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Piet Mondrian

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Piet Mondrian.

Piet Mondrian (March 7, 1872February 1, 1944) was a Dutch painter and an important contributor to the De Stijl art movement, which was founded by Theo van Doesburg. Despite being well-known, often-parodied, and even trivialized, Mondrian's paintings exhibit a complexity that belie their apparent simplicity. The non-representational paintings for which he is best known, consisting of rectangular forms of red, yellow, blue, or black, separated by thick, black, rectilinear lines, are actually the result of a stylistic evolution that occurred over the course of nearly thirty years, and which continued beyond that point to the end of his life.

Contents

Netherlands 1872 - 1912

Born at Amersfoort in The Netherlands as Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, he began his career as a teacher in primary education, but while teaching he also practiced painting. Most of his work from this period is naturalistic or impressionistic, consisting largely of landscapes. These pastoral images of his native Holland depict windmills, fields, and rivers, initially in the Dutch Impressionist manner of The Hague School, and then using a variety of styles and techniques documenting his search for a personal voice. These paintings are most definitely representational, and illustrate the influence that various artistic movements had on Mondrian, including pointillism and the vivid colors of fauvism.

On display in The Hague's Gemeentemuseum is a number of paintings from this period, including such post-impressionist works as "The Red Mill" and "Trees in Moonlight". One 1908 painting called "Avond" ("Evening"), a scene of haystacks in a field at dusk, even augurs future developments by using a palette consisting almost entirely of red, yellow, and blue. Although it is in no sense abstract, "Avond" is the earliest of Mondrian’s works to emphasize the primary colors.

The earliest paintings that show an inkling of the abstraction to come are a series of canvases dating from 1905 to 1908, which depict dim scenes of indistinct trees and houses with reflections in still water that make them appear almost like Rorschach ink blots. However, although the end result leads the viewer to begin emphasizing the forms over the content, these paintings are still firmly rooted in nature, and it is only the knowledge of Mondriaan’s later achievements that leads one to search for the roots of his future abstraction in these works.

Mondriaan's art was always intimately related to his spiritual and philosophical studies. In 1908, he became interested in the theosophical movement launched by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 19th century. Blavatsky believed that it was possible to attain a knowledge of nature more profound than that provided by empirical means, and much of Mondriaan's work for the rest of his life was inspired by his search for that spiritual knowledge.

Mondriaan and his later work were deeply influenced by the Moderne Kunstkring exhibition of Cubism held in Amsterdam in 1911. His search for simplification is shown in two versions of "stilleven met gemberpot" ("still life with ginger pot"). The 1911 version[1] (http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_lg_112_9.html) is cubist, in the 1912 version[2] (http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_lg_112_11.html) it is reduced to a round shape with triangles and rectangles.

Paris 1912 - 1914

In 1912, Mondriaan moved to Paris and changed his name (dropping an 'a' from Mondriaan) to emphasize his departure from life in the artistic backwater of Holland. From this point on, he signed his work as "Mondrian"[3] (http://www.inghist.nl/Onderzoek/Projecten/BWN/lemmata/bwn1/mondriaan). While in Paris, the influence of the cubism of Picasso and Braque appeared almost immediately in Mondrian's work. Paintings such as "The Sea" (1912) and his various studies of trees from that year still contain a measure of representation, but they are increasingly dominated by the geometric shapes and interlocking planes commonly found in cubism. However, while Mondrian was eager to absorb the cubist influence into his work, it seems clear that he saw cubism as a road leading to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Netherlands 1914 - 1919

Unlike the cubists, Mondrian was still attempting to reconcile his painting with his spiritual pursuits, and in 1913, he began to fuse his art and his theosophical studies into a theory that signaled his final break from representational painting. World War I began while Mondrian was visiting home in 1914, and he was forced to remain in the Netherlands for the duration of the conflict. During this period, Mondrian stayed at the Laren artist’s colony, there meeting Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg, both artists undergoing their own personal journeys toward abstraction at the time. Van der Leck use of only primary colors in his art greatly influenced Mondrian. With Van Doesburg, Mondrian founded "De Stijl" (The Style), a periodical in which he published his first essays defining his theory, for which he adopted the term neoplasticism.

Mondrian published “De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst” (“The New Plastic in Painting”) in twelve installments during 1917 and 1918. This was his first major attempt to express his artistic theory in writing. However, Mondrian’s best and most often-quoted expression of this theory comes from a letter he wrote to H. P. Bremmer in 1914:

"I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…
I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true."

Paris 1919 - 1938

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Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue 1921. Oil on canvas. 39 x 35 cm.

When the war ended in 1919, Mondrian returned to France, where he would remain until 1938. Immersed in the crucible of artistic innovation that was post-war Paris, he flourished in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that enabled him to courageously embrace an art of pure abstraction for the rest of his life. Mondrian began producing grid-based paintings in late 1919, and in 1920, the style for which he came to be renowned began to appear.

In the early paintings of this style, such as Composition A (1920) and Composition B (1920), the lines delineating the rectangular forms are relatively thin, and they are gray, not black. The lines also tend to fade as they approach the edge of the painting, rather than stopping abruptly. The forms themselves, smaller and more numerous than in later paintings, are filled with primary colors, black, or gray, and nearly all of them are colored; only a few are left white.

Beginning in late 1920 and 1921, Mondrian’s paintings arrive at what are their definitive and mature form to casual observers. Thick black lines now separate the forms, which are larger and fewer in number, and more of them are left white than was previously the case. This was not the culmination of his artistic evolution, however. Although the refinements became more subtle, Mondrian’s work continued to evolve during his years in Paris.

In the 1921 paintings, many of the black lines (but not all of them) stop short at a seemingly arbitrary distance from the edge of the canvas, although the divisions between the rectangular forms remain intact. Here too, the rectangular forms are still mostly colored. As the years passed and Mondrian’s work evolved further, he began extending all of the lines to the edges of the canvas, and he also began to use fewer and fewer colored forms, favoring white instead.

These tendencies are particularly obvious in the “lozenge” works that Mondrian began producing with regularity in the mid-1920s. The lozenge paintings are square canvases tilted 45 degrees, so that they hang in a diamond shape. Typical of these is "Schilderij No. 1: Lozenge With Two Lines and Blue" (1926), also known as "Composition With Blue" and "Composition in White and Blue," which is currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the most minimal of Mondrian’s canvases, this painting consists only of two black, perpendicular lines and a small triangular form, colored blue. The lines extend all the way to the edges of the canvas, almost giving the impression that the painting is a fragment of a larger work.

Although one is hampered by the glass protecting the painting, and by the toll that age and handling have obviously taken on the canvas, a close examination of this painting begins to reveal something of the artist’s method. Mondrian’s paintings are not composed of perfectly flat planes of color, as one might expect. Brush strokes are evident throughout, although they are subtle, and the artist appears to have used different techniques for the various elements.

The black lines are the flattest elements, with the least amount of depth. The colored forms have the most obvious brush strokes, all running in one direction. Most interesting, however, are the white forms, which clearly have been painted in layers, using brush strokes running in different directions. This generates a greater sense of depth in the white forms, as though they are overwhelming the lines and the colors, which indeed they were, as Mondrian’s paintings of this period came to be increasingly dominated by white space.

"Schilderij No. 1" can be said to represent the most extreme extent of Mondrian’s minimalism. As the years progressed, lines began to take precedence over forms in his painting. In the 1930s, he began to use thinner lines and double lines more frequently, punctuated with a few small colored forms, if any at all. Double lines particularly excited Mondrian, for he believed they offered his paintings a new dynamism which he was eager to explore.

London & New York 1938 - 1944

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Composition No. 10. 1939-42. Oil on canvas. 80 x 73 cm. Private collection.

In September 1938, Mondrian left Paris in the face of advancing fascism and moved to London. After the Netherlands were invaded and Paris fell in 1940, he left London for New York City, where he would remain until his death. Some of Mondrian’s later works are difficult to place in terms of his artistic development, because there were quite a few canvases that he began in Paris or London, which he only completed months or years later in New York. However, the finished works from this later period demonstrate an unprecedented busyness, with more lines than any of his work since the 1920s, placed in an overlapping manner that is almost cartographical in appearance.

In 1933, Mondrian had produced "Lozenge Composition With Four Yellow Lines," a simple painting that introduced what for him was a shocking innovation: thick, colored lines instead of black ones. After that one painting, this practice remained dormant in Mondrian’s work until he arrived in New York, at which time he began to embrace it with abandon. In some examples of this new direction, such as "Composition" (1938) / "Place de la Concorde" (1943), he appears to have taken unfinished black-line paintings from Paris and completed them in New York by adding short perpendicular lines of different colors, running between the longer black lines, or from a black line to the edge of the canvas. The newly-colored areas are thick, almost bridging the gap between lines and forms, and it is startling to see color in a Mondrian painting that is unbounded by black. Other works mix long lines of red amidst the familiar black lines, creating a new sense of depth by the addition of a colored layer on top of the black one.

The new canvases that Mondrian began in New York are even more startling, and indicate the beginning of a new idiom that was unfortunately cut short by the artist’s death. "New York City" (1942) is a complex lattice of red, blue, and yellow lines, occasionally interlacing to create a greater sense of depth than ever before. An unfinished 1941 version of this work uses strips of painted paper tape, which the artist could rearrange at will to experiment with different designs.

His painting "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is highly influential in the school of abstract geometric painting. The piece is made up of a number of shimmering squares of bright color that leap from the canvas, then appear to shimmer, drawing you into those neon lights.

Mondrian’s final works, "Broadway Boogie Woogie" (1942-3) and the unfinished "Victory Boogie Woogie" (1942-4), replace the solid lines with lines created from tiny adjoining rectangles of color, created in part using small pieces of paper tape in various colors. Larger unbounded rectangles of color punctuate the design, some with smaller concentric rectangles inside them. While Mondrian’s works of the 1920s and 1930s tend to have an almost scientific austerity about them, these are bright, lively paintings, reflecting the upbeat music that inspired them and the city in which they were made.

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Broadway Boogie-Woogie. 1942 1943.

Mondrian wrote, in a postcard to James Johnson Sweeney, planner of a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that “only now [in 1943], I become conscious that my work in black, white, and little color planes has been merely ‘drawing’ in oil color. In drawing, the lines are the principal means of expression; in painting, the color planes. In painting, however, the lines are absorbed by the color planes; but the limitation of the planes show themselves as lines and conserve their great value.” In these final works, the forms have indeed usurped the role of the lines, opening another new door for Mondrian’s development as an abstractionist. The “boogie woogie” paintings were clearly more of a revolutionary change than an evolutionary one, representing the most profound development in Mondrian’s work since his abandonment of representational art in 1913. Unfortunately, we were to have only a glimpse of this new innovation. Piet Mondrian died in New York City in 1944, of pneumonia at the age of 71, and was interred in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

The apparent simplicity of Mondrian's most well-known works have led some people to believe that anyone, even a child, could paint them. However, careful study of Mondrian's neoplastic compositions makes it clear that they are utterly original works that are extremely difficult to reproduce with the same effect that he generated. Moreover, such works are the culmination of a decades-long conceptual journey through modern art that involved experimentation with many different styles and movements. Mondrian's oft-emulated reductionist style continues to inspire the art, fashion, advertising, and design worlds. Although he was a fine artist (not a commercial artist), Mondrian is considered the father of advertising design, because of the widespread and continued adoption of his grid style as a basic structure of graphic design layout.

References

  • Schapiro, Mondrian: On the Humanity of Abstract Painting (George Braziller 1995).
  • Bax, Marty. Complete Mondrian. Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001.
  • Faerna, José María, ed. Mondrian: Great Modern Masters. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
  • Joosten, Joop J. and Welsh, Robert P. Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
  • Mondrian, Piet, Harry Holtzman, ed., and Martin S. James, ed. The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993.

Major works

External links

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