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The Final Masterpiece

For the last 18 months of his life, Mondrian worked on only one painting: Victory Boogie Woogie. What began with a handful of lines ended up as a complex pattern of no fewer than 574 tiny colour planes.

Time after time, he scraped things off and experimented anew with the composition and colours. A friend later observed that at least twelve different paintings lay buried under the surface of this one canvas. But Mondrian said that what was important to him was not producing a lot of paintings, but getting that one right. And when asked why he didn’t just start again on a new painting, his answer was firm: ‘I don't want paintings; I just want to find things out.’

With so much reworking, there was a danger of damaging the canvas. To avoid this, Mondrian pinned pieces of coloured tape or bits of card to the canvas or concealed large areas behind coloured card in order to judge the effect of a change of colour or scale on the overall composition. The whole procedure relied entirely on his intuition. It was a kind of improvisation, analogous to what jazz musicians do during a performance. Having laid down a framework – of primary colours, blocks and lines – he could experiment to his heart’s content within it.

As time went on, the people around Mondrian began to realize that he might well be creating a great masterpiece. Artist friends, museum curators and art dealers followed the progress of the extraordinary painting with great interest. On several occasions, Mondrian told friends it was nearly finished – but the next time they came he had changed the whole composition again. As if he had gone right back to square one. There was only one small portion that he laid down at the start and never changed: a couple of small blue blocks right of centre.

On 23 January 1944, Mondrian was feeling unwell but worked on the painting anyway. That same evening, he embarked on a sweeping revision. He covered over a large number of coloured squares with tape of a different colour and completely overpainted some larger squares. On 26 January, he was discovered in bed, extremely ill, and taken to hospital. On the night of 31 January to 1 February, he died of pneumonia, passing away at the age of 71, in the city that had so inspired him, surrounded by its art, its skyscrapers, the spirit of innovation and jazz. Victory Boogie Woogie remained in his studio, unfinished. In search of a future, open to many more new departures – just as Mondrian had been all his life.