In a previous post, I discussed picture books that focus on painters. In some instances, the painter in question was a squirrel, or a dog, but all of the characters in one way or another made reference to the human artists who preceded them. None, however, attempted to deconstruct a concept. Coppernickel Goes Mondrian is both a celebration of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, and an ingenious exploration of the conceptual drive behind the modern art movement. Not an easy thing to do, but Wouter Van Reek has created a little masterpiece of art history in the guise of a children’s book.
When we last left Coppernickel and his dog Tungsten, they had invented a stick for picking high-hanging elderberries. (Actually, Tungsten invented the simple apparatus. Coppernickel’s invention was far too complicated for the task.) While picking berries, they meet the aptly named Mr Quickstep, who is looking for the future~
“There’s no point in looking,” says Coppernickel. “If you just wait, the future will arrive anyway.“
True enough, but Mr Quickstep, a bird-like alias for Piet Mondrian, is not interested in waiting around. The speed of progress and the influx of diverse cultural influences in the late 19th and early 20th triggered a revolution in the art world, and Mondrian was one of the Europeans waving the flag of change. At the point where Coppernickel and Mr Quickstep meet, he is still formulating his ideas, as evident in the various backgrounds and landscapes in the book that cleverly mirror the early paintings of the Dutch artist. Not wanting to miss anything, Coppernickel and Tungsten follow Mr Quickstep to the city, where they encounter strange things like subways and trains, and where everything is laid out in a grid-like pattern, again mimicking the paintings of Mondrian.
An invitation to Mr Quickstep’s studio reveals rows of finished and unfinished art and yet another episode of painterly angst on the part of Mr Quickstep. His dog, Foxtrot, intervenes with a little Jazz music on the turntable, a new sound emerging out of the United States.
“This is it! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. This is what the future looks like!”
What the Jazz musicians were doing with sound, Mondrian wished to do with colour (and tape), and the result was a total abstraction of representative imagery that revolutionized art. As Mr Quickstep, Coppernickel and their dogs dance, fragmented lines and geometrical blocks of red, blue, yellow and black explode off the painter’s canvas. The future has arrived.
Dutch illustrator and animator Wouter Van Reek, with the help of a quirky little bird in red hoodie and his square-bodied dog Tungsten, has woven the life of a great artist, and a major artistic movement, into a funny, wonderfully strange, and entirely engaging story of a journey into the future. Like his previous book Coppernickel: the Invention, Coppernickel Goes Mondrian is high concept simplicity, a description which could be applied to the work of Piet Mondrian.
I’m not a huge fan of abstract art, but of that generation of painters, Mondrian holds a fond place in my heart. In a 20th century art history class, my professor wore her ‘Mondrian’ blouse to teach classes on the modernist movement. (If I recall, it would not have been suitable anywhere else.) And a little confession-his paintings remind me of the Partridge Family, a favourite TV show from back in the day. From fine art to pop culture, Piet Mondrian and the movement he co-founded, De Stijl~had a major influence on painting and design in the 20th (and 21st) century, hence the bus…and the book.
Coppernickel, the Invention by Wouter Van Reek. Published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2010