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Piet Mondrian and Sal Slijper: friends for life?

November 20, 2019

The exhibition Mondrian Figuratif, which opened in September at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, tells the story of the Mondrian collector Salomon (Sal) Slijper. For the catalogue Wietse Coppes and Leo Jansen, editors of the Mondrian Edition Project, have written an extensive essay based on the surviving letters and other documentary sources, in which they explore the complex friendship between Mondrian and his friend and patron, the collector Sal Slijper. Besides a new and comprehensive description of the friendship, their work has brought to light new facts concerning the origin, provenance and condition of a number of works by Mondrian in Slijper’s collection.

Mondrian and Slijper met in the summer of 1915, when they shared a dinner table at the guest house De Linden in Laren. After seeing an abstract painting by Mondrian hanging there, the estate agent slowly became fascinated with the artist’s work – he needed six weeks to come to like the picture on the wall of the guest house – and he began to collect on a large scale. Primarily he bought early, naturalistic works, but his collection also included examples from later phases of Mondrian’s development. As Slijper expanded his collection, the friendship between the two men grew closer, with mutual visits, payments in advance from Slijper to Mondrian – in money or in kind (for example a pair of trousers or a jacket) – visits to dance nights together at the Hamdorf Hotel, where the bohemian community from the Gooi area then congregated, and deep conversations about life as well as the attractions (or the absence thereof) of the opposite sex. Despite marked differences in their character, what emerges from the surviving letters, interviews and memories is a relationship based on camaraderie.

The Paris transaction
In a magninamous gesture that shows real dedication to his friend, without having seen them Slijper offered to buy all of the works left behind in Mondrian’s Paris studio during the First World War, when the artist was living in the Netherlands. The artist returned to Paris in June 1919 to find the contents of his studio unharmed and so, overnight, Slijper’s collection was the larger by sixty drawings and paintings. In addition to key examples from Mondrian’s luminist period (1908-1910), the group included important paintings from the subsequent transitional phase, in a decorative style moving towards cubism (1910-1911), as well as cubist works from the first Paris period (1912-1914). At the same time, Slijper also considerably expanded the group of naturalistic scenes at the core of his collection, so that he owned a representative overview of Mondrian’s oeuvre up to 1914.

Ironically, after Slijper had made his coup as a collector in 1919, the two friends began to drift apart. After this date Mondrian did not return to his native country, and although Slijper looked him up several times in Paris in the years that followed, their contact dwindled. When Slijper indicated around 1923 that he was interested in acquiring a work from Mondrian’s now iconic, abstract ‘neo-plastic’ period, he had missed the boat: Mondrian’s star had been rising since 1923-24 and demand for his work was high, especially in Germany. In spite of this, in the 1920s and 1930s, Slijper kept up his efforts to sell watercolours of flowers, which Mondrian made as potboilers, to his friends and acquaintances. He also promoted his friend’s work to museums and tried to interest them in organising an exhibition. Indeed, his dedication was so great, that Mondrian spoke of his friend deserving a ‘Slijper memorial’.

New York
Meanwhile Mondrian had slowly entered a different world, where he encountered a different art scene, far more progressive than that of the Netherlands. After he had moved to London in 1938 to avoid the Nazis (two of his works were included in the Entartete Kunst exhibitions mounted by the regime in 1937), and crossed to New York in 1940, the distance certainly became vast, both physically and mentally. The final letter dates from 1939 and shows that the friendship, or at least the need for contact, had faded as far as Mondrian was concerned. Despite the thousands of miles separating them, Slijper, who was Jewish and had gone into hiding, sensed, from the secret shelter in the attic of his house, that Mondrian was dying early in 1944: ‘I saw him fade away, for a whole week, in a bright blue light. I didn’t know if it was me or him who was dying there.’ This touching anecdote about a supernatural experience is part of the myth that Slijper created around his idealised friendship with the artist, which he recounted many times.

Slijper always maintained that he had found in Mondrian a ‘friend for life’, but it is not obvious that the feeling was mutual, especially in later years. Whatever the truth, their relationship was undoubtedly of crucial significance for the history of art. Slijper’s Mondrian collection was unrivalled. When he died in 1971 the collection was bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, where it remains to this day the largest and most important Mondrian collection in the world.

The exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet tells for the first time the complete story of the artist and the collector through a representative selection of works from the collection at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag. The exhibition Mondrian Figuratif will be on show until 26 January 2020.