The Busch-Reisinger Museum has acquired its first painting by one of the centurys greatest masters of geometric abstraction, Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872-1944). Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red (1922) is an exceptionally well-preserved example of the artists “classic” period, clearly showing Mondrians painterly sensibility shiny black lines and delicately brushed fields, subtle gray hues and bold primaries, and careful adjustment of lines and planes as they reach the paintings edge.
The first painting by Mondrian to enter Harvards collections, Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red has been given to the Busch-Reisinger Museum by the family of the original owners of the work, with additional support from an anonymous donor and the Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. The painting was sold by the artist in 1925 and has remained in the collections of the family of the original owners since then. It has been publicly exhibited only once, in 1995, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., as part of its presentation of the 1995 Mondrian retrospective (co-organized with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague).
While many paintings by Mondrian have been damaged by overly aggressive conservation treatment, Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red is in impeccable condition. For decades the design of Mondrians works was considered the most critical aspect of his art while the carefully developed surfaces were not given equal importance. The artists painstaking and specific application of paint, the considered direction of each brushstroke, and the particular finishes, either matte or shiny, were often lost in poor or misguided conservation treatments. In addition, the frames of many of the artists works have been altered or lost during treatment or in preparation for travel. The exceptional condition of Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red, which is still in its original strip frame, makes it especially significant for research and professional training at Harvard and for scholars who visit the Museums to use its resources.
James Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums, said about the acquisition, “Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red is both a beautiful work and an ideal object of technical study, historical research, and lasting aesthetic contemplation. Its pristine condition and intimate scale allow us to see clearly the astonishing craft of this groundbreaking artist and will help the Art Museums to further their important scholarship in this field. We are extremely grateful to the family of the original owners for their generous assistance in helping us acquire this painting, as well as to an anonymous donor and the Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum who helped support this important acquisition. We are especially pleased that they chose Harvard as the home for the painting. They wanted to place it in an institution that would ensure its accessibility for research and study. With Mondrian specialists such as Yve-Alain Bois, Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard and co-author of the catalog of the 1995 Mondrian retrospective organized by Angelica Zander Rudenstine, and Harry A. Cooper, associate curator of modern art at Harvards Fogg Art Museum, we are just such a museum.”
“Piet Mondrian exerted an immeasurable influence on the art, architecture and design of the 20th century. As the first painting by Mondrian ever to enter the Art Museums permanent collections, this addition joins key works by Kandinsky, El Lissitzky, Beckmann, Matisse, Picasso, and Pollock, demonstrating the Museums commitment to modern art and further strengthening the Museums extensive collection of European abstraction,” noted Cooper.
Composition with Blue, Black, Yellow and Red is a significant addition to the collection of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, which is devoted to the art of the German-speaking countries and related cultures of central and northern Europe. This work was painted during the prolific period that followed Mondrian’s invention of the style he called “neo-plasticism.” Mondrian wrote extensively about his new pictorial language in the pages of the Dutch journal De Stijl (The Style). An international movement as well as a magazine, De Stijl called for the unification of the arts under the banner of spiritual progress and social change.
While this is the first painting by Mondrian to enter the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, Harvards Fogg Art Museum also has an example of the artists early landscape drawings, dating from circa 1907.