Mondrian: Funded by Flowers

Words by
David Whitworth
Illustration by
David Whitworth
| September 24, 2014

Its funny to think of being ashamed of making money from flowers, but apparently Mondrian was. I remember an anecdote a lecturer made about the famous modernist’s clandestine side business,  drawing and painting flowers. He said this aspect of Mondrian’s work was suppressed during his life, in an attempt to maintain his esteem and aesthetic purity as an abstractionist. I remember at the time thinking how lovely and how frustrating this tidbit, if true, was.

Lovely, because it’s always good to uncover a hidden side to someone known, and frustrating because of the separation it implied, between work and self, with money in the middle. My reaction at the time was of an undergraduate variety – vaguely incensed by the unjust separation, and as an art student probably at the idea of having to work for a living.

What’s more interesting now, and seemingly unsolve-able, is the separation of work – real work  (the one you like) and work you do for money. That there are a hierarchy of pursuits, artistic or otherwise, seems logical. In Mondrian’s case, there appears a separation between the work he wanted to be doing, or to be known for, and the work that paid the bills. But if you think of work in horribly modern terms as the time you sell in return for money, then maybe the distinction evaporates.

Was what Mondrian did in those more lucrative hours spent drawing flowers any different in nature from his preferred work? I suppose it depends on your understanding of what drawing is. Sometimes I think what people are looking for in a drawing is likeness,  how closely the represented approaches the real. I once had a lecturer who described looking at drawings this way as simply observing hard work – as if the artists were saying;  ‘look how hard I’ve tried and how much effort I’ve made!’ , rewarded with applause when the depiction matched the depicted.  In Mondrian’s watercolours and sketches, beyond their resemblance to the flora he so closely observed, what I see instead is preserved time. The exciting thing about seeing drawings (similar in a sense to novels or cinema – but arguably more immediate) is the chance to experience the world through another. Does anybody else find it frustrating to be stuck inside the one body, filtering the world through a singular brain for your entire life?

In Mondrian’s case his drawings offer an insight into the eyes and mind of someone with an exceptional sensitivity. His drawings preserve a record of his observation, his time spent looking at these plants, and in the drawing, the way his body responded (all of it, the eyes, the hands) to his subject. It is a record of engagement, and of being present.

The reasons why he chose to draw flowers, beyond the demands of potential customers, have been the subject of debate. When an exhibition of Mondrian’s floral work was held in New York in 1991, the Times art critic suggested his study of flowers provided an emotional outlet that abstraction didn’t allow, saying Mondrian’s floral works;

..are very much the works of an artist who needed nature but was also uneasy with it. They are the works of someone who needed, at least on occasion, to make drawings or paintings of a soft, precarious, almost liquid reality. They are also the works of an artist who’s formidable abstract achievement could accommodate conceptually but not emotionally his many sides.

Sounds to me like he’s making an apology for Mondrian’s floral tendencies, which is a shame, they need none. I think it’s easy in this case to get attached to the differences in artistic output, on one hand floral, figurative, and on the other abstract and reductive, and assign corresponding emotional states as motivations for the differences.

Maybe the input is more intriguing than the output. To sustain attention like this, in drawing or painting, can seem to some a kind of meditation where perhaps the subject isn’t as important as the time spent unaware of time, lost in the moment. The drawing, if done in this manner, can be a remarkable communication of this relationship. It intrigued me that Mondrian drew and painted flowers, among the many subjects he could have chosen. Some have argued these drawings are akin to portraits, which in some senses they are, as closely observed subjects. I find it more fascinating to note the way these flowers could capture both his attention and ours.

I’m sure others who love plants or love to garden have felt this way, when distracted by scent, texture, the play of light or rain, we turn off the mental static and forget to keep time. The fact that Mondrian made money out of this engagement, refining a skilled focus with the present and his chosen flowers, makes him both fortunate and rare.


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