Composition with Blue
Schilderij No. 1: Lozenge with 2 Lines and Blue
Piet Mondrian, Dutch, 1872 - 1944
Made in France, Europe Date:
Oil on canvasDimensions:
24 1/16 x 24 1/16 inches (61.1 x 61.1 cm)
Framed: 30 × 30 × 3 7/16 inches (76.2 × 76.2 × 8.7 cm)Curatorial Department:
* Gallery 280, Modern and Contemporary Art, second floorAccession Number:
A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952
Well known for his austere, seemingly empty paintings, Mondrian outdoes himself here. He deplored personal flourish and ornament as too subjective. The fact that there is nothing personal or recognizable in this painting is precisely what he thought gave it universal truth and beauty. Working with only the most basic elements-straight lines and primary colors-Mondrian strove to create pure objective art that he believed would change the world. This sincere and dramatic ambition for such a restrained painting of nothing gives Mondrian's work a conceptual heft that extends far beyond what is visible.
Consigned by the artist to Sophie Küppers (1891-1978), Hanover, Germany, 1926(?) ; Hanover Provinzialmuseum/Landesmuseum, Hanover, Germany, 1926(?)-1937 ; confiscated in 1937 by the National Socialist authorities and stored in Schloss Niederschönhausen, EK inventory number 7035 ; with Karl Buchholz, Berlin; with Curt Valentin, Buchholz Gallery, New York, 1939 ; sold to A. E. Gallatin (1881-1952), New York, August 24, 1939 ; bequest to PMA, 1952.
1. Sophie Küppers (later Küppers-Lissitzky, after she married the artist El Lissitzky in 1927) was a German citizen resident in Hanover and widow of Paul Küppers (d. 1922), artistic director of the Kestner Society. She became interested in promoting Mondrian's work in 1924 and asked him to send work on consignment for her to sell in Germany. He sent four canvases, which she showed to Alexander Dorner, the director of the Hanover Provinzialmuseum; Dorner purchased one of them for the museum (see S. Küppers-Lissitzky, El Lissitzky, 1968, p. 52). According to Joop Joosten (letter of November 15, 2001 in curatorial file; and Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné, 1998, vol. 2, p. 133, 324; see also "Piet Mondrian", exh. cat., 1994, p. 52), "Composition with Blue" must have likewise been consigned to Küppers in Hanover after it was shown in the "Onafhankelijken" exhibition in Amsterdam in 1926; she and Lissitzky had visited Holland in the summer of 1926 and would have seen the exhibition.
2. Alexander Dorner (1893-1957) recalled that Mondrian's "Composition in Blue" along with Lissitzky's "Proun 2C", both later purchased by Gallatin, were both displayed in the famous Abstract Gallery (Abstraktes Kabinett) of the Hanover museum designed 1927-28 by Lissitzky (Samuel Cauman, The Living Museum, 1958, p. 55, repr. p. 62 and p. 63, respectively; no known installation photo of the Abstraktes Kabinett shows these paintings actually hanging on the wall). However, there is no evidence that the museum owned "Composition in Blue." In a letter of May 14, 1983 in the curatorial file, Joosten notes that the painting is not in the records of the Hanover museum. The painting is not listed in the 1930 catalog of the museum's holdings, nor does it appear on the official list of works owned by museum at the time of the Nazi seizures. Only one Mondrian is listed; this is almost certainly the painting purchased from Küppers in 1924, Joosten's no. B149, which was sent to the Nazi-organized "Entartete Kunst" exhibition in Munich in 1937 and is now lost (see Landesmuseum Hanover, Beschlagnahme-Aktion im Landesmuseum Hannover, 1937, Hanover, 1983, "Gemälde aus dem Besitz der Landesgalerie Hannover").
Oddly, "Composition with Blue" also does not appear on the list of confiscated works on loan to the museum at the time. Again, only one Mondrian is listed as a loan; this is most likely Joosten's no. B174 (now lost), a 1926 painting entitled "Schilderij No. 2" that also appeared in the "Onafhenkelijken" exhibition, and is listed in the museum's 1930 catalog as a "Leihgabe" (loan) from the Sophie Küppers collection (Dorner, Katalog der Kunstsammlungen im Provinzialmuseum zu Hannover, Bd. 1, 1930, p. 274, no. 433). Together with "Composition with Blue," this work was confiscated from the museum in 1937 and stored at Schloss Niederschönhausen (see below, note 3), where it was registered under #7034, the number preceding "Composition with Blue." Since there is no doubt that "Composition with Blue" was at the Hanover museum in 1937, it must have been present as an unofficial loan of some sort. Joosten suggests that before leaving Germany for Russia in 1927 Küppers asked Dorner to keep "Composition with Blue" in storage, hoping for a chance to sell it to the museum in the future (Joosten letter of November 15, 2001).
If the work was in fact on consignment to Küppers, as seems most likely, then Mondrian himself remained the owner, with Küppers simply acting as intermediary. This was her typical practice: a 1925 letter from El Lissitzky to Küppers, for example, reports that Mondrian needs cash and is anxiously awaiting the fruits of her success in selling his paintings in Dresden (see Küppers-Lissitzky, El Lissitzky, 68; Joosten believes that she never asked for, or received, a commission on these sales).
The Hanover Provinzialmuseum is now known as the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum; the modern art collections are housed at the Sprengel Museum. Sophie Küppers-Lissitzky lent 13 works by various artists to the Hanover Provinzialmuseum in 1926 before she moved to Russia, all of which were confiscated by the Nazis in 1937 as part of the "degenerate art" campaign (see Art News, Summer 1992, Apr. 2001, and Sept. 2001). The Lissitzkys' son and heir, Jen Lissitzky, has recently sought the return of three confiscated works from his mother's collection now belonging to other museums (one of which has been returned). The 13 paintings in question are listed in a document written by Sophie Küppers entitled "Sammlung Dr. P. E. Küppers als Leihgabe übergeben zu Händen von Dr. Alexander Dorner an das Provinzial-Museum der Stadt Hannover, 1926." Only one Mondrian appears on the list; this is almost certainly the painting "Schilderij No. 2" that appears in the museum's 1930 catalog as her loan, the whereabouts of which are now unknown.
3. The painting's verso bears a paper label stamped "7035". As a major proponent of modern abstract and Expressionist art in Germany, Dorner was forced by the Nazi government to resign his position as director of the Hanover Provinzialmuseum (also known as the Landesmuseum) in 1936. He became director of the RISD art museum in 1938. In 1937, as part of its campaign against "Degenerate Art" the Nazi government dismantled the Abstraktes Kabinett and confiscated some 270 works from the museum (Cauman, The Living Museum, p. 119). This "purification" of German museums continued until March 1938.
The Entartete Kunst (EK) inventory gives the title of "Composition with Blue" as "Abstrakte Komposition", records that it was assigned to dealer Karl Buchholz, and under "Location" gives the abbreviation "K", denoting "ehemaliger Kommissionsbestand in Verwahrung des Reichsministeriums für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda" (former commission inventory in custody of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda).
Joosten has determined that "Composition in Blue" was sent to Schloss Niederschönhausen outside of Berlin, where a salesroom was set up to dispose of the most "exploitable" works of art (i.e., those with the highest potential resale value on the international art market), totalling 780 paintings and 3,500 works of art on paper (Joosten, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, p. 323-324; see also Lynn Nicholas, Rape of Europa, 1995, p. 24-25; and Stephanie Barron, ed., Degenerate Art, exh. cat., 1991, p. 125, 128-129). It's unclear why the final version of the EK inventory (c. 1942) wasn't updated to reflect the sale by Buchholz.
4. Four prominent German dealers, including Karl Buchholz, were appointed to market the inventory of confiscated works. According to the EK register, this painting was assigned to Buchholz, owner of the Buchholz Gallery in Berlin (the original register is housed at the Zentrales Staatsarchiv Potsdam; see Barron, ed., "Degenerate Art", exh. cat., 1991, p. 132, n. 15). He was the mentor and pre-war partner of Curt Valentin (1902-1954) who named the New York gallery he opened in 1937 in Buchholz' honor. Between 1934 and 1937 Valentin ran his own gallery in Buchholz' dealership in Berlin (Rape of Europa, p. 3, 24; Yeide, AAM Guide to Provenance Research, p. 239, 290). Valentin, a German citizen, left Germany in 1937 to go into exile in the U.S. However, he maintained contact with Buchholz, frequently travelling to Germany, where he acquired works from the Schloss Niederschönhausen and the Lucerne auction. According to Nicholas he "was able to obtain from this source much of the inventory which established him as a major New York dealer" (Rape of Europa, p. 24). Andreas Hüneke, underscoring the connection between Buchholz and Valentin, refers to the latter's New York gallery as "a ready-made platform from which Buchholz could sell to America" ("Missing Masterpieces," in Barron, ed., Degenerate Art, p. 129).
Correspondence between Alexander Dorner and Curt Valentin in March 1939 (copy in the curatorial files) refers to a Mondrian offered for sale to RISD by Valentin that, Dorner writes, "is not the picture that belonged to our Museum [the Hanover Provinzialmuseum]" but rather "a private one [that] belonged to a private person. So it really is a stolen picture" (March 14, 1939). Joosten believes it likely that this privately-owned Mondrian was "Composition with Blue," although alternatively Dorner may have been recalling "Schilderij No. 2" (Joosten B174) the painting lent to Hanover from Sophie Küppers' collection.
5. Receipt in PMA Archives, Gallatin files, from Buchholz Gallery/Curt Valentin dated August 24, 1939 recording the purchase of the Mondrian and the Lissitzky by Gallatin (stamped "Paid" August 31, 1939). Mondrian wrote to Ben Nicholson on December 6, 1939, regarding the acquisition: "[Gallatin] has bought also one of my two Hannover museums pictures, rejected by Hitler" (see Joosten, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, p. 323).
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