Mondrian and photography: professional portraits and snapshots


Discover an unknown side of Piet Mondrian in Mondrian and Photography: Picturing the Artist and His Work, published jointly by the RKD and Tijdsbeeld Publishers. The 368-page book will be published on 13 January, and reproduces all known photographs of Mondrian and his studio. A selection of 70 photographs will be on display in the exhibition Strike a pose. Mondrian and photography, which opens at the Fotomuseum Den Haag on 14 January. Famous photos by André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, Cas Oorthuys and Arnold Newman will be shown alongside snapshots which offer a rare insight into the artist’s private life.

The book will be published in three editions with three different covers: in Dutch, English and French.

The image of the artist

What image do we have of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) today? We think of him as serious, and reclusive introvert who stood rather rigidly in his studio lost in thought, his intent gaze shielded by his fashionable spectacles. In the background would be one or more abstract works with the famous horizontal and vertical black lines. Throughout his long career, Mondrian was regularly portrayed by professional photographers. He was conscious of the important role that photography could play in presenting himself as a modern artist. Mondrian’s development as an artist is closely linked to his carefully staged studio portraits. From the late 1920s, by which time he had established his reputation, photographers – many of them famous – offered their services to the artist. Even while Mondrian was alive, such photos appeared in newspapers and magazines.

Surrounded by friends

Besides professional portraits, a great number of snapshots recording Mondrian’s personal life have been preserved. These pictures reveal a less well-known side of the artist. They show a man who is much more laid-back and enjoys the company of others: travelling, sitting on a terrace, playing records, holding a baby on his lap. In Mondrian and Photography: Picturing the Artist and His Work these two sides of Mondrian converge, showing us the stern-faced artist as well as the easy-going Piet who poses spontaneously with his many friends, a broad smile on his face. The book offers a unique insight into the life of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

1. Piet Mondrian, Simon Maris and Frits Bodenheim at the dock in IJmuiden, 28 August 1903, collection RKD 
2. Reinier Drektraan, Piet Mondrian in the living area of his studio at 42 Sarphatipark, Amsterdam, autumn 1908, collection RKD 
3. André Kertész, Piet Mondrian, pouring wine, 19 (?) August 1926, private collection

The book

Mondrian expert Wietse Coppes, curator at the RKD, and Leo Jansen, senior researcher at the Huygens Institute, have been carrying out research into the artist for many years for the Mondrian Edition Project. They gathered more than 400 photos from 50 international collections including MoMA in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The photographs have been arranged chronologically into three periods: the start of Mondrian’s career in Holland, the Paris period, and his final years in London and New York. Mondrian and Photography: Picturing the Artist and His Work opens with an extensive essay about the role of photography in Mondrian’s life, including as a tool for self-promotion. Three quarters of the images in the plate section are reproduced large format, followed by a complete and comprehensive catalogue of all photographic prints known to date.

The exhibition

The RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History holds the largest collection of archival and documentation material relating to Piet Mondrian. It contains his personal archive, more than 700 original letters as well as hundreds of portrait and studio photos, including about 100 vintage prints. Coppes and Jansen are the guest curators for the exhibition Strike a pose. Mondrian and Photography at the Fotomuseum Den Haag, which presents a selection of the photographs they have assembled. The exhibition demonstrates that photography is a powerful means of self-presentation, and that Mondrian knew exactly how to promote himself by its use. By combining professional portraits with informal snapshots we come to see that there was a warm, humorous character behind the public persona.

Mondrian and Photography: Picturing the Artist and His Work will be published on 13 January as a collaboration between the RKD and Tijdsbeeld Publishers, Ghent. The publication has been made possible by support from the International Music and Art Foundation. The book has been produced by Tijdsbeeld in three editions: in Dutch, English (co-published with Hatje Cantz) and French (co-published with Fonds Mercator). The book has 368 pages, over 800 illustrations, is 24 x 27 cm, and costs € 59.90.

1. Michel Seuphor, Company in Michel Seuphor’s, Vanves, April 1930, collection Matthijs Erdman
2. Eugene Lux, Piet Mondrian and Gwendolyn Lux in Mondrian’s studio, c. March-May 1934, collection RKD