Visitors to the Hague’s blockbuster show should not be put off by his early paintings of flowers and windmills. They are the key to understanding this geometric genius who found rectangles in everything
Is it a skull or a flower? The rounded white shape that sags on a listless stem in the painting is the dying bloom of a chrysanthemum, yet it eerily resembles a human head stripped to the bone. A ghostly eye socket seems to peer out of it. What can Piet Mondrian have been thinking when he painted this morbid image called Metamorphosis in 1908?
It is a decadent bloom of late Romanticism, passionate and inward-looking and completely out of time. When Mondrian completed it, Matisse was the talk of Paris and Picasso had blown up artistic tradition with his 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In Amsterdam, however, the aesthetic ideals of the 19th century were alive and well. The 36-year-old Mondrian was painting what the conservative local art market wanted – flowers and windmills, sunsets and farmhouses. No one could have predicted he would die an avant-garde hero in New York in 1944 and be remembered in the 21st century as one of the greatest of all modern artists.