the boughs takes on a kind of physicality and a kind of presence that is actually overwhelming of the branches themselves I think that began with Picasa with laden with other avignon when the space between the figures is and maybe even would say then is just as palpable as the volumes themselves so the conversation is really not with the apple tree ultimately but with what's happening in the canvas this sort of very formal discussion and so this is a system that he quote neoclassicism right and we have this incredibly reduced kind of palette obviously primary colors and black and white although if you look at the bottom right corner the white rectangle these looks a little grey it's a little grey and I don't know if that's original if that's intentional but Mondrian was very careful you know what's interesting is actually when you're up close looking at this canvas it's very much like the Melia veg it's actually got a human touch to it he's not obliterating his brushstroke now you can see the brushstrokes it's not it's not painterly no but within the very sort of simplified format of a canvas it does actually seem like it's got a bit of factorial it is kind of painterly even in this context whereas in a dellacroix of course this would not be you know it's an Andy Warhol print no it's a made thing so why choose the primary colors why is he using black I think he's trying to get to an elemental kind of purity and a kind of elemental balance as well I mean when I see this I see that blue in some ways held in place and the red held in place by those black bars almost as if it's the grid of a stained glass window but at the same time I see other things much more complex things begin to happen where the blue pushes forward the red can convince and seat back into a sort of a deep space I think that there's an incredible kind of play of harmony that exists not only as a left-right balance but as a vertical balance and perhaps even a balance that has to do with what moves towards us and what in a sense creates the illusion of spinning back black usually recedes doesn't it it does but in this case it can recede but it can also be a kind of forward armature in which those planes of color are placed except that those planes refused also to be planes in my way well I can see that red as having real volume having a kind of volume that goes back in space which is interesting because in Matisse's case red often pushes forward here it can exist forward but it can also have it has a kind of wonderful ambiguity that kind of plasticity visually so that I think it can really move back so let me ask you why is poetry and so interested in purity at this moment in nineteen twenty five or twenty nine so interested in balance so interested in reducing things to their basic elements what is it about what's going on 20 in the 20s the Europe had just you know here we have a Dutch artist he's just come out of the second the first world works Europe had been devastated and I think that there was this incredible utopian notion that art could have a kind of agency that could help to actually create harmony in the world to sort of rebuild the future in a better way it's really utopian that is if we can construct balance and harmony in our surroundings in our architecture and our painting in our visual and physical world then perhaps we can have that harmony in politics and in life throughout I guess that vision makes sense but it's so hard to recapture I feel like we're so jaded now we are there was a kind of heroic ISM yeah a pasta a sense of possibility and that artists could be part of that transformation now seems a little bit misplaced in a way it's an extraordinary hopefulness and it's extraordinarily ironic considering that this man lived through not only the first but ultimately the second world war and part of it as well