Broadway Boogie Woogie

In a new paper in Heritage Science, researchers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York use state-of the-art techniques to analyse Piet Mondrian's emblematic Broadway Boogie Woogie.

The word “iconic” is often over-used, but some pieces really do deserve this label. Piet Mondrian‘s later works most likely all fall into this category: even those who have not heard of the Dutch painter will have have seen his famous abstract pieces either as the paintings themselves, or in the myriad ways that ‘De Stijl‘ (‘The Style’, also known as neoplasticism) would influence later movements, from Bauhaus architecture to Yves Saint Laurent dresses and even to esoteric programming languages.

Mondrian dresses by Yves Saint Laurent (1966).
Mondrian dresses by Yves Saint Laurent (1966).
Nationaal Archief

Broadway Boogie Woogie is one of Piet Mondrian’s final pieces, a highly influential piece of abstract geometry that uses deceptively simple blocks of color to evoke the shimmering neon streets of Manhattan, where Mondrian spent the last years of his life following the chaos that engulfed his native Europe.

Despite looking like a simple, if effective, use of just five colors, the challenges of understanding and conserving this hugely important work of art are by no means trivial. To that end, Ana Martins and researchers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the paper resides, and Delft University of Technology used macro X-ray fluorescence mapping to understand the materials and methods Mondrian used. Their paper, “Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie: non invasive analysis using macro X-ray fluorescence mapping (MA-XRF) and multivariate curve resolution-alternating least square (MCR-ALS)” is published in Heritage ScienceSpringer’s open-access journal for the scientific analysis of objects of cultural importance.

Broadway Boogie Woogie under UV
Broadway Boogie Woogie as seen using UV imaging: highlighting the subtle differences in what usually looks like homogeneous color.
Martins et al.

The results of the researchers’ investigations showed that Mondrian’s original intention may have been quite different: a simpler asymmetric grid of yellow and red bars. The imaging suggests the painting was reworked considerably, with the bars broken by the addition of the colored squares, many of which were painted over multiple times. Other areas show that they were painted, then scraped off later as the composition changed. As well as creating a narrative of Mondrian’s creative process, it also holds valuable information for conservators. For example, the imaging revealed severe cracking in yellow surface paint, often with underlying red paint then oozing through. This knowledge will be vital for understanding how to best keep this work of art for future generations.

Broadway Boogie Woogie X-ray
X-ray radiograph of the painting, revealing Mondrian’s reworking of the painting.
Martins et al.

As with all Heritage Science papers, the full article is fully open access, online and as a PDF. Please do go ahead and browse for this and other examples of cutting-edge science being used to understand and preserve our cultural heritage.

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