“The living fight over the bones,” Robert Motherwell remarked after Piet Mondrian’s funeral in 1944 in New York. Seventy years after the Dutch artist’s death, sale prices for his artworks have rocketed to $40 million (£24 million) from a maximum of $800 during his lifetime, and his style continues to find echoes in design, fashion and architecture. American art historian Nancy Troy takes the reader on an eye-opening tour across the battleground of the artist’s posthumous reception. Mondrian’s works did not simply appear or speak for themselves, but were instead disseminated through the filter of the many vested interests of his heirs, friends, collectors, dealers, curators, scholars and artists. Troy candidly acknowledges her own place in the ranks of those implicated in these processes, which Marcel Duchamp referred to as “the posterity”.
Troy vividly evokes the uneasy pact between impecunious artists with utopian and egalitarian ideas and corporate interests manipulating the artists’ work for their own agendas. She tracks Mondrian’s afterlife through court cases, auctions, exhibitions and “the promotional juggernaut” of the 1994 Year of Mondrian in the Netherlands with its Mondriania of mugs and tea towels, taking us behind the scenes to witness a series of unholy alliances and unsavoury spats. The tale she tells veers between the sorry and the comic, full of misguided conservations, dubious attributions and items thrown out by cleaners or lost by auctioneers.
Mondrian was not a prolific artist and as the monetary value of his works climbed there was a temptation to find ways to “expand” his oeuvre, or as one commentator put it, to make something from “the dregs of the estate”. This urge was entangled with a desire to revere everything the artist had touched, like a saint’s relics. Sustaining a polite tone throughout, yet nevertheless damning with the devil of the details she uncovers, Troy writes: “Copies of one of his most important works (Victory Boogie Woogie) have stood in for the original; historical documents have been marshaled to support the authenticity of reconstructions (the ‘Wall Works’); and what began as the artist’s furniture was later presented as sculpture.”
Throughout The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian, we catch glimpses of neglected aspects of his work: the gulf between the painted surfaces of his originals and the graphic power of their glossy reproductions; the significance to him of watching Europe devastated a second time by world war, his homeland and adopted country of France occupied by Nazis, and the deaths of fellow artists and intellectuals. Troy’s focus, however, remains firmly on dissemination rather than on a reading of the artworks.
Mondrian’s work provoked controversy over the value, monetary and otherwise, of modern art, and he continues to be perceived as an abstract artist whose works are difficult to understand in the context of a persisting preference for figurative art. Yet his work pervaded popular culture, from L’Oréal cosmetics packaging to jigsaw puzzles to Yves Saint Laurent dresses.
This is an important, meticulously researched contribution to the story of how modern art was embedded in and exploited by corporate wealth and how it influenced every aspect of visual culture. Troy asks whether becoming a brand laid waste to the depth of meaning Mondrian invested in his art. Despite their posthumous adventures, perhaps Mondrian’s paintings are not unduly threatened by the discourses they provoke, or perhaps those discourses themselves, as Duchamp suggested, constitute the art.
The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian
By Nancy J. Troy
University of Chicago Press, 320pp, £31.50
Published 7 April 2014