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Behind the scenes: Mondrian, where are you?

July 7, 2020

by Leo Jansen

In the ‘Behind the scenes’ column we give insights into what our research for the Mondrian Edition Project actually involves. This time we focus on the task of tracing the locations of as many letters and essays as possible to be included in the Edition, and we consider if it is feasible to see all original Mondrian letters.

From Catalogue raisonné to publishing online
The starting point for all research on Mondrian – regardless of the topic or the approach taken – is the complete catalogue of the artist’s work, the Catalogue raisonné, published in 1998. In addition to a comprehensive inventory of drawings and paintings by Piet Mondrian that were known at the time (with full provenance details, technical information, exhibitions and relevant documentation), this volume contains a wealth of further information about the artist, including a list of the letters that were consulted by the catalogue’s compilers: no fewer than 1100 in total, addressed to 82 correspondents.

At the time, none of the tools that are available through the internet today were in use, and so the compilers Robert Welsh (1921-2000) and Joop Joosten (1926-2017), and their extensive network of international colleagues, were unable to locate, let alone see, works to which they had no physical access. Almost all auction catalogues, for example, are published online now, making it relatively simple to monitor if and where Mondrian manuscripts appear on the market. Whenever we notice that a document will change hands in this way, we contact the auction house and, if possible, the new owner. Occasionally this provides the RKD with an opportunity to acquire letters, but of course there is no guarantee beforehand. We therefore always try to visit the auctioneers in question prior to the sale, so that we can inspect the letters at their premises.

The letters Mondrian sent to Aletta de Iongh laid out on the table at the Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo

Unknown letters turn up
More and more archives, museums and libraries are now digitising their collections and/or inventories, making it possible for us to trace letters while sitting at our computers – documents that were invisible a few decades ago, despite being in public institutions. Nonetheless, to ensure that no information gets missed we aim to study the original objects. This can lead to nice surprises. For example, when we were at the New-York Historical Society and asked to be shown nine letters that we had found in their online catalogue. After a lot of searching, one of their staff managed to retrieve six letters hiding in the archive of a New York art dealer, but their dates did not correspond with any of the letters we had identified online. As we left, we expressed our surprise about what we had found. This prompted the archivist to delve into the obsolete card-index boxes once more and, lo and behold, he retrieved nine cards leading him to the nine letters we had originally expected to find. In other words, because we had turned up in person, six more letters by Mondrian were unearthed. For the past four years we have been building on the work of our predecessors. The number currently stands at more than 1650 letters (to 190 correspondents). Given the frequency with which previously lost or even unknown letters continue to turn up (in family archives, or on the market), we are hopeful that this number will rise even further over the course of the project. But will it be possible to see every item? The RKD looks after some 700 letters; several hundred survive in other archives and museums in the Netherlands and elsewhere, locations that can be reached relatively easily. The fact that public institutions can provide high-quality scans (including envelopes and, usually blank, verso sheets) makes our job a great deal easier. But there are a few important archives in the US and we estimate that the total number of repositories comes to nearly 300… Documents that are held in private collections are in any case difficult to access, on top of which the travel budget is understandably limited. Whether it is realistic to think that we will be able to see all of the actual letters remains to be seen.

Essays by Mondrian
For the more than 70 essays that Mondrian left behind, and which will also be included in the online edition, the situation is different and, fortunately, more straightforward. To begin with, the bulk of these survive only in published form as the original manuscripts have been lost. A number of ground-breaking articles were published in the influential avant-garde periodical De Stijl, which appeared from 1917 onwards, and these also received a good deal of international attention. As a result Mondrian was approached in addition by foreign editors – primarily in France, England, Germany and the United States, but also in Poland and Lithuania – to write down his thoughts about art and society. Entering these printed publications into our edition is a fairly straightforward process. However, a sizeable number of texts are known only from manuscripts which have surfaced in Mondrian’s estate and in other archives. Some are well-presented, clean documents, while others are full of corrections, passages that have been moved, pages that have been renumbered and other changes. Sometimes there are several typed versions of the same piece, each with different corrections. All of this can make it difficult to decide how the essays can best be presented. Most of the handwritten and typed sources are in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven (CT), where they are available for consultation. The RKD itself also holds a number of manuscripts that are of particular interest, including his proposals for a new form of art education.

One of the many intriguing aspects of the Edition is the relationship between the letters and the essays. In his letters Mondrian repeatedly talks about writing essays and getting them published (ranging from general content matters to correction of details), which means that many of the letters are best understood if the texts to which they refer are to hand; conversely, if you want to explain how Mondrian came to write a particular text, you need to turn to the letters. The way in which the two genres interact is fascinating. More on this another time.

Leo Jansen (l) studying one of the sketchbooks of Piet Mondrian at the Guggenheim Museum in 2016 with Guggenheim Senior Conservator Paper & Photographs Jeffrey Warda.