Something unusual has been happening in The Hague this year. I’m not sure when I first noticed the red, blue and yellow blocks of colour that have appeared around the city, but the whole place is covered in them. It’s a bit like state-sponsored graffiti. They can be found on the side of buildings and on mannequins in shop windows. Even the piano that sits in the middle of Den Haag Centraal train station is decorated in red, yellow and blue. It’s like a secret code written in full public view.
This is not the work of a very determined street artist though. Instead, it’s a cunning and eye-catching promotional campaign by the city government of the instantly recognisable work of Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian. His famous straight black lines and red, yellow and blue blocks of colour have been splashed across the city as part of a year-long celebration of De Stijl – The Style – artistic movement, which Mondrian co-founded along with several others in 1917.
The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum is displaying more than 300 artworks in a blockbuster Discovery of Mondrian exhibition; itself part of a nation-wide exploration of the artist and De Stijl, Mondrian to Dutch Design: 100 years of de Stijl. The whole city appears to be participating in the celebration, and trademark Mondrian designs can be spotted on almost every street. The most striking of which can be found on the Stadhuis towering over cyclists and pedestrians below.
Mondrian is considered to be one of the most important modern artists, his later work capturing the zeitgeist of an era. In the exhibition though, the most interesting thing was seeing his progression from pretty traditional figurative paintings of farms, boats on canals and Dutch landscapes, to the blinding colours of the fantastically abstract work which now adorns buildings around The Hague.
Mondrian moved to Paris in the early 20th century, where he rubbed shoulders with Picasso and was exposed to Cubism. Paris was clearly influential, but it was being stuck in the Netherlands in 1914 that proved decisive. Unable to return to Paris because of the outbreak of war, he joined other Dutch artists and designers to found one of the most important artistic movements in history, De Stijl. The movement is credited with creating what came to be considered ‘modern’. The Nazis’ considered it ‘degenerate’.
De Stijl was born not of the horror and suffering inflicted on Europe during the First World War, but instead from the peace of the neutral Netherlands. Mondrian and fellow Dutch artist, Theo van Doesburg, were the driving force behind De Stijl, which would become the first step of the abstract art revolution. The two were best friends, then they had an explosive disagreement over Doesburg’s use of diagonal lines in his paintings. Strange but true.
The exhibition (until 14 September, 2017) shines a fascinating light on the influence of Mondrian and De Stijl, especially the influence they’ve had on architecture, graphic design, interior design and fashion. A hundred years after its founding, De Stijl is still influencing our lives. Thanks to the Mondrianisation of The Hague, reminders of it are dotted all around. It’s not exactly subtle, but it is a lot of fun.
Here’s a good article on Mondrian and the exhibition from the BBC