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Squaring the circle

Joseph O’Neill on the Mondrians at the Hague’s Gemeentemuseum

Joseph O'Neill | September/October 2014

At a separation of three decades and an ocean, I have an idyllic view of my childhood in the Nether­lands. “Idyll” is derived from the Greek eidyllion, “little picture”; therefore it was fitting that my first glimpse of Holland, when I returned for the first time earlier this year, was framed by an aircraft’s porthole. First I saw the dunes, and then, this being a morning in April, I saw the bulb fields in flower, each one a green plane striped very brightly by oblongs of tulips and hyacinths and, more subtly, by the lines of sandy earth running between the flowerbeds. My eyes accepted this world-famous spectacle as news. I had somehow forgotten about the geometric and chromatic extremism of the Dutch countryside, whose red and purple and yellow and pink and white rectangles are subdivisions of the larger polygons outlined by the famous canals and ditches. I gawked at all of it: I had become a tourist in the nearest thing I have to a homeland.

Alienation may be the stuff of melancholy, but tourism has its upside. The tourist is freed from knowingness and, as a stranger, is automatically watchful. In theory, this gives him an optical advantage. But it turned out that, rather than being endowed with superior vision, I was put on a kind of uncontrollable red alert—the curved lines on the Schiphol taxiways suggested the markings of a vast enigmatic sports field; my train ticket, a citrine slip of paper, amazed me; and the skyline of The Hague, by which I mean the banal contour of the new towers grouped near Centraal Station, was flabbergasting (The Hague didn’t have a skyline in my day). I wasn’t a tourist at all; I was a revenant.

I had come back to a city where my parents lived as expatriates for over 25 years and where, on countless bus rides to and from school, I would pass the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. I rarely looked up. I wasn’t to know that this sinister yellow-brick heap, completed in 1935, was the Art Deco final masterwork of H.P. Berlage (1856-1934), the father, or vader, of modern Dutch architecture. I say “sinister” because, as far as I was concerned, the municipal museum was a place of detention. My parents took me there on rainy Saturday afternoons when there was nothing better to do. At first they confined me, with a sibling or two, in the children’s atelier: while the grown-ups did fun stuff, the kids did so-called arts and crafts. When I grew bigger, I was forced into the museum proper. I remember the numbness and exhaustion brought on by looking at lots of paintings under duress; and I remember seeing things by P. Mondrian and M.C. Escher.

The Eschers were downright interesting. How could they not be? A hand that’s drawing a second hand that’s drawing the first hand; a group of flying birds metamorphosing into (or out of) a group of swimming fish through fish- and bird-shaped instars of air and water; waterfalls that go up; staircases that go up and down at once—these eerie paradoxes will get the attention of even the most refractory little twerp. Mondrian was baffling in a different way. His work asked me to accept that there might be something special about a particoloured grid of quadrangles. Why should I accept any such thing? I could have knocked them out myself. But it was not until he was in his late 40s that Mondrian began to produce his abstract, most famous work. More impressive, in my adolescent opinion, were the representational landscapes that he produced in the first half of his career. My favourites were the pictures of dunes, because I loved to run around in the dunes. These were located a few hundred yards from our house, and formed part of the slender erg that runs along much of the Netherlands’ coast. Dunes were the opposite of museums.

It wasn’t until I was at university that I started to shed my boorishness. Two student pals visited from England and, to my surprise, both suggested outings to the Gemeentemuseum. Adopting the role of expert local guide, I agreed to go—and even accompanied one of them, the painter Simon Page, on a pilgrimage to Rietveld’s famous De Stijl house in Utrecht. It was during these semi-voluntary excursions, when I saw things vicariously, through engrossed outsiders’ eyes, that there began a reorganisation of my feelings about my local museum and its contents. In the decades that followed, I would sometimes recall the Mondrians in particular from an ever more mature and cerebral perspective, and with a weird pride, too, as if my accidental connection to them was somehow to my credit; and I’d mildly long to see them again. So I was excited to return to the museum for the first time since 1986.

The Gemeentemuseum is separated from the street by two large artificial ponds. You cross them via an arcade with spectacular fenestration: through the huge panes of glass you see the highly reflective ponds and, on the morning of my visit, blue and pale yellow reflections of sky and brick. It is almost impossible to walk along this causeway without a lovely light feeling of transition and anticipation, and it almost seems a pity to enter the main building. But the Gemeentemuseum foyer is also special: with its luminous skylights and its sea-green floor and its nooks with coral tiles, it has a submarine texture. To see the art, you drift upward to the first floor as if up into the atmosphere. Hans Janssen, the museum’s curator of modern art, had kindly offered to meet me—which is to say, to walk me energetically through the permanent Mondrian and De Stijl collection, as well as the exhibition “Mondrian and Cubism—Paris 1912-1914”, which Janssen himself co-curated. As the overseer of the world’s largest Mondrian collection, Janssen knows more about the artist than pretty much anyone. Once or twice I ventured to paraphrase or amplify something he said, to demonstrate my advanced grasp of aesthetic theory and the history of art. After a pause he’d say, with that admirable Dutch directness, “No, that is precisely not the case.”

Janssen left and I wandered about on my own. There is a lot to see and do. The museum keeps interesting collections of Hague silver, Delft blue pottery, haute couture, glass; numerous examples of the Hague School of painting, with Anton Mauve and Jacob Maris rightly prominent; miscellaneous works by superstars such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Monet, Bacon; a mural by Sol LeWitt, whose minimalist line drawings I first encountered as a teenager, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; and, not least, corridors and galleries filled with an astonishing quantity of natural light. The museum permanently exhibits itself. The atelier of my youth still accepts children every Sunday, I was told, although youngsters now have special wonderkamers where they can do all kinds of fun interactive stuff. I didn’t check them out. It was the Mondrians that detained me, again.

They are housed in a specially designed zone of white, artificially lit chambers. There were surprisingly few Mondrians actually on display, no doubt because the curators wished to offer a concise overview of Mondrian’s artistic journey: he was sort of a Hague School devotee to begin with, then something of a symbolist, then a quasi-Cubist. Here was my old friend “The Flowering Apple Tree” (1912): ovals and curves ramifying on a green-grey surface. Here was “Composition with Grid 9: Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors” (1919), an insoluble clueless crossword puzzle with cells shaded in red, blue, grey and white. And here, once more, was the incomparable, mainly blue-shaded classic “Tableau 1, with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow” (1921)—incomparable, not least, because the painting refuses the notion that it should function as a point of comparison to anything other than itself. This refusal is one of the intellectual pleasures offered by Mondrian’s mature works; and yet “Tableau 1” now struck me as an enormously emotional painting, as if the degree of abstraction corresponded to the degree of emotional saturation. But was I committing what Janssen might have called an autobiographical fallacy?

There was one painting which triggered no déjà vu: Mondrian’s final work, the unfinished “Victory Boogie-Woogie”. The museum acquired it in 1998. Here was something I could inspect with critical purity. I was looking at a large, lozenge-shaped surface occupied by hundreds of quadrilaterals of varying sizes distributed in an irregular gridiron. I was looking at blue and yellow and white and black and grey. I was looking at a canvas marked with oil and rectangles of painted paper tape. I couldn’t help it: I went from seeing to sensing, which is to say I detected a strong painterly gladness and vibrancy in what I saw, as if a mark, before it is anything else, is a feeling. And then, by a further reflex of subjectivity, I transgressed into the realm of interpretation Mondrian so strenuously resisted: this was a jazzy and urban painting, surely, a homage to the city in which the artist lived as a war exile from 1940 to 1944—New York, where I live. How else to explain the taxi-yellow squares? How else to account for this humming and tooting gridlock?

But where were the dune paintings? I saw only one: “Dunes Close to Domburg” (1910), featuring not the multiple sand-hills promised by the title but a single yellow-and-blue triangular mound fixed against a blue band of water and a blue block of air. When I asked Janssen about the others, he said, “The dunes are travelling,” on loan to exhibitions in Hamburg, Margate and Liverpool: coastal cities, naturally. And what about the Eschers? Years ago, Janssen explained, they were removed to the new Escher Museum established in a royal palace on the Lange Voorhout, The Hague’s dreamiest, grandest boulevard. (Afterwards, I checked out the palace. It’s a terrific venue, with a vertiginous central staircase that Escher himself might have dreamed up; and the work, on re-examination, was more eye/mind-blowing than ever.) Janssen didn’t seem heartbroken about this loss, perhaps because, as a Mondrian specialist-extremist, he fantasises about emptying this large institution of all non-Mondrianic stuff and dreams of a day when the Gemeentemuseum will offer the visitor nothing more or less than lines and colours referring to nothing.

In the afternoon, I went for a walk in the dunes. I took the footpath I knew best, at the top of the Savornin Lohmanlaan. It was a bright, windy day, with blown sand everywhere. Strangely, the dunes were less overgrown than I remembered, a few almost Saharan in their starkness, and reminiscent of the bare sand-hills you see not only in “Dunes Close to Domburg” but in H.W. Mesdag’s famous “Panorama Mesdag” (1881) and, for that matter, Van Gogh’s “Dunes” (1882), both of which were painted in The Hague.

The arboreous dunes were special to me. I’d sneak under the barbed-wire fence and lie low in the pines, or maybe I’d fool around by a German bunker or, best of all, go to the secret lake, as I thought of it, because no one else knew about it. Now, the barbed wire had been removed; a designated trail led to the lake and, according to a sign, to a bird-watching hut by the water. Onward I went, to the beach and the North Sea. To the south, at Rotterdam, gigantic new quay cranes and other industrial megafauna now protruded from the coastline. Offshore, a drilling platform rose in the grey water. Even the sea was no longer the same.

I exited the dunes next to the formerly secret lake. The surrounding thickets were gone, and there was the water, visible to anyone walking by. Either I was hallucinating or four or five yaks were wading around in it. These were wild Scottish highland cows, I later learned. They had been introduced to feed on shrubs, grasses and young trees in order to return the dunes to their ancient mobile condition—grazing deters plant growth, which promotes dune drift, which leads to much richer biodiversity. Apparently the Aeolian movement of the sand-hills has indeed increased, and sightseers can look forward to spotting bog stars, orchids and short-eared owls.

Hans Janssen told me that he’d recently heard from an elderly gentleman who, as a young boy, was regularly dropped off at Mondrian’s studio in the East Fifties. The painter had agreed to act as a child-minder, it seems. Every day, the same thing happened: Mondrian offered the boy an orange with the words, “The only thing wrong with it is that it’s a sphere, not a cube.” Then he would place the boy’s choice of record on the turntable and say, “A pity it’s round, not square.” Then he went back to his painting. Mondrian always worked to music, and in his New York years he loved to paint to jazz. With “Victory Boogie-Woogie”, he never tired of applying and re-applying provisional squares of painted paper tape to the canvas. Either the painting never achieved a satisfactory stasis, or Mondrian joyfully lost faith in the idea of the static. The latter seems more likely. What is seen cannot be reconciled with what is remembered.

Gemeentemuseum Den Haag open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm; gemeentemuseum.nl

 

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