Fondation Beyeler is researching seven paintings by Piet Mondrian

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Fondation Beyeler is researching seven paintings by Piet Mondrian
The conservation team of the Fondation Beyeler at work: Piet Mondrian, Lozenge Composition with Eight Lines and Red (Picture No. III), 1938, Tableau no. I, 1921-1925, Composition with Double Line and Blue, 1935, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection, © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International Warrenton, VA USA, Photo: Mark Niedermann.

BASEL.- Over the course of an extensive three-year (2019–2021) conservation project, the Fondation Beyeler is researching seven paintings by Piet Mondrian. The project covers the scientific investigation and conservation of three early and four late works, all part of the Beyeler Collection. With the support of La Prairie, over the coming months Mondrian’s four late classic works will be examined and analysed in depth. Until the end of 2021, interested visitors can watch our conservation team at work. The Fondation Beyeler is planning a major exhibition on Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) for 2022.

The Fondation Beyeler holds one of Switzerland’s largest collections of Piet Mondrian paintings, ranging from important early works to famous late works. These seven masterpieces by the Dutch artist prompted the Fondation Beyeler to launch a three-year (2019–2021) research and conservation project. While each painting is researched individually, the aim is to view all seven Mondrian works in the Beyeler Collection as a cohesive group with regard to their composition and presentation. The Piet Mondrian Conservation Project comprises three main areas of research, which are briefly detailed in the following.

Extensive research and understanding of materials and techniques
This area of research involves the use of various non-invasive imaging techniques, radiation technologies and sample analyses of canvas, binders and pigments. This is important to further our understanding of the materials used, as it allows for cross-comparisons within the artist’s body of work. Examinations carried out with raking light, transmitted light, X-rays, ultraviolet and infrared radiation, some of which are invisible to the naked eye, yield important information to a painting’s creation. These techniques allow conservators to look under and through the paint layer. They provide insights into the artistic process, e.g. preliminary drawings or compositional changes. The analysis of strategic material samples in the micromillimetre range will help answer specific questions arising from the more general research. These analyses allow conservators to diagnose age-related material changes in order to establish maximum accuracy forecasts to support the long-term preservation of the artwork. The project further aims to deepen our knowledge of the materials and techniques used by Mondrian and his reasons for doing so. The goal is to gain a full understanding of Mondrian’s artistic process.

The Fondation Beyeler’s conservators are working in close and regular contact with international museums whose holdings include large and significant Mondrian collections – especially the Kunstmuseum Den Haag (formerly Gemeente Museum Den Haag). The scientific analyses are monitored by a recognised team of conservation scientist from the Cultural Heritage Laboratory in Amsterdam. Upon completion, new insights will be shared with all experts and placed in context with findings from other Mondrian research.

Long-term preservation of the paintings for future generations
As soon as sufficient information has been gathered on the materials and techniques, the paintings’ current state will be assessed in detail as to changes that may have occurred over time. On this basis, it will be possible to ascertain whether issues of stability need to be addressed and whether the artist’s original intentions are still adequately reflected. Going from there, minor conservation measures and long-term conservation strategies will be discussed with curators and specialists, and carried out according to the highest ethical and practical standards. The aim is to ensure the paintings’ long-term preservation and stability.

Revision of the paintings’ presentation and reconstruction of possibly lost original frames
Mondrian himself often specified in great detail how his paintings were to be framed, as he viewed this as an essential and integral part of the presentation and reception of his works. Yet the frames of many paintings were changed over time. On the basis of historical photographs, clues on the paintings themselves and comparisons with works that have kept their original frame, the project aims to establish how the seven paintings in the Beyeler Collection were originally framed. If sufficient information can be compiled, a reconstruction of some frames will be taken into consideration. The project further involves the development and implementation of a new method to mount the works and place them behind glass in order to ensure a presentation that is safe yet visually non-distracting.

The first year of research (2019/20)
The project’s first year involved extensive research taking the form of mostly technological examination, complex material analyses and archival research. Work focussed on the three early paintings Eukalyptus (1912), Composition No. XVI (Compositie I, Arbres) (1912/13) and Composition No. VI (Compositie 9, Blue Façade) (1914). Imaging techniques were used on all three works and minute material samples were taken and analysed. This showed that Eukalyptus and Composition No. XVI (Compositie I, Arbres) are in exceptionally authentic and original condition. This discovery gives conservators a uniquely direct and unimpaired insight into Mondrian’s painting technique.

By contrast, Composition No. VI (Compositie 9, Blue Façade) has undergone several restorations in the past: a heavy intervention occurred in the 1970s using the then common method of “lining”, a conservation process in which a second canvas layer is added at the back for reinforcement, which involves a risk of altering the paint layer and the surface texture and is therefore no longer practised in this way. Ernst Beyeler tried to partly reverse this process, not least to reveal the original canvas verso bearing the work’s original title. Yet many original properties, such as the painting’s surface structure, are lost forever.

The examination of Eukalyptus further clearly showed just how essential preliminary sketches were for Mondrian and the extent to which he relied on a step-by-step working process for the composition in this decisive phase of transition from figuration to abstraction. Examinations carried out on Composition No. VI (Compositie 9, Blue Façade) also revealed how critical and often dissatisfied Mondrian was of his compositions as he worked on them. X-ray imagery shows compositional changes in the black lines, suggesting that the artist reworked the painting between the 1914 and 1915 exhibitions or soon after.

Composition No. XVI (Compositie I, Arbres) displays a surprising and interesting choice of pastel colours. Analyses showed that the colour of the painting’s industrial primer, whose cream tone is composed of white and ochre pigments, had been chosen purposefully by the artist. The other analysed paints are classic pigments, however strongly mixed with white lead.

All three works have lost their original frame. However, research findings and historical photographs provide concrete evidence of what the frames may have looked like. Various options are currently being considered and discussed using frame mock-ups.

First findings
The current state of research already shows what a challenge it is to fully explore and understand the artistic principles and processes underlying Mondrian’s paintings. At first glance, especially the familiar late abstract works with their linear build-up and monochrome colour fields may appear simple in design. Yet closer examination exposes a complex cosmos. The compositions are the result of a long detailed process and constant review. The execution with paint and brush is so nuanced and masterful that it still raises many unanswered questions as to the way Piet Mondrian painted and worked.

A second year of research (2020/21) in partnership with La Prairie
The second year of research, supported by La Prairie, concentrates on the four late works by Piet Mondrian: Tableau No. I (1921–1925), Composition with Yellow and Blue (1932), Composition with Double Line and Blue (1935) and Lozenge Composition with Eight Lines and Red (Picture No. III) (1938). These four paintings will be examined and analysed using the same methods described above. This period marked a highly productive one in Mondrian’s lifetime as many museums worldwide are in possession of paintings dating from those years. As part of the research process, these will be called on for purposes of comparison, involving on-site examination and research.

The undertaking of the Piet Mondrian Conservation project of the artist’s late work is made possible through the two-year patronage of La Prairie.

« As a Swiss house, we are particularly proud to support one of Switzerland’s most prestigious cultural institutions. With the Fondation Beyeler, we have common values and the purpose to share art from Switzerland to the world. Bringing La Prairie’s support to a project dedicated to preserving iconic works of art from the passing of time gives even more meaning to this collaboration », says Greg Prodromides, Chief Marketing Officer at La Prairie.

Art has always been intrinsic to La Prairie since its inception through the encounter with artist Niki de Saint Phalle. In 2020, as part of La Prairie’s Corporate Social Responsibility efforts, the brand proudly presents a new chapter in its support of art and culture by partnering with the Fondation Beyeler in order to support the preservation of the above-mentioned four iconic art pieces.

« Our partnership with La Prairie is a catalyst for innovation, triggering an exciting opportunity for a creative dialogue. Through this patronage, La Prairie and the Fondation Beyeler have joined forces for the Piet Mondrian Conservation Project with the aim of highlighting the importance of art conservation. Delivering the highest quality is part of the DNA of the Fondation Beyeler. We always aim for perfection. And so does La Prairie », says Ulrike Erbslöh, Managing Director of the Fondation Beyeler.

The project will be documented in a series of six episodes shared exclusively on La Prairie’s website to acknowledge the importance of art conservation for now and future generations.

The Piet Mondrian Conservation Project is comprehensively documented online. The website shows the current state of research for individual works and provides rich visual material. Latest research findings will be published on a regular basis. Particularly worthy of mention is the technical imaging data: interested website visitors can explore high-resolution images of all seven works in the collection, taken with daylight, raking light, transmitted light under ultraviolet and infrared lighting as well as x-radiation. This material is an essential part of the scientific documentation and will be available to other researchers for purposes of comparison. The website also contains chapter videos about the artist, the individual paintings and the work of the conservation team.

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