Light and Shade: How La Prairie is Decoding the Creative Genius of an Artistic Master - Arts & Culture

New details emerge of the rather private painter Piet Mondrian, thanks to the beauty brand’s ongoing support of the artist’s conservation project.

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Furthering its longstanding commitment and intrinsic link with the world of art, La Prairie is now in its second year of the Piet Mondrian Conservation Project in partnership with the Fondation Beyeler.

A museum of contemporary art in Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler’s building by Renzo Piano houses an outstanding collection of over 400 works. It is the most visited art museum in Switzerland, and is internationally known for its high-quality exhibitions and cultural events.

The endeavour focuses on four of Mondrian’s works from the Collection Beyeler, all in anticipation of a major planned comprehensive exhibition of the artist at Fondation Beyeler in 2022.  

These conservation efforts not only ensure that the work of Mondrian is preserved for future generations. The publication of all research findings at the end of the two-year project also allows art historians and the greater public to gain a better understanding of a preeminent figure of the 20th century.

This includes his ongoing impact on visual culture, and, perhaps most importantly, what he aimed for as an artist.

Full of surprises

The works of Mondrian, who lived from 1872 to 1944, are one of the most recognizable in contemporary art.

His compositions of black lines framing rectangles of white, blue, red, and yellow are iconic and vastly influential on the output of his creative peers and culture today.

A true original and artist’s artist, he fearlessly pursued purity in art and the essence of beauty. “The more I get involved with Mondrian, the more I am fascinated by this painter,” say Fondation Beyeler senior curator Ulf Küster, Senior Curator. “He is full of surprises.”

La Prairie’s search for timeless beauty through scientific breakthroughs follows a parallel purpose in art conservation. The two are connected by a fundamental striving toward the highest standards.

In-depth examination, scientific study, assessment of condition and predicting the impact of time and change on these four Mondrian paintings is achieved through technology-based methods such as X-radiography, infrared reflectography, material analyses and high magnification.

Painstaking research and analysis—the process of which is ongoing—has already resulted in several compelling discoveries. It reveals how Mondrian painted and what he ultimately strove for in his art, his raison d’être.

Evolution and experimentation

Several findings thorughout the project further substantiate the notion that stylistic development was fundamental to Mondrian’s practice.

Rather than start a painting anew, he revised his paintings over and over in order to better capture new ideas and meet his own elevated standards of art. The conservators at the Fondation Beyeler discovered evidence of this process in their research of “Tableau No. 1.”

The visible signature is dated “P M 21-25.” However, with infrared reflectology, a third date is revealed under the top paint layer, indicating the painting was first made even earlier, most likely in 1920. The artist’s dating indicates singular working phases rather than an ongoing span of time.

For Mondrian to date the work three different times is clear evidence that he saw his painting as a process, one he wanted us to see.

This evolution of style and proclivity to revise in the pursuit of the perfect painting is also exemplified in Mondrian’s embrace of experimentation.

Between 1930 and 1932, the late artist implemented the same compositional structure of Composition with Yellow and Blue in three  paintings. Whilst similar in figuration, by overlaying the paintings in a digital image processing program, each compositional element of these paintings (placement, size, lines) hide fine adjustments resulting in three completely different effects.

As a pioneer in contermporary art, Mondrian was unafraid to experiment and try new methods to attempt to reach perfection. 

Perfect harmony

“Works by a master like Piet Mondrian hide a lot in the details. A line is not simply a line, a colour field is not a flat colour field. There is much more behind it,” says Markus Gross, chief conservator at the Fondation Beyeler.

Mondrian searched and worked out his ideas of color and line directly on the canvas, as evidenced by many examples of wiping, scratching, and scraping of paint discovered by the conservation team. Infrared reflectology in the work “Tableau No. 1” shows a clear grid drawn with a ruler and pencil beneath the paint, where an obvious relationship between the composition and underlying grid emerges.

Further study of “Composition with Double Line and Blue” and “Tableau No. 1”also showcases that all lines are almost exactly even in width, and every angle is a perfect 90 degrees; an effect the conservators deemed difficult to create freehand.

What these findings confirm is that while Mondrian, in his drive to achieve perfect harmony in his paintings as judged by the innate intuition of a visionary artist, might have also enlisted tools of precision to achieve this balance.

Mondrian’s influence is perhaps immeasurable, reaching beyond the Bauhaus movement to the design, fashion and architecture of the modern era, as well as the contemporary moment whether in colour or form in the work of artists like Sarah Morris, Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd.

He changed visual culture as we know it. As one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Mondrian’s impact is boundless. He paved the way for movements such as Minimalism, which is unimaginable without him.

Joy and meaning

These same movements have deeply shaped the aesthetics of La Prairie and are expressed today through a singular purity of expression: clean geometrical lines and the quest for symmetry and harmony.

“La Prairie’s mission of celebrating timeless beauty is mirrored in its support of the Piet Mondrian Conservation Project,” says La Prairie chief marketing officer Greg Prodromides. “In helping to achieve a better understanding of the impacts of time—be it in beauty or in art—La Prairie, along with the Fondation Beyeler, is ensuring that future generations can find joy and meaning in the fruits of true artists.”

In the end, our better understanding of the artist’s pursuit of purity gives us a better understanding of the essence of beauty.

The world of the beauty brad has been inextricably linked to the world of art from its very beginning: from the artistic effervescence of the Clinique La Prairie in Montreux to a pivotal encounter with contemporary artist Niki de Saint Phalle.

La Prairie’s audacious spirit—its willingness to break the codes of luxury, to follow untrodden paths that surprise as much as they inspire—is the same audacious spirit as that of the artist: explorer, pioneer, adventurer.

In its tireless pursuit of timeless beauty initiated by its founder Dr Paul Niehans, La Prairie continues to remain faithful to its origins and creates connections with the art world and its various representatives, whether cultural institutions, established artists or emerging talents, in order to perpetuate beauty beyond the ages.

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