Behind the scenes: Teamwork

by Leo Jansen

André Kertész, Michel Seuphor, Juozas Tysliava, Louis Saalborn and Piet Mondrian in Mondrian’s studio, Paris, 1926

When Mondrian’s edited correspondence and theoretical writings finally appear on The Mondrian Papers, it will be the result of a complex and long-running project. But how does a project such as this operate? How did it begin, who does the work, what is their background, how is it all organised? As a contribution to our series ‘A look behind the scenes’, here is a little more about the ins and outs of the Mondrian Edition Project.

Three volumes of The Letters of Edgar Degas were recently published in printed form. This ‘bilingual edition’ was edited by Theodore Reff. Working alone (well, not quite – see below), he edited 1251 letters for publication, in the original French and with an English translation, with notes, an introduction of more than 100 pages, indexes, short biographies of some 125 people as well as other supplementary information. To those with experience of publications of this kind it will be no surprise that the editor took between 30 and 40 years to complete this Herculean labour. But to think that he then needed five pages to thank the several hundred institutions and people who had helped him in one way or another. Which goes to show: the scholarly work of preparing such an extensive and important body of texts, even if you do it ‘alone’, is teamwork.

This is the spirit in which the Mondrian Edition Project began. The RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History is renowned for its large collection of letters, photos and other documents relating to Piet Mondrian and De Stijl. Following in the footsteps of the Van Gogh Letters Project (see, the RKD resolved to publish online the entire corpus of Mondrian’s letters and theoretical writings, not just those in its own collection. There was in-house expertise thanks to Wietse Coppes. For the knowledge required to create a scholarly edition, links were established with the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING), which has a long tradition of editing important bodies of text from within Dutch literature, history and cultural history; the Huygens Institute was also a partner in the Van Gogh Project just mentioned.

It all began with a pilot, to get an idea of the range of the material and to construct a well-thought-out plan of action for the entire project. The Kunstmuseum in The Hague, home to the largest collection of works by Mondrian in the world, became a partner in the project. The partner institutions found financial backing, partly from their own budgets but also from external funding bodies. In the pilot phase, which ran from May 2014 to November 2015, Mondrian’s letters to his American friend and patron Harry Holtzman were used as a test case; they were annotated and the IT department of the Huygens Institute created a test model for the digital publishing environment. Using this experience it was calculated that the Mondrian Edition Project would take twelve years to complete. That is a long time, and with such a protracted trajectory it is inevitably difficult to see exactly how things will work out. For this reason, but also in order to prevent the finance from becoming more complicated than it already was, the work was split into two phases lasting six years.

The team

Three staff were in position to begin phase 1 at the start of 2016. Who were they? What knowledge and what experience was needed to make a scholarly edition, accessible to all online, of the letters and theoretical writings of an artist, and tailored to Piet Mondrian?

Wietse Coppes, Leo Jansen and Laurens Kleine Deters

It was obvious that Wietse Coppes, curator for the RKD’s Mondrian and De Stijl archives, would play a leading role. He studied art history in Nijmegen and specialised in the subject of Neoplasticism in the international sphere. Since he began as curator at the RKD in 2008, more than 200 letters from Mondrian as well as the extensive archives of two Mondrian experts, Robert P. Welsh (2008) and Joop M. Joosten (2015), have been acquired. Coppes has written numerous articles about Mondrian, including essays for exhibition catalogues at the Centre Georges Pompidou (Mondrian, 2010), Fondation Louis Vuitton (Les clefs d’un passion, 2015), and at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague (Alexander Calder. De grote ontdekking (The Great Discovery, 2012). He is part of an international network of experts working on Mondrian and De Stijl, which means that when it needs to, the project can call upon the expertise of archivists, academics and museum curators in Europe and the United States.

To get the project off to a good start in terms of its methodology as well as art history, Leo Jansen (author of this piece) was taken on. He studied Dutch Language and Literature with a specialisation in scholarly editing, which was also the subject of his PhD. Then he worked for the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) as one of the editors of Vincent van Gogh’s correspondence. On that project he gained experience essential to the Mondrian Edition. At the same time he familiarised himself with the art history of the period around 1900, and for eight years he was curator at the Van Gogh Museum. He is the author of many publications on Van Gogh and his time, and has collaborated on a number of exhibitions on the artist, including Munch : Van Gogh (Van Gogh Museum / Munch Museum, 2015-2016).

Working side by side on a daily basis, Coppes and Jansen each became familiar with the finer points of the other’s area of specialty. They are the editors and project leaders. In the early years they were supported by a part-time documentalist, the art historian Evelien de Visser, who prepared the inventorisation of the locations of all manuscripts, and who set up the digital research archive. De Visser left the project in July 2019, and from July 2020 the art historian Laurens Kleine Deters was taken on as part-time research assistant. He studied history and art history at Utrecht University, graduating in 2018 with a thesis on editing Marcus van Vaernewijck’s Spieghel der Nederlandscher audtheyd (see Simiolus 42-1/2), and he is one of the few art historians who has mastered the combination of disciplines crucial for the project. Besides working on the Mondrian Edition project, he has been working on an inventory of the archive of the De Stijl artist Chris Beekman.

The Mondrian Edition project provides opportunities for interns to gain experience of research as part of their degree. Interns support the editors in various activities, from checking transcriptions to dealing with an extraordinary variety of research questions that need to be answered for the notes; depending on their expertise, education and interests, some are also able to contribute short pieces of independent research. A list of interns who have contributed so far can be found here.

Support from specialists

Before the editors publish their work, it is submitted to an editorial board of three people who, each from their different backgrounds, look critically at the results: one is a Mondrian expert, one an expert on the cultural history of Europe in the inter-war years and the third an editorial expert.

There is also an international scientific advisory board upon whom the editors can call for knowledge and information in a variety of areas.

Finally there is a steering committee, which includes the directors of the RKD and Huygens ING as well as leading figures from each institution; these people keep an eye on the general financial and technical framework within which the edition is to be realised. The project leaders report to the steering committee on the progress of the project.

This gives you an idea of how this mammoth project is organised. A logical next question would be: what does the daily work of the researchers really amount to in practice? We will devote several columns to that subject soon.