One of the photos of Piet Mondrian in this life-changing Pompidou show is packed with emblematic cunning. Shot by André Kertész in Mondrian's Paris studio in 1926 (click the link to see the image), it shows him both the creator and the personification of his art: austere, sharply angular, pressed into the tight containment of his three-piece suit. The coal-dark eyes burn confrontationally from behind rimless spectacles. Behind him, all is uncompromisingly rectilinear. It is a study in the Deadly Earnest.
So why would anyone want to surrender a Paris afternoon to the contemplation of Mondrian's philosophical severities, much less be locked up with the hard-edge utopianism of De Stijl, the Dutch group of artists, architects and designers devoted to fashioning a modern urban aesthetic that criminalised the curve? It might seem about as welcoming as Gerrit Rietveld's notorious chair, bright to behold but brutal on brain and bum.
But the stereotype of Dr Grid isn't the whole story. The exhibition throbs with vibrant colour, beyond the holy trinity of the primaries. Not even Matisse could produce so many delicately modulated greys; nor the panes of etheral, washed-out robin's egg blues; the dusty rose pinks; the toasty burnt orange and the greens, yes greens, from sour acid lime to deeply bottled, that were the staple of his abstraction before the trinity took over.
Even in the classic period, from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s, when Mondrian was intent on fastening his geometric minimalism to utter flatness, there is more action going on than you might suppose. The black lines of the armature swell or contract; sometimes they falter and halt short of the edge; the edges themselves are rubbed away so that they dissolve seamlessly into the painted sides of the physical frame. The scarlets, cobalts and chrome yellows are intense in some passages, depleted in others. The craquelure that laughs at illusions of timelessness webs the surface of everything, a conservator's nightmare.
The only awkwardness in this spectacular show is an installation that tries, with occasionally claustrophobic results, to accommodate both the masters of De Stijl—Van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, Vilmos Huszar, all of whom were revolutionary geniuses in their own right—and Mondrian in the same space.
At the outset this makes sense because in the first decade of the 20th century they all shared an enthusiasm for theosophy, the modernist metaphysics that proposed a return to the elemental mathematics that revealed the essential mysteries of the universe. Photographs of the bearded young Mondrian looking half-Rasputin, half-yogi, along with Dutch translations of the lucubrations of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant may make the Dutch theosophists seem crankier than they were. For what was theosophy other than a modernist edition of neo-Platonism which, since the Greek philosopher's own musings in the Timaeus, had always been at the root of classical aesthetics?
Stylistically, the group thrashed around for a visual idiom that would express their odyssey from base matter to celestial illumination. Mondrian tried the wilder shores of fauvism—literally— converting the wind-scoured Dutch littoral into expressionist mindscapes, the dunes painted in heaving lavender rising into a turquoise sky, church towers drenched in gor-blimey pink. The footprints of the dead god of Dutch pantheism, Vincent, are everywhere, in the skeletal trees at Oele, whose spike-branches puncture the face of a full-fat-dairy Dutch moon, the expressionist urge to scream in pigment both liberation and burden as they were for Van Gogh himself.
Drawn to Paris, both conceptually and residentially, the group then discarded fauvism for cubism, the disintegrated facets of figuration offering a bolder escape from surface form towards inner structure. But it was never really more than the warmed-over remains of Braque and Picasso, if given a flintier northern aspect with forms smashed into shivers and and shards.
Something then happened, and that something was the first world war. The Netherlands stayed neutral, but Doesburg and Mondrian in their different ways responded with therapeutic meditations on the sublime. An entire room in the show is given over to stained glass murals that Doesburg made for Dutch clients, each built from bricks of coloured light: it is a hypnotically numinous space.
Although Mondrian produced the odd canvas of mosaic-like checkerboard colours, pinks, greens and oranges, his most profound impulse led him in an entirely different direction, one that was drastically to alter the course of modern painting with the generation of true abstraction. Mondrian had come back home from Paris; the old Dutch instinct for seeing celestial patterning in nature may not have been consciously on his mind when he stared out at the North Sea in 1914-15, and translated waves into a rippling field of horizontal hatch-marks. But the translation of natural form into purely abstract language, the flicker of sunlight denoted with dilute chalky accents on the horizontal stab-strokes, went well beyond anything in the vocabulary of Paris cubism. The "Pier and Ocean" series was an epic inauguration of an entirely new art: contrapuntal, rhythmic, cumulatively spellbinding, something that preserved a relation with natural origin without describing it.
Manifestos followed, always a bad sign. In 1920 Doesburg, Van der Leck and Mondrian all issued statements proclaiming the new aesthetic of "Neo-Plasticism", a label of such empty grandeur that it was guaranteed to undermine its own cause. In the same year Mondrian began to assemble his flat panels depthlessly nailed to the picture plane. The early examples, exceptionally beautiful with their delicate and complicated pavements of greys, slate blues and yellows, are short-changed if seen as just a prelude to primary colour purism, for they are exceptionally beautiful. But as early as 1921 he was purging the compositions of anything but elemental blocks, thickening the black grid so that it became not just a containing membrane but an organic agent of the construction; by the end of the year, the grids resolve themselves into works of adamantine power and simplicity. Just when you think, "Oh, who needs the modernist moment?", you discover, with giddy exhilaration, that we do.
That's because of the endless variousness of the compositions. While Mondrian's working brief was formulaic, the paintings never are. In "Composition" (1922), a white panel dominates the entire field intruded on by a yellow vertical, a timidly trespassing stripe of scarlet in one corner and a presumptuous edge of blue. Ten years later, in "Yellow-Blue", the colour blocks press hard against their confinement, generating exactly the tension without which Mondrian's pursuit of equilibrium would have been frictionless. They are, in their way, all perfect.
Mondrian's obsession with purity of form verged on the comical when, in 1925, outraged by De Stijl's flirtation with—no!—the diagonal, he broke with them for good. The Stijl masters went on to preoccupy themselves principally with architecture and visionary urban design, based on what they insisted were "elemental forms". The galleries at the end of the double-exhibition do justice to the utopian sweep of their shared imagination, with a brilliant computer animation of an interior house constructed with great panels of primary colour; blueprints of cafés and city streets, a wonderful display of De Stijl furniture including a Rietvelt sideboard of dark wood and steel pulls that must be one of the most elegant pieces of furniture ever made by modernism, giving some inkling of the dream they had of sleek, functional, machine-age form.
But De Stijl's design has held up less well than Mondrian's paintings. And as they were becoming more rigid, Mondrian was loosening his grid. From 1935 the itch to complicate and syncopate gets to him. He doubles and triples the armatures to make fretworks on which the colours hang, no longer motionless but with a faint thrum and tremor as though beginning the tune up for full Boogie-Woogie. He loses purity but gains animation. The Mondrian section of the show ends with Pompidou's own "New York" painting of 1962 where, discovering the ultimate grid-city, Mondrian happily surrendered to its jive. (He was himself a dandy ballroom dancer.) The late "Manhattan" paintings replace the black scaffolding with brilliant ribbons along which chatter an electric buzz of colour, making Mondrian, as much as Jackson Pollock, a patriarch of action painting.
They were in fact anticipated by compositions Mondrian made before taking ship for New York in London. One of the jazziest is called "Trafalgar Square" and it makes abstract music out of urban commotion. But don't go looking for it in this otherwise exhaustive and glorious show which is, after all, a heartfelt celebration of the modernist furnace that once was Paris – even if it took someone as resolutely Dutch as Piet Mondrian to distil abstraction from its fizzing alembic.
"Mondrian and De Stijl," Centre Pompidou, Paris, until March 21 2011.
This article originally appeared in the Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.