Recently, artistic 'theme years' have been widely represented in public spaces within The Netherlands. It is a good development, but there is one potential complication. The theme year should avoid the turning point of becoming public entertainment: so far, the 2017 organisation of Mondrian to Dutch Design succeeds in doing so.
The importance of being visible
This year we celebrate the centenary of the Dutch art movement De Stijl (The Style). The theme this year, called 'Mondrian to Dutch Design', makes a connection between De Stijl and the contemporary Dutch design and architecture. Piet Mondrian, the biggest Dutch preceptor of abstract art and most famous frontrunner of the early-1900s art movement De Stijl, is widely represented in both public and private spaces all over the country. The Hague—the centre of the event this the year—exhibits 300 Mondrian paintings in the Municipal Museum, and city decorators are transforming the public city space into a huge abstract Mondrian painting. Primary colours, straight lines and squares surround spectators; on the corner of the street, across the facade of the houses, and in the public park. Thereby, Mondrian’s figurations step beyond the safe walls of the museum in order to to be visible in the city, and to ensure that ordinary ‘Haagse’ inhabitants (as well as other visitors) are able to experience Mondrian’s abstract imagery as well.
Mondrian’s figurations step beyond the safe walls of the museum
Without this public visibility, only a specific group of art enthusiasts, virtuosos, and interested admirers would tend to visit Mondrian’s work in the museum. The public city space has broadened the scope of Mondrian’s imagery, thus inviting and stimulating inhabitants and others to visit the real Mondrians—which are safely guarded in the Municipal Museum of The Hague—even more.
Of course, the city dressings are not made by Mondrian himself nor are they real Mondrian paintings. They are just abstract figurations that transmit a certain message and in turn, strengthen Mondrian’s attractiveness. The architectural application of Mondrian’s imagery in the city corresponds very well with his artistic vision. It is, therefore, a logical choice to contemplate them in public. Besides, the entire Mondrian city offers—like Turell's blue skies—a great, artistic experience: as a game with lines and forms, colours and blocks. Therefore, The Hague's city dressings are valuable interruptions within the city. They don't scream and don't urge. They are just there, as colourful figurations that people encounter, which may stimulate new conversations.
When art literally moves itself into the public city space, it becomes visible for a wide range of people. Public art familiarizes residents and passersby with the content of different artworks; it stimulates cultural and historical awareness, and also serves as an influence in the current time. Artistic director Jean Blais in an article on The Guardian: “If you make people pay for culture, or only offer it in enclosed spaces like theatres or museums, you will only ever reach a small percentage of the population.”
Don’t forget the artistic content
The dialogue between the Municipal Museum of The Hague and the public figurations on the streets unites the autonomy of Mondrian’s work with its societal engagement. This seems generally positive; however, although it may not be the main objective, the extension of Mondrian’s imagery also is a commercial operation. This is logical and practical, but should not undermine the autonomy of Mondrian’s work. Mondrian should be celebrated by his art, not be used as bearer of a greater (economic) purpose.
In order to avoid becoming entertainment, ‘Mondrian to The Style’ needs to be considered purely by its function to convey Mondrian’s intention, as well as the intentions of other abstract painters of De Stijl. According to Blaise, artistic interventions in the public space are able to show that art and culture are not just about decoration and adornment. Therefore, the festive event of Mondrian’s celebration (i.e., playing Mondrian’s favourite music while drinking beer) and the configuration to sell decorative products (e.g., socks printed with the abstract pattern) should not lead 2017. That may transform the event into a touristic exploitation, and may shift the focus from art to entertainment. This possibility has already become clear in the celebration of the Bosch year (2016), where the concept was largely exploited as touristic attraction.
Mondrian needs to be celebrated by his art, not to be used as bearer of a greater (economic) purpose.
Decorating the city is already a small trigger to the tipping point from art to entertainment, but it is innocent enough to stimulate a positive (purely artistic) effect. It allows people to visit the real Mondrians, and it engages with The Hague's city space in a subtle way. The strength of the event needs to remain in the autonomy of the artworks itself in order to keep the real value of the year in the work. This is the most honest celebration of imagery influence of De Stijl in contemporary Dutch architecture, art and design.
This year, the public city space and some private spaces of The Hague's museum complement each other significantly. This communication needs to become more public so that it can involve a wider audience with art in today’s society. But the shift from a public artistic happening into an entertainment event can be a slippery slope . This is not necessarily a result of the intentions of the organisation of the Mondrian year. The inevitable small bottom-up initiatives from local companies can create a whole new context. Fortunately, the organisation of the Mondrian year keeps the focus on the content of the work itself, even in the city dressings. It is important for prospective organizations of future theme years to keep this real focus in mind. Even more important, is that we all visit 'Mondrian to Dutch Design' in The Hague and make this beautiful artistic happening a success!
Dunmall, G. (2016, July 12). The resurrection of Nantes: how free public art brought the city back to life. The Guardian.