I found myself staring in awe at the simplicity of black lines confining a yellow square and a blue rectangle amidst white spaces. Piet Mondrian’s compositions has always made me wonder how these shapes played inside his mind as concepts and eventually painted on to canvases of seemingly the same ideas on different surfaces. This sparked interest has compelled to delve further on the life and ideologies of Piet Mondrian.
Piet Mondrian was born Pieter Cornelius Mondriaan on March 7, 1872 in Amersvoort in central Holland. His father was an amateur artist who was fond of drawing, while uncle Frits Mondriaan was a commercially successful self-taught painter. In 1880, the family moved to Winterswijk where he started obtaining instructions and lessons from his father and from his uncle and later on obtained drawing diplomas by private study.
When he was twenty, he attended painting classes held by an official art school, the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam.
Mondrian claimed that he has always been a realist. He was often found painting along the Gein River outside of the city. His early works were that particular of the Hague School – landscapes.
In September 1908, he moved to Domburg where he learned different styles such as pointillism of Seurat and the fauvist colors of Matisse, under the tutelage of the Dutch painter Jan Toorop. In his work Woods near Oele, the first indication of Mondrian’s transition in style is his use of color. He has moved away the almost misty and grayish qualities of the Hague School style into vibrant primaries. The trees are not the same; in fact, they are not as detailed as his early works. He had taken out details he deemed irrelevant. His trees had become streaks of colors. At the same time, Mondrian has become more philosophical with his works. He had shown interest with the blend of Eastern and Western religious ideas that affirmed the slow pace movement of humanity toward a spiritual unity.
Another interesting painting is the Red Mill which shows a great deal of simplification of his works. This work is characterized by straight lines and used only two major hues of red and blue.
More on Mondrian’s philosophical side, he created the Evolution Triptych between 1910 and 1911. The work still has its simplified characteristic of straight lines and minimal use of colors. The first panel depicts a woman with red flowers upon her shoulders. The red flowers indicate suffering due to earthly passion. Note that the nipples of the figure, as well as the navel, are triangles pointing downwards to earth. The third panel depicts the unison between the spiritual and the physical, as man further develops his higher awareness. It is also to note that the figure has yellow stars and white triangles on her shoulders, which are symbols in many beliefs. As for the middle panel, the figure is looking beyond the viewers of this work, as she achieved this higher awareness. This is very reminiscent of the Indian belief of reaching nirvana in life. It is also note-worthy that the triangular nipples and navel are pointing upwards. The triptych represents the three stages of life.
Relocations and more transitions
Late in 1911, Mondrian moved to Paris which was a big turning point in his artistic style and in his life in general. He had seen works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and was captivated by their early of works of cubism and their fragmentation of form.
This captivation has become more apparent in his “tree compositions.” He had painted a number of tree paintings with cubist inspirations.
Mondrian also worked on same subjects, but painted in different styles. Most notable are Still Life with Ginger Pot I & II. The first painting was rather expressive and made mostly with gestural strokes as compared to the second work which has more rigidity. On the second still life, details were taken out, the distinct objects surrounding the ginger pot had been eliminated. In both works, however, the main focuses were, as the titles denote, the ginger pot. Even with two different styles, he was able to contain the main thought of having only one subject.
Composition No. 6 solidified his interest with the ideology of right angles. He claimed that the duality of the masculine vertical and the feminine horizontal creates a dynamic interchange of opposing but yet still supporting forces. The inspiration of this work was the partial demolition of apartments in Paris. The pastel hues are supposed to be the interiors visible after the demolition.
His simplification of his paintings even transcended in his lifestyle. Starting 1912, he has dropped the second “a” in his last name (though there is also another theory that he had a disagreement with uncle Mondriaan and did not want to be associated with the kin, but this idea is less probable since uncle helped him financially with his formal art education).
Also note that this visit in Paris prompted the start of calling his works as “compositions”.
Return to his Dutch land
Mondrian returned to Holland to visit his mortally ill father. But the outbreak of the First World War compelled him to stay for four years by the coast of Domburg. He continued sketching familiar subjects such as the church, dunes, piers and the sea. He sketched most of his works in abstraction of short vertical and horizontal lines expressing “the expansion, rest and unity of nature.”
His Composition No. 10 shows the “logical consequence” of cubism that he felt artists like Picasso and Braque failed to recognize: abstraction. Though this work still has a strong center, a requirement in cubist works, the white space no longer lies behind the black lines but rather creates a spherical figure. Composition in Colour A is his further exploration of lines but this time, with color. This work clearly depicts the Mondrian works we know today – dealing with lines, color, composition and size.
After the demise of his father in 1915, he moved to Laren which as then an artists’ community attracting like-minded painters. There, he met the likes of Bart Van der Leck, Theo Van Doesburg and Vilmos Huszar. Most of them use primary colors in painting, and are known for their large works. Under Van Doesburg’s leadership, they formed a group and published the magazine De Stijl (The Style). The group was not confined to paintings, but embraced other genres such as architecture, furniture design, typography and many other fields. The idea was representing reality as objective as possible – using only the purest and fundamental tools in the realization of a visual reality. Mondrian once said that “the living beauty of nature cannot be copied, it can only be expressed” and such expression requires these fundamental tools of the basics. His commitment of purifying modern art was never compromised.
During this time, he further explored the idea of uniting figures and the background without the use of lines. In Composition with Colours Planes No. 3, which is one in a series of eight paintings, the juxtaposition of colored rectangles created “ghost figures” of white rectangles. At this point, Mondrian thought his search for unity was over.
The Return to Paris and the birth of Neoplasticism
With the war over, Mondrian returned to Paris in 1919.By the end of 1920, he had invented nieuwe beelding (neoplasticism), after the publication of his writings Le Neo-Plasticisme. He had devoted all his work from 1920 onwards to the most fundamental of the fundamentals: verticals and horizontals for lines, the primaries for colors, and black and white for values. He united these ideas in an intuitive balance, rather than that of a randomized or systematized manner. He created a stable whole by structuring large areas of “non-color” with smaller accents of color. He also made his brushstrokes less evident, as they might distract the viewers from the composition.
Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue shows how the whole painting is an object of its own, with space as not a background for objects.
He also started working on the unusual use of a diamond format for his canvases which he called lozenges. This was highly debated within De Stijl since the dynamism of the format goes against stability. In 1925, he broke away from the group due to difference in artistic opinion.
Composition with Yellow Lines is an example of his lozenges series. This particular work shows four yellow lines of varying thickness. It suggests a yellow square though the corners of this unseen square are not shown. He also made specific instructions regarding the proper display of this work. He mentioned of having the thickest yellow line be on top and certain dimensions regarding how high should the painting be displayed. A very interesting note about these instructions is its relation to his earlier mentioned work, Evolution Triptych. If one is to follow the instructions with regards to how to display this work, the viewer is forced into a position very similar to that of the figures in the triptych! If one stands too close, the strain of looking up at Mondrian’s work emulates the suffering figure in the first triptych, and as one moves backwards (development of a higher awareness), the viewer gets a better scope of the painting. And at a certain distance when the viewer is comfortable enough looking at the painting from afar, one can see a better view and have a “higher awareness” and deeper appreciation of the painting.
In 1932, as many artists started mimicking his style, Mondrian made another change. He introduced the “double line”. Composition with White, Red and Yellow is a classic example of the concept of double lines. The ideology is the same but this time, he doubled the usual singular thick black lines and redoubles the lines within the squares creating an explosion of composition from within.
“Start spreading the news…”
Mondrian moved to London in the eve of the Second World War and eventually moved to New York in 1940 as many European artists had done before him. In 1942, he had his first solo show and reworked several of his paintings to give it “more boogie-woogie,” referring to his latest musical discovery. He incorporated the cadence of the music to his paintings thus creating a visual representation of musical notes. The revisions he made with these paintings include changing the black lines to narrower and longer ones and repainting the white areas to give them more impasto. One major change is the addition of “floating bars of colors.” Before, his paintings were always of colors confined in black lines. This major change shows one color touching another color without the intervention of black lines.
During this time, he also liberated himself from black lines and used colored adhesive tape to develop a new style. He further united drawing, with its black lines, and painting, with its colors, into one – a linear painting.
Mondrian’s last canvases
Mondrian started his last works in 1942. Broadway Boogie Woogie is New York City with broken links of colors. This has become his last finished work. Victory Boogie Woogie goes back to his lozenge days but was never completed.
Mondrian died of pneumonia early in 1944.
Mondrian’s order of randomness
Looking back, I have thought that Mondrian’s paintings of the primaries and the fundamentals is a concept worth commending by itself. But further research made me realize that Mondrian is more than a painter. It is arguable that he is more of a philosopher than an artist. His idea of unity between the natural and the spiritual is permanently imbedded in my psyche and any individual who understands this ideology or who also in a “great search” for unity. His work that tries to eliminate the randomness of nature by putting order and trying to remove nature’s little “accidents” gives his admirers a new perspective to a not totally new idea in many societies.