Trapped in Holland, Piet Mondrian joined an artist’s colony in Laren where he joined forces with painter Bart van der Leck and the leader of the De Stijl movement, Theo van Doesburg. Van Doesburg was an old friend who had praised Mondrian’s 1915 almost abstract work, Pier and Ocean also called Plus and Minus. Both van der Leck and van Doesburg were exploring a path that could convey the spiritual foundations of De Stijl. As Susanne Deicher noted, when Mondrian was at home in the Netherlands, he changed his social habits and began to make contacts with the right sort of people in Amsterdam to whom he wrote describing his current works. These efforts paid off and he acquired the support of the Kröller-Müller family, who sponsored a number of Dutch artists. From his actions, it seems as if he returned from Paris a changed artist who increased confidence. Mondrian arrived as a Symbolist and left was a Cubist with his own take on the style that was unique and quite separate from Picasso, Braque and the Salon Cubists. Like all artists who had spent time in Paris, in close contact with leading artists and cutting edge ideas, Mondrian returned, not exactly a conquering hero, but with a veneer of sophistication. Deicher also observed that he did more thinking and writing than painting, as if he were pausing to gather his new thoughts into a coherent philosophy. As she wrote, “He moved to Laren, an artists’ colony going back to the 19th century, where he showed himself to be extremely interested in the life and though of avant-garde theorists and artists of the place. He was never without his notebook, which he would bring out even in company, in order to record what he heard as sell as noting his own contributions to the discussions.” It is at this point that Mondrian and van Doesburg became acquainted, with the recently returned artist sharing “his own knowledge of the latest developments in French art with him.” Even these ideas and events were, by then, out of date, they were relevant, with Cubism frozen in place by the War. Mondrian and van Doesburg became a center for a number of like-minded artists, architects and designers, for whom van Doesburg launched De Stijl in 1917. Given that Mondrian had produced only one painting in 1916, the journal was a fortuitous outlet for his burgeoning writings. The next two years were a period of exploration of the connections between his ideas—now without God but still echoing the ideals of Theosophy and Platonic philosophy–and his paintings, an awkward lot that betray a fumbling towards an end that was not yet known to the artist.
Mondrian needed to develop a style or an approach to art that was not temporal or specific and that was universal. During his study of Cubism, Mondrian came to a realization about Picasso and Georges Braque and the limitations of their art. The Dutch artist stated later that “Gradually I became aware that Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction toward its ultimate goal, the expression of pure reality..” Cubism, Mondrian concluded had not recognized the logical conclusion which was abstraction. Daniel Herwitz explained, “..Mondrian believes that Picasso’s discovery” was an abstract one, and he aims to complete the cubist task as he sees it: following through the “logical consequences” of cubism, developing it into a fully abstract style of painting capable of presenting an idealized reality..”
In the Netherlands, he moved towards abstraction but finding his own voice within the conviction that art should be abstract was another step, one that would take years, as he moved from theory to practice to object. Mondrian often wrote for De Stijl, expounding upon his complex concepts about his painting, as if he were painting in order to write and writing in order to paint. For Mondrian the evolution of painting was linked to the evolution of humanity, moving away from Materialism and towards spirituality. Starting from Cubism as his platform, in 1914 Mondrian eliminated color and shifted to monochrome and gave up representation for abstraction. As Herwitz wrote in Making Theory/Constructing Art: On the Authority of the Avant-Garde, “In Holland he commences on his project of pictorial clarification, his plan of recasting nature according to a completely abstract plan of composition, a plan capable of showing the real underneath things. This necessitates further pictorial innovations on the part of Mondrian. His cubist works, while more abstract than Picasso’s or Braque’s, had nevertheless retained the underlying suggestion of figuration through their oval figure/ground arrangement. Those pictures may be about lines and cubes but their mazelike interlocking of lines and planes, set ovally against the backdrop of grey or color in the manner of Picasso’s work of 1910 or 1911, cannot help but make the oval itself figural. by 1917-18 Mondrian had removed this trace of portraiture, freeing his pictures into the realm of complete abstraction. His compositional plan is no longer oval but square; his lines and boxes are no longer placed figurally in the middle of the canvas, surrounded by background color space at the borders of the picture frame. Rather, Mondrian composes his squares and lines so that no surrounding space which could be construed as ‘ground’ is left. No trace of figuration remains, all is a matter of internal harmonization or calibration of the inner parts of the composition into a single whole. These works, poised as they are between the forces of stillness and vibrancy, are works in which the whole dominates over the parts, as if it were a single chord in music whose elements have just been tuned, whose tuning is beautiful because so subtle (a shade of difference would be enough to throw the entire compositional chord in disarray). Yet the whole is paradoxically tuned through the intensely asymmetrical interplay between the parts (the individual squares) whose asymmetries of color and placement force the eye to oscillate between focus on one and focus on the other, as if each part is asserting its visual centrality..”
Mondrian never gave up his nineteenth century Symbolism of his belief in Theosophy which he bent and shaped into a style suitable for the twentieth century. He was painting—not the modern world—but the universe itself as expressed symbolically through the primary colors, captured in a black and white grid that both controlled and expanded the field of the composition. Using the intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines, which expanded to the edges of the support, one could imagine his small and carefully crafted paintings as being conceptual fragments of the endless and boundless universe. Mondrian’s ideas, expressed in his 1918 essay “Neo Plasticism in Pictorial Art,” did not resonate with his colleagues, who were more material and more practical than he, although they understood the concepts of the elemental when it came to form.
As Mondrian wrote, “Art, although an end in itself, like religion, is the means through which we can know the universal and contemplate it in plastic form.” Mondrian’s struggle to find the words to explain this new direction in his art reflected the fact that, at this time, there was literally no discourse on abstraction. Except for spiritual concepts, no aesthetic or philosophical language existed to explain the artist’s intention or the goal of painting, which explains the adherence of the artists, Kandinsky and Malevich and Mondrian who were abstract artists, to Theosophy. Using Theosophy as a conceptual guide, Mondrian had to invent abstraction as a discursive style. However, the De Stijl artists used a specific palette of colors, those that were elemental—red, yellow, blue, black, white, and gray. In adopting the approach that included essential colors and universal lines, vertical and horizontal, Mondrian put forward his own version of De Stijl ideas, Neo Plasticism, the topic of his convoluted writings. He wrote, “The appearance of natural forms changes but reality remains constant. To create pure reality plastically, it is necessarily to reduce natural forms to the constant of form and primary color.” And then he said, “Plastic art shows that real form is not mutual equality but mutual equivalence. In art, forms and colors have different dimension and position, but are equal in value.”
Achieving the appropriate abstraction was easier said than done. Mondrian had to make many seemingly small but significant decisions and it these early years he was in a painterly and intellectual dialogue with fellow De Stijl artist Bart van der Leck, who was also exploring total abstraction. Van der Leck, like other Dutch artists became interested in the flat design of Egyptian art as early as 1903 and within ten years, he was pairing the flat linear style he had developed with primary colors. The artist came from a blue collar family, which had little or no sympathy for his aspirations to be an artist. But the family was deeply socialist and imprinted the desire for a better world upon their unexpected son, who devoted most of his career to making murals about workers in the industries and enterprises in the Netherlands. Trained as a stained glass worker, van der Leck was one of artists of the Müller Company, a vast and wealthy organization with interests in shipping and mining and steel. His main patron was Helene Kröller-Müller, who used her wealth to collect art, especially Vincent van Gogh. According to Joshua Levine in his article, “The Vision Quest of Helene Kroller-Müller,” in 1912, she and her husband Anton Kröller, scoured Paris for all the available van Goghs, which would later become the centerpiece for their now-famous museum. Eventually, she would become an important supporter of Mondrian, but it was van der Leck who paved the way towards the reduction of color to the primaries and the reduction of forms based on planar geometry. It is important that his work for the Wm H. Müller & Company, then under the direction of Anton Kröller, was in graphic design. Van der Leck did a large stained glass window for the main offices of the company in the Hague and produced mosaics for the London office. The stained glass window, The Mining Business (1916), was the result of Van der Leck’s on the scene research of the mines in Africa and Spain owned by the Müller corporation. Taking advantage of the rigidity of stained glass, Van der Leck used geometry, eschewing naturalism for a tribute to the mechanics of mining, now a modern enterprise. The triptych has been reinterpreted by De Stijl scholar, Michael White, as having religious overtones with a geometricized and brightly colored account of “mining as sacrifice.” What White described as a process of “obliteration or masking,” led to an abstraction that “bound up” the work of Van der Leck “in the emergency of abstraction at the outset of De Stijl. Mondrian himself responded strongly to the idea of a triptych, the early form of Evolution, by handing a trio of transitional paintings, including one of the plus and minus works at the Hollandsche Kunstenaarskring exhibition in Amsterdam in 1917. For the most part, these paintings and their arrangement was too much like an inner dialogue not just between two artists but also inside of the mind of Mondrian for his intention to be understood.
As for Helene Kröller-Müller, she actually preferred the company artist–Van der Leck–to Mondrian who was on his own quest, but when van der Leck’s design work inevitably led to abstraction, the patron found it difficult to follow. This move to abstraction took place in 1916, some years before Mondrian.It is at this time, after he resigned from the company, that the artist moved to Laren. Here Van der Leck was briefly associated with De Stijl and was influenced in turn by the ideas begin formulated by Mondrian. In his book, Nijhoff, Van Ostaijen, “De Stijl”: Modernism in the Netherlands and Belgium in the First Quarter of the 20th Century. Six Essays, Francis Bulhof, discussed the significance of van der Leck’s murals and paintings for the shipping company upon the De Stijl artists, noting that “when Van Doesburg finally did accept direct stimulus from one of his future De Stijl colleagues, the unavoidable choice was not Mondrian but Van der Leck. Whereas Mondrian throughout 1916 continued to define the elements of line, plane and color without strict recourse to regular geometric configurations, mathematically sharp dividing edges and flat planes of color constituted the hallmark of Van der Leck’s penultimate figural style..Van Doesburg visited The Hague in the autumn of 1916 where he saw such Van der Leck paintings as Dock Labor and The Storm..Indeed, even Mondrian was later to acknowledge a debt to the flat planes of pure color in the schematic figural works from circa 1915-early 1916.”
Two points can be made about the early development of De Stijl art and architecture in relation to Mondrian’s evolution. First, it is unclear whether his road to abstraction was a simple extrapolation from the suggestions of Cubism. Mondrian’s process seems to have been a bit more complex and it appears that the artist was jolted into a new adjustment by the works of another artist in graphic design. Second, that design was always the underlying impetus for De Stijl, propelling painting and architecture together in a melding of art and design that became a distinctive style of painting and a distinctive style of architecture that would be the red, yellow and blue signature of the straight lines of De Stijl. Richard Padovan wrote in Towards Universality: Le Corbusier, Mies and De Stijl about Van der Leck that “He had begun as a stained-glass craftsman, and his art had developed in harmony with architecture through monumental wall decoration and advertising graphics..” When one shifts the view on De Stijl away from Cubism–the French source–and looks to a Dutch source–design and architecture–Mondrian’s difficult journey is less straightforward and was, indeed, further away from Cubism that a simple formal analysis might reveal. By 1918, Van der Leck extricated himself from the nascent movement and broke from Van Doesburg by 1920, following his own path. Van der Leck spent the rest of his career as a “functional designer” for Dutch companies and architects. Mondrian would take a different path.