Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, from 1912 Piet Mondrian (Amersfoort, 7 March 1872 – New York, 1 February 1944) was a Dutch painter, a representative of geometric abstraction and an important member of the De Stijl group of artists founded by Theo van Doesburg. He started out in the spirit of post-impressionism, then became acquainted with cubism, and afterwards became preoccupied with abstracting the material world into plastic symbols.
In his youth
Pieter Cornelis Mondrian was born on 7 March 1872 in Amersfoort, a small town halfway between the North Sea and the German border in the Netherlands. His father, Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, a strict, deeply religious Calvinist teacher from The Hague, ruled his family, which boasted a long history of wigmakers, merchants and preacher-teachers, with an almost tyrannical harshness, and exemplified the Dutch ideal perfectly in its past and present, in its puritanical life free of extremes. Her mother was Johanna Cristina Kok, also from The Hague.
In 1880, Mondrian moved with his parents to Winterswijk, where the youngest and fifth child, Carel, was born. It was also in Winterswijk that Mondrian made his first drawings, which were made for religious celebrations at school and depicted biblical scenes.
He was fourteen years old when he said he wanted to be a painter. His father opposed his decision and insisted that his son should become a teacher, and that not only his name but also his vocation should be passed on to him. Mondrian was still too young to go against the family will, but he kept some of his determination and in 1889 he obtained a diploma as a drawing teacher. In 1892, he qualified as a teacher of drawing and taught for a short time, although he had no ambition for the career. However, he kept his teaching qualifications for the rest of his life, according to one of his best monographers and friend Michel Seuphor, so that when the time came he could prove that he could paint in an academic manner.
The first, albeit short-lived and not very profound, influence on his studies as a painter came from his paternal uncle, Frits Mondrian. The uncle was a pupil of Willem Maris, a major figure in 19th century Dutch painting, and a frequent summer visitor to Winterswijk, he tried to introduce his nephew to the mysteries of landscape painting. There could be no intellectual affinity between the two men, and perhaps even the slightest understanding was lacking. This is illustrated by the fact that Frits Mondriaan later, in 1909, found it necessary to state in a newspaper article that he had nothing to do with Piet Mondrian”s art.
In 1892, he left his teaching post in Winterswijk and went to Amsterdam to study at the College of Fine Arts. His father did not agree with his decision, but Mondrian stuck to his decision. “When it became clear that I wanted to devote my life to art, my father tried to discourage me. He didn”t have enough money to cover the cost of my studies and wanted me to get a job. But I persisted in my artistic ambitions, which made my father very sad.”
Age of authorship and arrival
In 1892 he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam.In 1909 he exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum with Jan Sluijters, Cornelis Spoor and Jan Toorop. In 1910, as a member of the Theosophical Society, he exhibited in the exhibition hall of the St. Luke”s Guild at the Luminist exhibition.In 1911, he participated in the foundation and exhibitions of the Moderne Kunstkring (=Modern Artists” Circle), and then travelled to Paris, where he worked in the studio of Conrad Kickert. In 1914-1912, he returned to the Netherlands, where he lived until 1919, due to the outbreak of the Great War.From this period, his series Pier and Ocean, which depicts the rhythmic movement of waves against the pier and the shore, was the last of Mondrian”s works to be based on a specific natural phenomenon. The limitation of formal expression to horizontal and vertical lines already marks the evolution of De Stijl”s pictorial tools.
In 1915-16 he met Theo van Doesburg and moved to Laren, where he became friends with the philosopher Schoenmaekers and Bart van der Leck. Schoenmaekers, an ardent advocate of theosophy, published two books at this time, The New Image of the World (1915) and The Mathematics of the Image (1916), which had a decisive influence on Mondrian”s neoplasticism. Schoenmaekers took from the theosophical theorem that the essence of reality could be expressed as a series of opposing forces, and stressed the importance of vertical and horizontal lines and primary colours. He argues that the new image of the world is controllably accurate, interpreting reality, providing an exact beauty. Encouraged by Van Doesburg, he put Mondrian”s theoretical system into writing.
1917 Participated in the creation of the De Stijl group and magazine, and started a series of articles entitled Neoplasticism in Painting. Influenced by Schoenmaekers and other theosophists, Mondrian defined neoplasticism as the balancing of opposing forces that form the basic structure of the universe. By resolving this dichotomy, neoplasticist works radiate perfect harmony, expressing absolute, universal values. Absolute harmony is achieved through the construction of balanced relations… “through the position, size and pictorial value of coloured rectangular planes and vertical-horizontal lines.”
It was under the influence of Bart van der Leck that Mondrian”s rectangular planes became colourful, mainly taking their basic hues from him.Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg arrived at a perfectly non-figurative painting, where forms are not abstractions of natural objects.
In 1918-19, he painted his first rhombus compositions and consistently used horizontal and vertical lines as the basic structural elements of the painting.In 1919, he returned to Paris.1920- Mondrian conceived his studio as a neo-plasticist interior and arranged the furniture and the coloured rectangular planes on the walls in this spirit.From 1921 onwards, he used only pure primary colours (red, yellow, blue) and black, white and grey in his paintings. This is how he arrives at his mature, mature style: rectangular planes on a white background separated by black lines – a characteristic feature of his paintings of this period.
In 1925, his book Le néo-plasticisme was published in German in the Bauhaus book series Neue Gestaltung. He left the De Stijl group because he disagreed with Van Doesburg”s theory of elementarism.
In 1929 he became a member of the Cercle et Carré group in Paris.In 1931 he joined the Abstraction-Création group.In 1938 he moved to London.In October 1940 he arrived in New York, where he became a centre of the art scene. He participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions.He died in New York in February 1944.
“I hate everything,” says Theo van Doesburg, “that is temperament, inspiration, holy fire, and other such trappings of genius that obscure the impurity of reason.” Mondrian could have said the same, although in his own works, and even in his writings, there is more than a single spark of sacred fire. In each of his works, and in the whole of his creative output, his passionate and steadfast pursuit of harmony, intensity, precision and balance is undeniably evident. Mondrian was a humanist, and believed that the new constructivist art of which he was a forerunner would create ”a profoundly human, rich beauty”, but a new kind of beauty.
“Non-figurative art puts an end to the old art culture, so now we can look at and judge the whole art culture with more certainty. We ourselves are now at a turning point in this culture: the culture of individual, specific forms is coming to an end and the culture of definite relations is beginning.” This is a somewhat dry formulation of the inspired vision, but we recall Dr. Georg Schmidt”s apt observation that “Mondrian”s art refutes Mondrian”s theories. His paintings are much more than formal experiments, they are as much intellectual achievements as any other real work of art. A Mondrian painting on the wall of a room in a house designed in the spirit of Mondrian, and here more than elsewhere, is fundamentally different and of a higher quality than any other object intended for material use. It is the supreme expression of a spiritual content or attitude, the embodiment of a balance between discipline and freedom, the embodiment of the fundamental opposites in balance, and these opposites are no less spiritual than physical. The spiritual energy that Mondrian has invested in his art will radiate both spiritually and sensually from all his paintings for all time.”
In the early years of De Stijl, there was a lively artistic dialogue among the membership. Piet Mondrian was an active participant. He was in constant correspondence with Theo van Doesburg, exchanging views on theoretical, philosophical and artistic issues. He discussed specific artistic issues with individual De Stijl artists. For example, he corresponded with Hussar(?) on the division of the picture plane, with Bart van der Leck on the use of rectangular geometric form, with Georges Vantongerloo on colour, and with Oud on architecture. These dialogues naturally enriched his painting. At the same time, Mondrian always remained an outsider. Unlike the other De Stijl painters, his art theory was based primarily on late 19th century esoteric philosophies, especially theosophy. He rejected the near realisation of neoplasticist architecture, for example, because he believed in the theory of theosophical evolution: things cannot be made to happen. Everything happens in its own time. Mondrian believed that the time had not yet come to integrate architecture and painting.
Mondrian became interested in theosophy soon after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, around the turn of the century. In 1909 he became a member of the Theosophical Society. His works of this period, including the well-known triptych Evolution (1911), were directly related to this philosophy. In later years, the influence of theosophy became more covert and difficult to discern.
With the introduction to French Cubism, Mondrian moved away from traditional theosophical symbolism. He created a system of vertical and horizontal lines, of red, yellow, blue and grey, white and black planes, which seemed to him to express a tension-laden but harmonious relationship between matter and spirit.
Understandably, Mondrian was more “conservative” than his colleagues, and by 1917 he had a ready-made system.Born in 1872, he was more than ten years older than the others. His work began in the early nineties, and by 1917 he was well on his way. His painting had progressed from Impressionism through Divisionism to Cubism and beyond, to abstraction.His philosophical views had also been sorted out, and by the time De Stijl was founded they were more or less a complete whole.
In Paris, before the outbreak of the First World War, he wrote down his ideas in sketchbooks. But it was only later, between 1914 and 1917, that he worked on them in the Netherlands. He first published them as a series of articles in the first issues of De Stijl under the title Neoplasticism in painting (Die Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst). In addition to his notes and published writings, his extensive correspondence is also an important source. In a letter, he discusses in detail issues that are only hinted at in his published essays. One of these is the question of artistic existence.
Probably all the De Stijl painters would have answered yes to the question of whether the artistic psyche is different from that of the average person. However, they would mostly have turned to generalities in their reasoning. Mondrian was the only one to create a specific explanation by linking the artistic psyche with the human sex.
About his theory of art
Its starting point was the idea of an inherent unity, a unity realized in the harmony of opposites, in the harmonious wholeness of the feminine and masculine elements. Going back to the myth of the Androgyne and the theory of evolution in theosophy, Plato sought primordial unity, true happiness, in the complementary harmony of the feminine and masculine principles. In his system, the feminine element is static, horizontal and material, the masculine element is animate, vertical and spiritual. In human, earthly life, the two sexes have become separated, and with it the inherent peace and harmony has been disrupted. But there are beings who can reunite this duality; they are the artists.
“The unity of positive and negative is happiness. And when it is united in one nature, it is even greater happiness. This unity can be realized in the artist, who carries the masculine and feminine principles in one person. Therefore he is no longer purely male.” The last sentence suggests that for Mondrian the artist could only be a man. The artist (man) – here, of course, he is thinking primarily of himself – is closer to a certain inherent state of unity than the average man; he is the one who is destined to be the spiritual leader of humanity.
At the same time, Mondrian strongly condemned the vulgar interpretation of this idea, the naturalistic depiction of two-sexed beings similar to late 19th century symbolist depictions. He rose into the esoteric spheres of Eastern philosophy when he spoke of ”spiritual bisexuality”.
But it is also certain that the almost four hundred paintings and prints produced between 1908-9 cannot be lumped together. These two decades were not only logically and closely linked to the Cubist period and the Neo-Plasticist works, but also produced important works. Mondrian did not become an abstract painter simply by renouncing himself, nor did he abandon his earlier style overnight, but he developed his idiom through rigorous and consistent analysis. The period from 1888 to the end of 1911 can thus be divided into several periods, the boundaries of which, although rather blurred – Mondrian experimented with several paths at the same time – are nevertheless distinct.
First period (1888-1911)
The works of the first period (1888-1900) are well-balanced academic works, written with a respectable professional assurance. Several landscapes and a few still lifes survive, small oil paintings and drawings in dark tones. Living creatures rarely appear in them, and when they do, there is a strong sense that they were made as studies or on commission (”Puppy”, (1899).
In 1894, he became a member of the Arti et Amicitae circle of artists and art lovers, which gave him his first exhibition in 1897, and through which he met the most important Dutch painters of his time, Jan Toorp and Jan Sluijters, and later Kees van Dunden.During his years at the Academy, and for a long time afterwards, he painted landscapes and still lifes. His paintings are in the tradition of the Dutch small masters, which is devoid of any flamboyance and prefers to adopt a kind of puritanical simplicity, a sobriety with a touch of melancholy, rather than a bombastic style.
He worked hard to support himself during his studies – he graduated from the Academy in 1897 with distinction – and afterwards. “At the age of twenty-two, a very difficult period began for me. I had to take on all kinds of jobs to make a living: making bacteriological drawings for schools and textbooks, painting portraits and museum replicas, and giving lessons. Later I started selling landscapes. It was a tough struggle, but I made a good living and I was happy to have enough money to continue on my chosen path.” – he wrote in his memoirs. However, his financial problems continued to depress him long afterwards; and it is typical that he was still forced to take on a job copying paintings in 1915.
The change was marked by the “Little Girl” and “Spring Idyll”, shown at the 1901 exhibition of the St. Luke”s Guild in Amsterdam, and painted a year earlier, as well as the first “Self-Portrait”, also painted in 1900.
It seems likely that the trip to England (albeit a very short one), but even more so Jan Toorop”s strong symbolism, influenced the images that started the second period. Schoolboy academicism is replaced by the lessons of post-impressionism. Landscapes with a wide horizon floating in mist (”Landscape near Amsterdam”), farmhouses painted in still muted but brightening colours, and alleys reflecting in a mirror of water follow one another.The painting style also changed: the plasticity of the facture was reduced, and the pictures were built up from wider, flatter fields of paint. Remembering this period, he wrote in 1941: ”I made sketches of cows standing or lying in the moonlight in Dutch fields, of dead houses with their windows blown out. But I did not paint in a romantic way: I looked at it all with the eye of a realist. I hated the particularistic movement of things and people, but I loved flowers, not in bunches; just the single, single flower. My environment forced me to paint things in their proper image, and to make equally lifelike portraits, so and so it was that I made many bad paintings. During this time I was also making commercial drawings, giving lessons… As the years went by, my work became more and more out of touch with the naturalistic image of reality. This developed unconsciously, while working. I didn”t know much about modern trends. What I knew about them I admired, but I had to find my own way.”
The subject matter has also changed: the landscapes have been replaced by a series of portraits and still lifes, which are only recalled by drawings of a single flower and a few oil paintings. The change of approach can also be seen in the emergence of a kind of symbolism, mixed with realism and, at least at the beginning of the period, naïve, one might say timid. The stare of the ”Self-Portrait” fixed on the viewer, the sad, upward gaze of the ”Little Girl”, the widened eyebrows suggest a questioning, an inquiry in the name of a higher spirit: undeniably theosophical. The face of the little girl, but even more so the double portrait of the ”Spring Idyll”, is imbued with a kind of sorrow; the figures emerging from amaryllis on one, rhododendrons on the other, hover in a romantic, sentimental, melancholy haze reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Rossetti.
Mondrian”s symbolism remained free of the fantastic, and even more so of the grotesque. Even his later portraits, painted in Brabant around 1902, show him as a religiously determined, fragmented, puritanical realist, rather than a visionary with endless metaphors and visionary admonitions. In these paintings, only the huge eyes, the piety or questioning that emanates from them, suggest transcendental contents, to which some works are only fully subordinated between 1908 and 1911. The study for the watercolour ”Calvary Flower”, some nudes and the drawing ”Spring”, executed between 1903 and 1904, are a transition to these.
With its cold blue-yellow contrasts, its mysterious, distant green light, its slight frog perspective – a characteristic of his Domburg paintings, but also of some of his earlier forest landscapes (“Forest Landscape”) and of many of his windmills – and the stylized, rigid, still, highly contoured, facing, naked female figures, “Evolution” is a veritable textbook. After the obvious (?) and emphatic symbols – the lotus flower emerging from obscurity to symbolise the blossoming of the spirit and cosmic harmony (among other things), the six-pointed star to represent the unity of opposites, the macrocosm, the universal man (among other things) – Mondrian has enriched the triptych with a series of symbols with more hidden and broader meanings.
In all this, it is likely that Mondrian was “illustrating” a theosophical fossilization of the “structure” of man, according to which the first of the “parts” is the dense material body, the second the astral (with feelings, desires, passions), the third the mental body, in the lower region of which resides the faculty of practical thinking, and in the higher sphere the faculty of abstract thinking. The fourth, the mental, the spiritual body (in which resides the power of intuition, of true cognition) cannot, of course, be depicted, since it can be deduced from the unity of the three “parts”.
In addition to the symbolic female figures mentioned above, he painted almost exclusively landscapes, the subject matter of which changed considerably after 1908. The motif of the lonely farmhouse, which had been popular until then, disappeared, as did his efforts to get rid of any subject matter that might suggest movement or change. His paintings – with the exception of portraits – are devoid of emotion anyway, and carry little in themselves to suggest associations.
The framing of the picture was narrowed down to include only windmills, church facades or trees, and from 1909 the lighthouses and dunes of the Domburg and Westkapelle coast. The tall towers, almost without surroundings, tower like phallic symbols in their narrow frames, their colours becoming brighter, more intense and clearer. They are a mixture of Van Gogh, pointillism and Fauvism.
The painting technique and the choice of colours make the pictures dramatic, despite the neutrality of the subject. Painted with a technique reminiscent of pointillism (Mill in Sunlight, Westkapelle Lighthouse, Dűne, c. 1910), the surface is organised by relatively large, thick patches of paint applied in a mosaic. These are coarser and harder than Seurat”s or Signac”s, or in other respects Van Gogh”s, but their precise purpose is not to blend on the retina to give the desired tone, but rather to suggest Monet”s series of church facades in Rouen, with, of course, an overemphasis on the texture of the surface. This is also evidenced by the fact that the patches of paint are usually square, and are hard-edged, stacked in rows like building blocks. In other paintings, he has depicted his subject with long, continuous, straight brushstrokes (Westkapelle Lighthouse, also seen in the Awe), the vertical paint streaks emphasising verticality to the extreme, reinforced by the frog perspective that highlights the smallness of the man.
Cubist era (1912-1914)
Mondrian was so influenced by the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque (he met them at an exhibition in Amsterdam in the autumn of 1911) that he decided to settle in Paris and join the new movement.1911 He left Amsterdam on 20 December 1911 to meet the Cubist painters and, of course, the current itself, in which he could immerse himself and abandon the idiom he had been talking about: the more or less specific formal system he had already established. This step was not forced on him by intuition, by a sudden realisation or choice. The two and a half years in Paris and the profound, fundamental but brief Cubist influence to which Mondrian deliberately subjected himself are an important, but only one stage in a conscious preparation, a thoughtful experiment.
For Mondrian, the new way was cubism. But not really a way, just a help, a justification, a proof. In his brief cubist period, he was not primarily concerned with a new interpretation of space (only a few of his still lifes, such as Still Life with Ginger Bowl, suggest this), but with the elementary components of plane forms and their relationship. During his stay in Paris from 1912 to 1914, Mondrian developed Cubism to the point of abstraction.
The series of trees painted in 1910-1911, or the consequences of the lessons learned from the study of the structure of church façades, are explored in Flowering Apple Trees, Landscape with Trees, Composition No. 9
Around 1913-14, he wrote in his notebook, “Art is above reality as a whole, it has no direct relation to it. There is a boundary between the physical and the etheric sphere, where our senses stop. The etheric, however, permeates the physical sphere and mobilises it. Thus the spiritual sphere permeates reality. But for our senses, these are two different things: spiritual and material. For art to approach the spiritual, reality must be used as little as possible, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. Thus the use of elementary forms is given a logical explanation. Since the forms are abstract, we can recognize in them the presence of an abstract art.”
In 1912 and 1913 he participated in the Cubist exhibitions at the Salon of Independents. However, his paintings of trees and still lifes were not a success here either, especially in his first appearance. French critics, even those who supported artistic progress, were strongly chauvinistic: they viewed the paintings of ”foreigners” with stubborn distaste and were only rarely willing to acknowledge their value. And judges hostile to Cubism regarded the whole movement, ”barbaric Cubism”, as a ”sin” of the foreigners.Recognition, though not entirely unreserved, was only granted in 1913. André Salmon, the poet and critic who, writing about Mondrian a year earlier, had said: ”He cultivates Cubism gropingly, unaware of the laws of the masses. Unfortunately, newcomers of this kind will continue to mislead public opinion for a long time to come”, but now he was a little more understanding of his paintings.Apollinaire, writing in Montjoie, said of Mondrian: “He seems to be under the influence of Picasso, but he has retained his personality. His trees and his portraits of women testify to a sensitive creative process.” The only flaw in Apollinaire”s well-intentioned criticism is that it seems unlikely that Mondrian would have exhibited portraits of women at the Salon des Independents in 1913, since his last paintings on such subjects were done in early 1912 and were not shown until a group exhibition in Amsterdam in 1922.
In addition to exhibitions in Paris, he has also participated in major contemporary art exhibitions in Germany. In 1912, for example, he exhibited at the Internationale Kunstausstellung des Sonderbundes Westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler zu Köln, which was open for almost half a year and featured the most important painters and sculptors of the time, and the following year he took part in the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon in Berlin. The significance of the latter exhibition lies, among other things, in the fact that its director, Herwarth Walden, after a long period of organisation, brought together three hundred and sixty-six paintings, thus presenting a complete cross-section of contemporary trends and also revealing, through a single work, the influence of Russian folk art, Turkish and Indian miniatures, Japanese and Chinese landscapes on current trends.
Mondrian soon went far beyond the static, intellectual, cubist unravelling of the seams of reality. In an autobiographical essay written shortly before his death, he recalled. “In his work between 1912 and 1914, when he returned to the Netherlands, he gradually and very sensitively breaks down visual reality into planes, into a right-angled connection of horizontal and vertical lines.
Third period (1914-1918)
From the end of 1913, beginning of 1914, the last stage on the road to neoplasticism began, lasting until 1918.Mondrian”s first abstract paintings were made in 1913. These were the results of his analysis of trees and buildings, which, while retaining the characteristics of Cubism, went beyond the limits of the theory that had given rise to them. He increasingly referred to his paintings as ”compositions”, suggesting that they were now self-contained works, not a representation of reality but the fruit of a nature created by the artist.He first showed his compositions in Amsterdam in November 1913, at the third exhibition of the Circle of Modern Art, and finally achieved success. The purity and rationalism of his paintings won him acclaim from Dutch critics, and Mondrian, who had previously been described as a ”degenerate” in his home country, was now hailed as an expressor of ”pure emotion”.
Only the titles of the pictures remind us of the “physical sphere” – Church Facade, Dunes, The Sea, Pier and Ocean – and the pictures themselves consist of vertical and horizontal crosses, larger and smaller, often confined in an oval shape that seems strange, even reminiscent of cubist cropping. Mondrian seems to have changed his optics; perhaps he has lifted the defining lines of the church facades and trees, sharp with light, or the contours of the hard, pointillist paint spots of 1908-1909, from the subject; as if he were tapping the rhythm of the sea”s ever-repeating waves on canvas.
“Looking at the sea, the sky and the stars, I represented them by multiplying the cross. I was fascinated by the grandeur of nature and tried to explain its vastness, its serenity, its unity. It is, perhaps, what an art critic would call Christmas painting. But I felt I was working like an impressionist, interpreting the strange sensations and not reality per se.” – he recalled this period in 1941 with gentle self-deprecation. For even if Mondrian felt his method was impressionistic in retrospect, almost thirty years later, the plus-minus pictures, as Seuphor called them, were the result of extremely conscious work, together with an undeniable reverence.
By 1914, according to his notebook, the theory was largely complete. The ”crosses” in the pictures were not, or not only, ”Christmas” symbols. ”Since the male principle is represented by the vertical line,” he wrote in 1913-14, ”the male element is recognisable (for example) in the standing trees of a forest. Its complement can be seen (for example) in the horizon line of the sea.”
These sentences lead to countless conclusions. Foregoing psychologising, there are only two that we should pay attention to. One: in retrospect, Mondrian”s choice of subject matter, the strong “geometricism” of his subjects, the emphasis on verticals and horizontals, can be understood as early as 1903; the other: the quoted Cézanne statements, if they had hitherto been merely a correspondence, now have an answer and a continuation.
It was not until the end of the period, in 1917-18, that the paintings proliferated again, after the principles of neoplasticism had been set down in writing and De Stijl was ready for publication.
Fourth era (1918-42)
Between 1917 and 1919, De Stijl published three articles by Mondrian, the most important of which was The New Form in Painting, the backbone of the first issue of the journal and of eleven others in 1917-18. The essay, as its title suggests, approached the new form of depicting reality primarily from the point of view of plane representation, but its sentiments, with certain modifications, could be applied to other genres of art, as Mondrian himself later formulated them for architecture, theatre and even music. The essence of neoplasticism – to quote the first part of The Forming of the New in Painting – can be summarised as follows. In abstract painting, this aspect finds its exact expression in the duality of the position of the right angle, in the recognition of this. It is the most balanced of all aspects, because it brings two extremes into perfect harmony with each other and encloses all other aspects.” (At the same time, as has been said, and as he explains here, the horizontal is the equivalent of the feminine and the vertical of the masculine principle, with the given consequence of the two directions, dimensions, aspects.) If, therefore, they are intended to express the universal directly, they must themselves be universal, that is to say, abstract.” It is through rhythm, through the material reality of representation, that the subjectivity of the artist as an individual is expressed.And thus universal beauty is revealed to us, without renouncing the universal man.
Between 1914 and 1917, Mondrian”s development of neoplasticism was inspired and compelled by history itself, in addition to the theosophy and the irrepressible, undeniable legacy of Calvinist Puritanism. Although there is little evidence that the disintegration of Europe, the world war and the revolutions are directly reflected in Mondrian”s writings, the Platonic ”triumphalogue” on Natural and Abstract Reality, published in eleven volumes in De Stijl in 1919-20, reveals the unmistakable alarm of man”s flight from reality into the utopia of universality and permanence – wrapped in an unsettledness:
“We see,” says Z, the abstract painter, looking at the starry sky, “that there is a reality other than the greed of human pettiness. We see clearly how futile it all is: everything that separates itself ceases to exist. We see the essence: we contemplate the immutable as opposed to the mutability of human will.” He continues. Through contemplation we come nearer to the conscious recognition of the immutable, the universal, and the mutable, the individual, the human smallness in us and around us will seem vain in our eyes. Abstract aesthetic contemplation has given man the means by which he can consciously unite with the universal. All disinterested contemplation, as Schopenhauer says, elevates man above his own natural existence. This natural existence demands that man do his utmost to improve his material condition in order to preserve his individuality. At the same time, his spiritual needs do not approach the universal because it is unknown to him. But in the aesthetic moment of contemplation, the individual fades away and the universal comes to the fore. The most fundamental meaning of painting has always been to materialize, through colour and line, the universal that emerges in contemplation.”
It is not, then, that Mondrian has turned his back on a broken world and an indifferent nature. It is just that while others tried to cover up or resolve the “confusion of feelings” with unbridled subjectivity or socialist utopias, Mondrian steered his painting and his theory to the “absurdity” of order and harmony. “Every emotion, every personal thought, every purely human will, every possible desire, every ambiguity in the word leads to its tragic manifestation and makes the pure expression of peace impossible,” he writes in his notebook.
And the angles within and beyond 90° become the tragic expressions – Seurat, too, saw harmony embodied in the right angle – the colours outside the three primary colours and the black, white and grey; all whimsical forms, all contingencies are thus eliminated, and only the rhythm, the division and scale of the straight lines and fields filled with colour are preserved. Mondrian ad absurdum fulfilled the desire expressed by the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc around 1914: ”The basic mood of all art is a longing for the indivisible essence and for freedom from the sensual disappointments of our ephemeral life (we would like to break the mirror of life to see the essence – that is our aim.) Appearances are always flat, but they drag us along, and in their mirror we cannot see our spirit: let us think of our whole world view. It remains in the real forms of the world, and only we artists can glimpse this form; we can peep into the crevices of the world as the gift of a demon, and in our dreams this spirit leads us behind the world”s bright scenes.”
Finally, as far as the theory and practice of neoplasticism is concerned, and in what it differs fundamentally from the kindred tendencies of the mid- to late-1910s – suprematism aiming at absolute sensibility or socially engaged constructivism, productivism, proun, activism, purism – it is, on the one hand, a total denial of individuality, of personhood; Mondrian did not approach the universal from the point of view of the self-consciousness, but the other way round: the subject dissolved in the universal, as part of it, as its universal manifestation. Art, on the other hand, was not valued as a means to achieve direct social ends, but as a transcendental approach to man and the universe, to the mystical and transcendental universe; not as a means, but as a process. Thus, for Mondrian, the neoplasticist image – or world view – was not meant to proclaim the world”s constructibility, its buildability, the work was not a metaphor with a directive force, like that of the constructivists or the activist architecture of the image, but a transcendental reality of relations and modulations that were clarified to the end, free of any associative burden – ultimately, together with paradox.
In other words, while the new worldview of the politically engaged constructivist tendencies projected an image of a truly new world, neoplasticism sought to reveal the real and eternal structure of the existing in the hope that confrontation with the truth would bring forth the fruit of the unfolding of the universal, and thus of spiritual, intellectual and social peace.
On the canvas, painted in 1917-18, the primary colours, primarily blue and red, reappear in the exaggerated rectangles floating against a white or light grey background; sometimes they are pastel, light versions, sometimes broken, mixed with black. Of all Mondrian”s works, these scattered fields of colour are perhaps the most reminiscent of the works of contemporary – mainly Russian – exponents of geometric abstraction, but only in a very distant sense, since the ”serial” arrangement required by the 90° structure almost completely obscures any impression of space, and the unyielding right angles contain both the dynamism and the uncertainty of floating. With these paintings Mondrian explored the relationship between colour and ground, between the colour field and the empty plane (Composition in Blue, B, Composition on a White Ground with Clear Fields of Colour, A, 1917).
His works from 1918-19 analysed the structure of image-making.The two key “technical” concepts that hold together neoplasticist images are balance and relation; the latter with the content of connection, proportion, relationship. The structural balance of Mondrian”s paintings – but one could also use the term harmony with its broader connotations and more emotional mood – was, until 1917, provided by a kind of symmetry, often didactically rigid, as in the Golgotha Flower, in the Evolution, in his numerous paintings of windmills, and finally in most of the drawings of the Pier and the Ocean. From 1917 onwards, this kind of rigid structure disappears with the works that record the coloured planes, to be replaced by a different, even less permissive system: the grid, organised into squares, sometimes rectangles.The balance is no longer the result of the relative proportion, correspondence and correspondence of the two halves of the picture, but of the structure discovered behind and above the elements that make up the picture. The divisions, the faintly painted – drawn grids appear regularly in the works of 1918-19, for the time being still directly revealing the system hidden in the forms, building them up. (Composition in grey, Composition: light colours with grey lines) The smallest basic elements of this structure are regular squares or rectangles, from which the artist selects and constructs larger units through rhythm, through the “material reality of representation”, and by this alone, he intends to radiate his own Self, assuming his subjectivity.
The apparent monotony of proportions and rhythm explains the experiments – the most important of which is that of the sculptor Georges Vantongerloo – which, assuming a mathematical method, a formulaic quality in the construction of Mondrian”s paintings, tried to discover the numericality in the relative relationship of the fields. But apart from the golden ratio and, in some cases, the – almost – correspondence to the Fibonacci number line, which is close to it, we do not find such a relation, precisely because rhythm is the only channel of the subject.
These few years are a time for the most in-depth analysis. Mondrian proceeded step by step: he examined the relationship between colour, form and structure in themselves, and by the end of 1919 he had brought together the results of his analysis, projecting the three elements onto a single plane, bringing them into perfect overlap.
The first “classic” neoplasticist pictures (from late 1919 to 1921) still retain traces of the raster. At least in the sense that they seem relatively crowded, the size of the colour fields is not yet very different, and within a single canvas the colours appear in several shades. In fact, to indicate a certain transience, green or yellow tending towards green also appears alongside the primary colours (Composition with red, blue and yellowish green,).The straight lines – often still grey – that border the fields, meeting at right angles, are of the same thickness and in all cases extend to the edge of the canvas. There is a kind of joy in these images – something that the return to Paris might have reinforced in Mondrian – rather than austerity; a docility, if you like, the confident indulgence of the explorer, of the one who knows the law and knows how to live with it.
From the end of 1921, the composition of the pictures is modified. The most prominent feature is a white square, usually offset to the left of the canvas, which is usually bordered on two sides by much smaller colour and black and white fields. It is becoming increasingly rare for all three primary colours to appear within a single work, and these colours are now truly unmixed and pure. The thickness of the lines also varies, and they often do not run to the edges of the picture; they suggest a disconnection and continuity, as part of a larger structure.
In 1923-24 Mondrian painted almost nothing except chrysanthemums.
In 1925, perhaps also as a consequence of the break with Theo van Doesburg, his paintings become even more stark. Whereas four years earlier his works had consisted of ten to fifteen fields, and in 1920 the number of coloured rectangles was often over twenty, from 1925-26 they were reduced to five or six, and the role of colour seemed to diminish in these years. It was precisely because only one or two fields – however small a rectangle – were saturated with colour in a painting that the balance of the structure remained stable and the tension of colour was increased by the strong contrast. (Composition in the square,).One of the reasons why Mondrian finally broke with De Stijl in 1925 was Van Doesburg”s introduction of the diagonal element in painting. (He didn”t like Doesburg”s support for the Dadaists, either.) It probably suited him, since Mondrian was a reclusive individual and, having found his own way, wanted to go further. Mondrian”s later, mature style was born in his compositions of 1921, painted in primer colours, consisting of rectangular planes surrounded by black outlines and black lines that did not always reach the edges of the picture. These works are characterised by a strong asymmetry of composition, but also by the balance that Mondrian considered so important.In the 1920s and 1930s his works became increasingly sophisticated and insubstantial. In Mondrian”s paintings of 1921, we see the beginning of a development in which the emphasis shifts from the centre of the composition to the edges of the picture, a trait that is even more pronounced in the works he produced in the second half of the twenties. One gets the feeling that the image continues beyond the boundaries of the canvas.
Mondrian painted relatively little between 1922 and 1926. However, it was in 1926, a rather eventful year for him, that he produced his first painting based solely on black and white, Composition in White and Black.
1927 was a quieter period for the reclusive Mondrian. He found more and more time to paint. And although he was involved in the short-lived Cercle et Carré group, organised by Seuphor and the Uruguayan Joaquin Torres-Garcia to clarify and disseminate the theory of abstract art, and then, after its dissolution, the Abstraction-Création founded by Georges Vantongerloo and August Herbin, he sought to distance himself from the ”public” world.
From the end of 1927 onwards, the fields of colour in his paintings seem to begin to grow again.
1929 He joins the Cercle et Carré group in Paris.
1931 Joins the Abstraction-Création group.
In the early 1930s, new trends can be observed in Mondrian”s painting. The earlier ”empty”, accentuated rectangles were again filled with colour, while at the same time – after 1926 – compositions based solely on black and white reappeared.
Mondrian was happy to make use of the 45° rotation of the square from 1918 onwards, since this created the possibility for the pictorial elements – while retaining their stability and “internal” perpendicularity – to continue in the viewer”s consciousness, leaning against the edge of the canvas (the world beyond the picture), and there to impose the virtual grid on which the universe is built in the neoplasticist sense. The painting is the ultimate painterly formulation of neoplasticism, which, with its infinite conciseness – ”irreducible” by a change of perspective – also reveals the contradictions between theory and the works painted. For the transcendental reality of Mondrian”s neoplasticist works is free of synaesthesia (Kandinsky) and emotion (Malevich) in the sense of the word. But this freedom is relational: the paintings are caught in the cage of time – they age, the paint cracks, their ”inner” constancy disintegrates – and Mondrian himself changes. Although the proportion of the basic colour fields of neoplasticism, the size of the black border lines, can in principle always have the same weight, the same emotional load – that is, the minimum of the load – and convey a sense of permanence, of unbreakable harmony, red, yellow and blue, like black, white and grey, carry symbols and a million meanings. These echo uncontrollably – detached from the painter – and dissolve the compulsive identity. The only possibility – and this is what the Composition with Two Lines alludes to – is the pursuit of a strict theory ad absurdum: a single image, balanced to the end and closed off without a break. But Mondrian did not paint it, or rather, Mondrian did not create it. It is these contradictions, flickering between concept and canvas, that make Mondrian”s art truly human, tragic and heroic, and at the same time truly ethical.
1932 saw the appearance of the bisected straight lines (Composition B with grey and yellow), then
In 1936, he also multiplied the lines perpendicular to each other, indicating an enrichment of compositional elements.
In 1938, he settles in London. In 1934, he was visited in his studio by the English abstract painter Ben Nicholson and the young American collector and painter Harry Holtzman. His relationship with both deepened, to the point where Nicholson became a frequent guest of Mondrian”s, and in 1938, with the outbreak of war – Germany invaded Poland the following year – and the invasion of France imminent, Mondrian moved to London, bowing to Nicholson”s urging. “During his two-year stay in London, Nicholson, the Pevsner-Gabo brothers and Barbara Hepworth kept him company, and the latter provided him with useful contacts with London art collectors.
The breaking up of the forced identity brings further modifications: the lines bordering the rectangles are sometimes doubled, and by the end of the decade they multiply to such an extent that the surface of the picture is again dominated by the grid structure, with only a few, almost hidden windows showing a glimpse of colour (Composition with Blue). In the London years, the structure becomes even more rigid. The bars of the ”grids” thicken, and it is probably only in New York that he will add short, coloured lines to many of them, thus relieving the harshness of the images (Trafalgar Square, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue). If the Place de la Concorde (1938-43) or Trafalgar Square were only coloured – literally and figuratively – afterwards, in America, the colourful, black-free New York City pictures and the Broadway boogie-woogie mark an unfinished era of fantastic renewal. In the drawing, the line is the main means of expression, in the painting it is the patch of colour. For in painting, the stains melt the lines into themselves, but they also preserve their value by their own boundaries,” he writes to his friend J.J. Sweeney, and sets off on the path he had once attempted (Composition with Yellow Lines) in 1933, but for some reason failed to follow.
In 1940, the Germans began bombing London, and Mondrian arrived in New York on 3 October with the help of a letter of invitation from Harry Holtzman.Born in the “horizontal” Netherlands, Mondrian, sixty-eight years old, had left behind a bloody Europe and felt that something of his theory had been realised in the “vertical” American city. But New York gave him more than this satisfaction. In Valentin Dudensing, he found a permanent collector who also organised a solo exhibition for him.
In late 1943, during an interview, he said, “I feel I belong here and I”m going to become an American citizen.” Finding this place, the euphoria of finding it, the identification with the circumstances and the spirit of the circumstances, brought about significant changes in his painting. While finishing some of the canvases he had begun in Europe (Trafalgar Square), he painted New York City and Broadway boogie-woogie, these liberated, moving pictures from which he banished black.
He was influenced and refreshed by the noise and the grandeur of the metropolis. On his introduction to New York, Mondrian was impressed by the dynamic rhythm of this man-made environment, which he expressed in the pulsating movement of his last paintings, without abandoning the use of geometric order. During his stay in New York, the most significant works of this short period of just over three years show fundamental modifications, but these too are only of theoretical scope.
In 1942, the Society of American Abstract Artists published his newly written essay, A New Realism, and in 1943 he was a member of the jury of the major exhibition Art of this Country.
Late period (1942-44)
His last, very brief but all the more important period exemplifies Mondrian”s maturation, the dissolution of the imposed canon. But the illness, pneumonia, which Seuphor says he dreaded all his life and which had attacked him once in his youth, allowed him to produce only a few works.From 1942 onwards, the lines of his compositions were broken into small segments, and the monumentality of his neoplastic paintings was replaced by a syncopated rhythm. They express euphoria and renewal, the origin of which is a hope come true: a city in which the most modern skyscrapers perfectly realise the neo-plasticists” seemingly utopian ideals.
The Broadway boogie-woogie, and even more so the unfinished Victory boogie-woogie, not only confirms what was written for Sweeney – without Mondrian”s denying or even being able to deny his former self – but also proves the final banishment of the “tragic” element. But Mondrian, who shackled himself with a cruel asceticism, had just reached a ”friendlier” chapter in his austere theory when he died, at the age of 72.
Piet Mondrian died on 1 February 1944 in New York at the age of seventy-seven.After his death, in the spring of 1945, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a retrospective exhibition of his works, and Harry Holtzman published his studies in English.In the autumn of 1946, Mondrian was commemorated in an exhibition of one hundred and twenty-two pictures at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and in the spring of 1947, in a small exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Basel. In Paris, his memory was honoured in a double exhibition entitled Les premiers maitres de fart abstract.
Neoplasticism, the transcendental reality of Mondrian”s paintings, did not find in the artist”s lifetime – perhaps because of his extreme puritanism – any really talented followers (among them the Dutch César Domela, and the American Burgoyne Diner and Charmion von Wiegand); its influence can be indirectly measured, among others, by the work of the English Ben Nicholson and, to a certain extent, the Swiss concrete artists Max Bill and Richard-Paul Lohse. His direct influence was mainly invoked by functionalist architecture – at the level of misunderstandings. After his death, his art had its most profound influence on American painting. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that a good part of North American geometric abstraction in the 1950s emerged from his ”mantle”. Leon Polk Smith, Ilya Bolotowsky, and later Ellsworth Kelly – the latter one of the most important artists of the hard edge painting of the sixties – worked in the spirit of neoplasticism at the turn of the forties and fifties; neoplasticist theory, which sought to create a unity of spirit and matter, was a theoretical confirmation of the minimal art of the sixties.