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Mondrian Painting Finds Home at Harvard Museum

By Barbara E. Martinez, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard's art community has a world-class collection of central European art, Pulitzer Professor of Modern Art Yves-Alain Bois, who is a scholar of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, and Harry Cooper '81-'82, the associate curator of modern art at the Fogg Museum and a Mondrian expert.

Thus, the University seems like a natural place to bestow a Mondrian, at least for the recent donors of "Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red," which the artist painted in 1922.

"I got a call telling me that these private individuals had a Mondrian and were interested in placing it in a museum in the U.S. that didn't have a Mondrian and would make good use of it, that would take a careful and scholarly approach and not just put it in storage," said Cooper, who wrote his dissertation on Mondrian.

The Busch-Reisinger Museum, which is physically connected to the Fogg, purchased the painting from the owners for a reduced price. The painting's value is estimated at $4 million. It was purchased with funds from the friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and an additional anonymous donor.

The museum has a collection of 1920s central European abstraction, including works by Paul Klee, El Lissitzy and Wassily Kandinsky.

"Given Mondrian's ties to El Lissitzy as well as artists of the Bauhaus, [the painting] will greatly complement our holdings in this area and provide new areas of study and research," said Peter Nisbet, Daimler-Benz curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum.

The painting, from the beginning of Mondrian's mature period, was familiar to Bois and Angelica Zander Rudenstine, wife of University President Neil L. Rudenstine. Angelica Rudenstine first viewed it when they were scouting out paintings for a 1995 Mondrian retrospective.

The original owners, who wish to remain anonymous, agreed to loan the painting to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. for this retrospective. The retrospective, minus "Composition with Blue, Black Yellow and Red," also appeared in New York and The Hague.

This is the only time "Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red" had been publicly displayed, one reason it is in pristine condition, according to Cooper.

Since the painting never had to be packed, shipped and cleaned like ones that have been frequently displayed, it remained free of the damage present in many Mondrians.

"It really shows a lot about his working methods, his brushwork, his technique, which makes it really valuable for study," Cooper said. "That's one of the reasons we jumped at this opportunity."

Born in 1872, Mondrian spent the early part of his career painting Dutch landscapes. He discovered cubism in the second decade of the 20th century, but tried to bring his work beyond it.

"Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red" was painted after the artist's invention of a style he dubbed neo-plasticism, which he wrote about extensively in the Dutch journal De Stijl (The Style). The magazine called for the unification of the arts behind spiritual progress and social change.

During the two decades before World War II, when he moved from Paris to New York to escape the Nazis, Mondrian used a language of horizontal and vertical black lines, blocks of primary colors, white and gray.

Harvard's new painting is from the very beginning of this period.

"He was 50 years old when he made this painting, which is remarkably late for an artist to find his major style," Cooper said. "That grid of lines you see in cubist paintings has become the entire subject, and whatever still-life objects there might have been within that grid have been dismissed."

With this style, Mondrian explored the structure of oppositions, but tried to make them fuse into unity and balance.

Mondrian's style also reflects his love of jazz and dance--some say there is syncopation in his work--and his interest in socialism by the "egalitarian" composition of elements, according to Cooper.

Mondrian gave the painting as a gift in 1925, and it has remained in the same family ever since. The family protected the painting, hardly exposing it, Cooper said, describing his delight upon finding a thick layer of dust on the top edge of the paining.

"I think they were aware that it's better to do nothing to the painting," Cooper said, adding that the painting was even still in its original frame.

Mondrian took great care making simple wooden frames for his paintings, but many have been discarded.

"I think one thing we'll do with the painting is take it up to the...conservation lab and study it with various techniques, X-ray and infrared, that allow you to see what's going on beneath the surface," Cooper said.

Since it fills a gap in Harvard's collection, the painting will be on display almost constantly, according to Cooper. It will be delivered to the museum next week and put on display soon after that.

In the spring of 2001, the Busch-Reisinger Museum will host an unrelated Mondrian exhibit, called "Piet Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings." The exhibit will focus on about 15 paintings that Mondrian began in Paris but finished in New York. He added new elements, like "boogie woogie," that he discovered in New York.

Cooper and Ron Spronk, the curator for research at the Straus Center for Conservation, are the curators of the exhibit. They will research the changes Mondrian made to the paintings with the technology at the Straus Center, according to Cooper.

"It's a perfect little test case to find out how these technical analysis techniques can be used with modern paintings," he said.

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