PIET MONDRIAN (1872-1944)

Although Mondrian’s painting and his artistic convictions evolved in France, his art is most closely identified with the Dutch movement, “De Stijl.”  Mondrian spent most of his life in Paris where he lived and worked and developed his definitive style of abstract art and he died in New York. But these simple facts are lost when he is identified with the Dutch group with which he was reluctantly and loosely affiliated for only five years. Mondrian was caught in Holland, visiting his family, and when the Great War broke out, he was thrown together with a number of artists he would otherwise have never met. Despite the French origins of his style, much ink has been spilled trying to link Mondrian to the flat Dutch landscape because Mondrian’s paintings were “flat.”  Such morphological formalism does little to elucidate what his art was really about.

An important indication of the underlying meaning of Mondrian’s art is one of his last representational paintings, the Evolution triptych of 1910, a symbolic evocation of a human journey to spiritualism.  Mondrian had been an adherent of the pan-philosophy, Theosophy, since 1909, and embraced its idea that absolute laws rule the universe. Founded by Madame Hélène Blavatsky at the end of the nineteenth century, Theosophy attempted to explain why neither science nor religion could provide the answers to life’s mysteries.  Theosophy was widespread and many early twentieth century artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich and Klee, were adherents of the philosophy.  The Dutch artist, J.L.M. Lauwerkis stated that, “The concepts of Theosophy are preeminently suited to be expressed by art because of their magnitude and profundity.”

Lauwerkis was referring to abstraction.  However, Mondrian’s triptych was too literal to express concepts that should not be illustrated.  According to Blavatsky, “The interior world has not been hidden from all by impenetrable darkness. By that higher intuition acquired by Theosophia–or God-knowledge, which carried the mind from the world of form into that of formless spirit, man has been sometimes enabled in every age and every country to perceive things in the interior or invisible world.”  In Holland, the local Theosophical Society was interested in visualizing their concepts through mathematics.  Blavatsky’s prominent follower, Rudolph Steiner described Theosophy, not as a religion, but as a philosophy, which explained religion.  As Steiner stated,

“Put shortly, and in the language of the man of the street, this means that God is good, that man is immortal, and that as we sow so we must reap. There is a definite scheme of things; it is under intelligent direction and works under immutable laws. Man has his place in this scheme and is living under these laws. If he understands them and co-operates with them, he will advance rapidly and will be happy; if he does not understand them–if, wittingly or unwittingly, he breaks them, he will delay his progress and be miserable. These are not theories, but proved facts. Let him who doubts read on, and he will see.”

When Mondrian saw Cubist art at an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1911, he moved to Paris to pursue the possibility of employing the new style to express his Theosophical ideas.  By 1912, he was making “abstract” paintings of the sides of buildings in Paris, which had retained ghost traces of the structure built next to it and then torn down.  Clearly Mondrian rejected Cubist content—the life of the artist—for a universalist content discussed by Theosophy, but he went through several years of “apprenticeship” to the analytic phase. He moved from his Cubist-inspired Still Life with Ginger Pot of 1912 to his Oval Composition of 1914, which is totally abstract. Composition VII of 1913, another Cubist abstraction, is painterly, but this working of the surface would change. Mondrian had abandoned a twenty year career as a Symbolist, and this decade would be one of struggle and transition and philosophical meditations as he moved from one perspective to another. By the time he was stranded in Holland, Mondrian was ready to develop his unique and individual style combining the tenets of the Parisian avant-garde and Theosophy.

It is in Holland in the town of Laren that Mondrian developed his characteristic approach to painting, the grid composition.  The grid evolved out of his observation of the ocean and the way the piers jutted out into the water.  His Piers and Ocean series of 1915, became Composition in Line of 1916-17 with “plus” and “minus” lines. The reduction of nature to horizontals and verticals and the monochromatic approach of Cubism marked a turning point of his work.  Picasso and Braque had reduced their colors in order to explore the disintegration of form.  But Mondrian was not interested in fragmentation of objects in the real world; he was interested in disclosing the unity underlying reality.  The purification of his paintings continued, and, just before he returned to Paris, his approach began to cohere. Composition with Grid 8 (1919), like Composition in Line (1916-17) was inspired by nature, a walk Mondrian took along the seaside at night and was his “reconstruction of a starry night.”  Unlike Vassily Kandinsky, Mondrian’s abstraction came from nature and from his desire to find the harmony of the universe through repetition and standardized elements.

Mondrian’s five years in Holland were necessary to the development of his art.  It is important to understand that the artist had abruptly changed course from a late Symbolism to a radical avant-garde Cubism in his middle age.  His output during these years of transition was relatively small while he slowly digested what he had learned and decided what he wanted to do with this new approach.  The move to Holland and the isolation during the Great War was yet another jolt that disrupted his art.  He lived in the small rural town of Laren where he worked with a new friend, the painter Bart Van Der Leek.  In Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, Carel Blotkamp, noted that the two artists produced “a radicalization in the formal language of their paintings” and that they helped one another eliminate any traces of the “old” and to seek the “new.” A younger artist, Van Der Leek was already making abstract paintings that were completely unrelated to anything going on outside Holland.

In 1917 Mondrian and Van Der Leek were approached by Theo van Doesburg, who was forming a group of artists to represent De Stijl, “The Style” that would be the only possible style, the ultimate style of modern art.  Both artists were reluctant to join with van Doesburg, but it is clear why he wanted to recruit them.  Although their purposes were somewhat different from De Stijl, Mondrian and Van Der Leek were seeking a universal language that was modern, and both were working with abstraction, obviously the next step beyond Cubism.  De Stijl sought to make the universal concrete, a project similar to what these artists were attempting.  In addition, van Doesburg was publishing a journal, De Stijl, as a vehicle for discussing modernity in art.  Both artists published in the journal and one suspects that they were more interested in circulating their ideas than in being part of a group.   Under the influence of Van Der Leek, Mondrian reintroduced colors, temporarily eliminated line, and eventually he reduced the number of his colors to the primaries, red, yellow and blue.  He also learned to paint without inflection and the areas of color were smoothed out.

These wartime paintings show that there were formal questions for the artists to debate. What colors should be used, should they be mixed or pure, should there be lines, should the lines extend to the edges or not, what shape was best to contain the painted manifestation of the absolute?  Tiny decisions, maybe, but a major reworking of visual language for the artists was being developed.  Mondrian attempted to combine his Theosophical beliefs that painting his art was an “outward sign” of the philosophy with his formal artistic journey to purity.  The resulting essay, “Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plastic Equivalence” was published in De Stijl over a number of issues in 1920. Although the essay was long and obscure and difficult to read, it was published in French in 1920 and in German in 1925, the year Mondrian would finalize his break with De Stijl. The essay on new form seems to parallel his slow struggle to formulate a new language.

Mondrian’s opening paragraph appeared to be a re-statement of the goals of De Stijl, which was to free art from individual expression and to seek the universal.  Rejecting the subjective, Mondrian wrote that art “must also be the direct expression of the universal in us—which is the direct expression of the universal outside us…” For Mondrian art was an expression of opposites: that of which we are “conscious” and that of which we are “not conscious.”  We are aware of the reality of forms but what we are actually seeing is but a manifestation of the universal.  Art has to express the universal through a “new plastic expression” that would reconcile these opposites in an “equiliberated relationship.”  Mondrian stated that this equilibrium could not be achieved through nature; therefore “plasticity” expressed these relationships, not specific forms.  He equated the “new spirit” with “pure plastic expression,” something he would achieve only years later.  What Mondrian needed was a structure in which colored elements could be balanced harmoniously.

By 1918, the grid appeared in a spring series of paintings,  but the grid was regular and the colors were still muted and mixed.  One of the big issues facing the artists was whether or not to start with nature or with an aesthetic principle, and when he returned to Paris, Mondrian was able to get beyond any consideration of nature and arrive at complete abstraction.  By 1920, he had arrived at his signature style of vertical and horizontal lines, the use of the right angle, the restriction to primary colors, red, yellow and blue, confined within a grid of black lines on a flat white plane.  Gray, seen in Composition A: Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow and Blue (1920), was allowed but disappeared in the 1920s only to reappear in the 1940s.  Mondrian evoked Aristotle in his utopian ideal of exact and equal relations of pictorial elements that signified the invisible but absolute harmonies that ruled the universe.

In Mondrian’s mature canonical style, the grids became irregular so that the colored units had to be formally balanced. The black lines of the grid became more assertive and the shapes are not equal, nor are the colors evenly distributed, nor are they of equal size.  However, Mondrian learned how to balance the elements, turning asymmetry into symmetry, harmony and balance.  The red, yellow and blue, the primary colors signified the unchanging and absolute elements of the universe; the vertical and horizontal, the eternal and unchanging laws of the absolute. Eventually the lines met the edges, implying a larger and wider field stretching beyond the painting itself.  Mondrian carefully considered the demarcation of his surfaces and brought the frame forward, rather than allowing the canvas to be set into a surround, giving the impression of depth.

Mondrian’s studio in Paris was a place to paint, a place to live and think and a gallery where his art could be exhibited.  26, rue de Départ was sparsely furnished, resembling the plain Protestant interiors of a Dutch church.  The visitor was met with an artificial tulip, painted white, rising out of a white vase. Unlike his old friend, Van Der Leek, Mondrian understood that there was an affinity between painting and architecture and the studio was a visual expression of De Stijl principles as much as it was a place of display and exhibition. Although Mondrian stayed true to these principles, as he understood them, Theo van Doesburg came under the influence of Dada and the art of the Russian Avant-Garde.  By 1924, van Doesburg’s paintings began to display geometric forms tilted on a diagonal.  The diagonal implied movement and dynamism and, above all, change.  Mondrian’s art always revealed the changelessness of the universe and sought the absolute.  He could no longer be associated with De Stijl or van Doesburg and wrote a letter explaining his withdrawal to his Dutch associate.

Although Mondrian could not abide the diagonal, his studio in Paris had a triangular, rather than a straight, set of walls at its far end.  Ironically, as Nancy Troy’s sketch of the studio shows, the room itself, like van Gogh’s bedroom in the Yellow House, was an irregular shape, something that never appeared in his paintings. During the twenties, Mondrian’s grid opened and expanded and large blocks of color played off one another.  However, Suzanne Deicher, in Mondrian, suggests that his art took a more decorative turn because the post-War style, Art Deco, had abandoned the utopian role for art.  Her comment could explain why the rigid grid was elaborated by the addition of multiple lines painted close together in the 1930s.  His work remained complex and the scale of the units was reduced but these paintings, bristling with lines, look less serene and more energetic.

Mondrian’s time in Paris was once again interrupted by another war.  In 1938 he fled Paris and went to London, where the house next door was bombed.  From London, Mondrian went to New York, a city he fell in love with.  New York in 1940 was a city giddy from being on the edge of another great war.  Mondrian, a lover of “jasband” and of modern dance, was in the capital of jazz. For him, jazz, like the color white, was the essence of modernity.  Jazz dancing was made up of straight lines in contrast to the old fashioned round waltz.  In Holland, he had long been known for his stylized dancing and his spiritual upward gaze, which won him the nickname “the dancing Madonna.”  Wearing his neat round eyeglasses, Mondrian went dancing with the likes of Lee Krasner.  He was surprisingly active in the New York art world, urging Peggy Guggenheim to support Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock.

One gets the feeling that the artist became a social being in his old age.  In Paris he was alone and not much celebrated; in New York, he became a respected and sought-after artist.  The abstract painter, Charmoin von Weingand, wrote eloquently of his pristine white studio and after his death the famous room was open to the public. Under the influence of the bright lights and the syncopated rhythms of the new city, Mondrian painted New York City of 1942. In Painting as Model, Yve-Alain Bois pointed out that Mondrian preferred the electric lighting of New York to the gaslights of Paris and he preferred to paint at night.  After 1942, Mondrian eliminated the black line. He may have looked for the “truly modern man,” meaning the human who understood the essence of his or her time, but he was equally enchanted with jazz music and bright lights of Broadway, which may or may not be essential to modernity.

Mondrian honored the city of his exile with a series of three paintings that took advantage of a newly discovered material, the colored tapes seen in the New York City series. The artist had always worked intuitively and constantly adjusted the  grid lines of his paintings. Suddenly, with tape, he had a easy way to make these adjustments.  As one tape crossed over another, the two colors combined to make a third and the intersection became a three dimensional point. These tapes promoted him to tape and re-tape until he had canvases hanging on the stark white walls festooned with bits and pieces of color. This new approach to composition would give rise to the question of finality of these final works.  His last great paintings were Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie. Gridded with colored lines, Victory Boogie-Woogie was in progress when Mondrian died of pneumonia in 1944.

With his life devoted to art, Mondrian had never married. His close friend, Harry Holtzman, was his sole heir and executor to his estate.  Holtzman had been an admirer of the work of Mondrian from the 1930s and, as Gail Levin recounts in her biography of Lee Krasner, went to Paris in 1934 to meet the artist.  The two artists became such close friends that, when the war broke out, Holtzman brought Mondrian to New York and helped him get settled in.  After Mondrian’s death, Holtzman spent years collecting his old friend’s writings and finally getting them published.  However, even the availability of Mondrian’s thinking, which showed that his art was a manifestation of Theosophy, could not prevent the elimination of his spirituality in favor of a more formal reading of his paintings.  As late as the 1970s Holtzman wrote in protest about an art critic describing Mondrian’s work as “geometric.”

“Geometric” implied a particular style of painting: Cubist derived and opposed to Surrealism.  This was New York thinking but not Mondrian’s purpose.  His use of geometric forms was linked to the regularity of the rules that guided the universe.  But under the spell of pragmatic American art criticism and art history, Mondrian became a exemplar of “flatness”—Clement Greenberg’s theories.  Mondrian’s adherence to Theosophy, a philosophy unfamiliar to contemporary Americans, did not come to light again until the 1986 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, The Spiritual in Art; Abstract Painting. 1890-1985.

The next post deals with De Stijl Architecture.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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