Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

The Victory Boogie Woogie - A Corpse Dissected

Marty Bax – The Netherlands

Last week I received a review copy of a new book, from the Amsterdam University Press,  Marton Piet Mondrian, Inside Out Victory Boogie Woogie, edited by Maarten van Bommel, Hans Janssen and Ron Spronk.

Inside Out Victory Boogie Woogie

Mondrian had started on the painting Victory Boogie Woogie, in 1942, but it remained unfinished, because of his death in February 1944. The painting was purchased in 1998 from the collector, Samuel Irving Newhouse, at a whopping price of 82 million Guilders (approx. 37 million Euros) through a gift from the Dutch National Bank, to commemorate the introduction of the Euro into The Netherlands. The acquisition caused a public outrage, and even the House of Representatives raised questions about the way in which it was acquired. Today, however, the painting is on victorious display in the Gemeentemuseum of The Hague, and is, by now, a prominent attraction of the museum.


This book is the end result of a painstaking dissection of the painting in all its material aspects. This dissection was started in 2006, firstly, to determine the condition of the painting. Soon, however, a second objective crept into the research: the analysis of Mondrian’s working method. This research was partly done “in public”, behind glass screens in a museum room like a corpse in a traditionally anatomical dissecting room at university.

A preliminary report was issued in 2008 at the symposium. The final results, as the authors state in the book, provide valuable information for the study of Mondrian’s complete oeuvre. It was even discovered that Mondrian himself regarded the painting as his masterpiece, because he called the new pictorial insights he had acquired as “victorious.”

Thus, the acquisition in 1998, and the vast sum of public money invested in both the acquisition and the research, was justified by the painter himself in 1944.

Now there are several issues here, of which to be aware to be aware, in presenting such a view as this, and in presenting the results in this way, which, in turn, influenced the public view of the painting.

The extremely technical results, presented at the symposium in 2008, had already raised questions among the people present, regarding where the research was actually headed. In the end, what would all these minute technical details say about the painting, and, even more, about the painter? Would we, as the public, receive a better insight? Would we be charmed by it, and for the first time ever, based on solid evidence, would we really understand Mondrian’s motives for working the way he did? In other words, would a wider public finally come to like, and to love, the extreme subtlety of the brushwork and the shades of primary colors, Mondrian’s compositional choices and the highly intuitive approach to his compositions? Also, would they come to appreciate  Mondrian’s intense internal struggles to achieve visual harmony, his individual views on what modern art should look like and how it should function in society, and his true inspirational sources?

You won’t read it in the book, a hydrocephalus of technical analyses. The book is a clear statement of an Anglo-Saxon dominant view on art history, well, at least in the Mondrian reception. Even though the “Greenbergian” view on art “you see only with your eyes” type of analysis is attacked, it is only marginally so. This stance is stunningly phrased by Marek Wieczorek in the book. This author writes about “a parallel current on research on Mondrian” next to the one in the book, “which is generally associated with a European tradition” that uses the artist’s texts as iconographic keys to secret symbolic meanings seemingly hidden behind lines and colors. The Victory Boogie Woogie seems not to have been susceptible to this, in this most American of Mondrian’s paintings.

Excuse me? Wouldn’t it then be time to re-evaluate such a stance? Fact is, Mondrian was seventy two years minus four – the years he spent in America – an indigenous part of European culture. But, no, it would revive the never-ending discussion about the influence of Theosophy on Mondrian’s work. The word, “Theosophy,” or even any mention of anything on the spiritual side, is omitted from any analysis whatsoever in the book. Wieczorek is an American professor of art, who had obtained his MA in Amsterdam in 1970 (!). It is truly unspeakable that The Hague Museum, itself rooted as deeply in European culture as Mondrian, still allows itself to be dominated by Anglo-Saxon approaches to art history.

Fact is, many artists like Mondrian became members of the Theosophical Society and even a number of them were never members of any organization, yet no less influenced by western esotericism. But if one closely studies the membership lists, Mondrian turned out to be one of the very few artists who stayed a member all his life! This was an active deed; it involved paying a yearly contribution. If one did not pay, one was dropped from the membership list, apart from the fact that one could actively resign. The Theosophical Society, one could presuppose, was Mondrian’s “modern church,” after he was dropped by the Reformed Church for not paying contributions, and from which organization he hadn’t even cared to resign. The importance of this, along with the fact that his legacy consisted of only a handful of books that were all esoteric, should at least make art historians question the significance of his later work. Mondrian had not fled the impending Nazi oppression for nothing in 1938.

Art history seems to have been very resistant to incorporating into its research methods what was already common knowledge in religious studies -- namely, that western esotericism is, and has always been an integral part of western Christian culture. Any art historian should be well aware of the fact that artists, inspired by western esotericism, tended to disguise their esoteric sources and translate them into more common artistic idioms, in order to reach a wider audience. Thus, they possessed the same aim that Mondrian had -- to make the world a nicer place. The clearest examples came from freemasonry with its overt architectural symbolism. There are obvious examples, of lodge meetings on architecture, in which discussion papers were stripped from specific Masonic terminologies, and were then formulated into more traditional architectural phrases; thus, they became a general source of inspiration for other artists. Mondrian did the same with his essays in the magazine, De Stijl. He did not write many theoretical justifications later; however, this did not mean that they were not in his head. Writing was an extremely arduous task for the painter; it kept him from painting. A painter writes with color, line and plane.

Inside Out Victory Boogie Woogie, again, vehemently stresses that Mondrian was an artist in the first place. “Theory is preceded by art,” Mondrian himself said. Yes, but this does not exclude the fact that Mondrian included theory in his statement, implying that theory helped to formulate his artistic aims, and in formulating theoretical viewpoints, he (re)shaped his art. Disregarding the theory bit leaves only a “Greenbergian” interpretation – “the outside,” whereas Mondrian quintessentially painted from “his own inside.” Thus, the book stays firmly and exclusively on the material plane, in Mondrian’s Theosophically inspired idiom, whereas his life-long aim was to make people aware of the innate expressive qualities of the material world, and to focus on these “hidden powers.”

The major tripping stone in the marketing strategy of Victory Boogie Woogie is this: the painting is presented as Mondrian’s pièce de résistance, in which “Mondrian wrestled with his waning physical powers and his wish to hand this masterpiece over to future generations,” the epitome of his career! Coincidently, it was also his last work! Although this last point is cleverly circumvented – it is a common pitfall in art history to be avoided – Victory Boogie Woogie was still the last work, and is commonly seen as his masterpiece. So this is now affirmed by theories about why Mondrian chose to name the painting Victory Boogie Woogie. And, thus, it stays a self-fulfilling prophecy, because there is no evidence that Mondrian intended to name his painting, Victory Boogie Woogie. There is evidence that he called his painting simply, Boogie Woogie.

Victory Boogie Woogie, the painting

Mondrian himself simply felt “victorious” about his painting because he had found new compositional and painting methods, by which he could continue expressing his views on the essence of modern art. In 1943, he wrote to the art historian, Sweeney, that he had discovered that a contour is also a plane, and this had opened a whole new interpretation of pictorial elements for him. Strange view actually, because almost exactly fifty years before him, the Symbolists - whose theories were also known to Mondrian - had postulated likewise. And exactly because of such insights, they had paved the road for modern art.

If Mondrian had not have contracted pneumonia in 1944, and if he had been treated with antibiotics (it is hardly thinkable that he received such treatment, because during the war, penicillin was used almost exclusively for military aims) he probably would have survived for some more years, and might have discovered even further ways of expression. And he would have felt just as “victorious” about it.

All pictures are purely educational illustrations to an academic review of the subject.

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