Three Tales

MONDRIAN Mondrian’s closest friend was the Dutch painter Eli Streep, a Jew who was caught in a raid in Paris in 1942 and murdered. Mondrian had escaped by then, via London to New York. Streep and Mondrian saw each other almost every day in Paris during the many years they both lived in the same shabby building on the Rue du Depart by the Montparnasse railway station. They had been schoolboy friends in Amsterdam, and they were among the first young painters to notice the death of the almost unknown Vincent van Gogh, a few of whose strange paintings had attracted them. They even visited Theo van Gogh’s young widow, Jo, to see more of her brother-in-law’s pictures after she had married the painter Cohen Gosschalk. Mondrian seems to have painted the first of his purest signature works around 1921, those with the first slightly thickened black lines, vertical and horizontal. He and Streep had always been struck by van Gogh’s intense, sometimes black outlines, his way of outlining faces and bodies as well as houses and trees. These painting-drawings of Vincent’s last few years, done in the insane asylum near Arles and then in Auvers in the north, where he killed himself, became, for Mondrian, depressed images from which he plucked the outline, and blackened and straightened them out upon his own white canvases until the lines depressed his own art, or so he thought. Streep encouraged Mondrian each day so that their poverty — they subsisted on bread, potatoes, and coffee more days than not — was little noticed. Streep thrived, if that is the word, on Mondrian’s radical ambitions for his unhappy black stripes, so new to the practice of art. Streep became Mondrian, in the sense that he enhanced Mondrian’s work and meager life. I mean

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