In his excellent book, De Stijl and Dutch Modernism, Michael White explained the struggle Mondrian went through during the War years. “What we think of as the first properly Neo-plastic painting were not made until after Mondrian returned to Paris in 1919. The war years, which he spent in the Netherlands, were difficult for him, personally and professionally, but they were crucial ones of transition..Not only was Mondrian between cubism and abstraction, he was also between two sets of ideas: the theosophical explanation of natural phenomena and the fully fledged theory of Neo-plasticism. By the later 1920s he was to extend this theory from being specifically about painting to incorporate all realms of human life..”
The questions seem simple and yet were full of portent: should the colors be pure or mixed? Should the squares float, implying a grid, or should they be anchored, pinned down by an obvious grid of black lines, and what is the source of the image—observed reality or abstract concepts? Each era has its own forms which hide the universal forms and he came to believe that style had to encompass but the universal and the particular, as he put it. Therefore, as he worked, Mondrian came to realize that “color planes set against a solid field do not form an entity.”
By 1918, he had moved to a gray grid of lines. Despite the common efforts of the De Stijl group, it was difficult for the confrères of Mondrian to understand the complexity behind his apparently simple forms. He felt very strongly that his primary colors, anchored by grid, and fixed in place by abstract principles. Art was evolving towards abstraction which became a statement of the collective consciousness of the age. Mondrian took years to find the proper way to express the modern consciousness and he realized that the basic problem was that of the grid itself. Mondrian, a former Cubist, also had to renounce his consciousness of the edge and come to the realization that the grid liberated him from the shape of the support. Once he seemed to grasp the solution to his problem, Mondrian’s work immediately changed and found its final form. When he returned to Paris in 1919, Mondrian made his grid lines thicker and blacker. The vertical and horizontal lines asserted their authority over the squares, which, in order to stand up to the strength of the grid, had to become pure and strong, settling the issue of muted colors. However, the primary colors were adjusted subtly as necessary and the so called non-colors—whites and grays rose in significance and played important roles in balancing the squares against one another. The artist was seeking equilibrium and order and stability.
Above all, Mondrian desired harmony. This harmony was not just a harmonious work of art but a harmonious society. If Mondrian thought in terms of oppositions and dialectics—male and female, order and disorder—it may have been a black and white response to the Great War. The last and perhaps most important step in the evolution of Neo-Plasticism was eliminating the difference between near and far, the second and third dimension. Once Mondrian strengthened the grid and intensified the yellow, deepened by blue and pitched up the red, the result was a collapsing of space and, incidentally, of time, freezing flux and achieving peace. Carel Blotkamp noted that “Abstraction, it seems, did not mean the same thing to Mondrian as it did for the other great pointer, Kandinsky. For Kandinsky, it was a matter of liberating the expressive form; he dreamt of a new, articulated system of signs, whereby it would be possible to express feelings, or other communications of an individual nature, without any reference to visible reality. Mondrian, by contrast, abstracted the visible phenomenon until he felt that he had found the common denominators that forced the essence of reality, the true reality behind eh illusion that make up the visible world. For this reason, he referred to his own art as abstract-realistic painting. The process of abstraction took him many years..”
By 1920, in Paris, the Dutch efforts, both painterly and philosophical, on the part of Mondrian began to take a final shape. The final abstract approach to painting combined the juxtaposition and opposition of vertical and horizontal lines of the plus and minus works with Van der Leck’s use of primary colors. Mondrian realized that equilibrium and balance could be achieved through forces that worked against each other or as he said, “I recognized that the equilibrium of any particular aspect of nature rests on the equivalence of its opposites.” The lines, therefore, form a grid which can separate the blocks of color and unite them inside the structure. The grid is both open and closed, the edge of the support acts as a cutting device, abruptly ended in the composition but implying expansion beyond the borders. As Dee Reynolds stated in Symbolist Aesthetics and Early Abstract Art: Sites of Imaginary Space, “From 1920, the colour composition takes on more importance in its own right, as the colours become more saturated and almost entirely primary, and constitute a ‘counterpoint’’ to the formal composition. Bart van der Leck was already juxtaposing unmixed primary colors in 1916, but Mondrian, with his concern for equilibrium, felt the need to mix primary colors with white in order to balance their tonal values. Now, however, he was discovering a new kind of equilibrium, which was based on equivalence of opposites rather than on symmetry..Mondrian later described how in these paintings ‘space became white, black or grey; form became red, blue or yellow..It was evident that rectangles, like all particular forms, obtrude themselves and must be neutralized through the composition. In fact, rectangles are never an aim in themselves but a logical consequence of their determining lines, which are continuous in space; they appear spontaneously through the crossing of horizontal and vertical lines.’” In these early years in post-war Paris, Mondrian’s black lines were thicker than they were in the 1930s and the rectangles, both “empty” and “filled” with colors, were larger than they would be in the following decade. But by the early 1920s, Mondrian’s philosophical take on painting, as complex and as slow as it was, was fixed.
Once assured of his path, Mondrian took the essays on Neo Plasticism from De Stijl and turned them into a book, Le Neo-Plasticisme, published by Léonce Rosenberg. Upon his return to Paris, Mondrian realized that Picasso had abandoned Cubism for retrograde classicism, Braque had become conservative, and the Salon Cubists were focusing on marketability. Given that the art world was returning to order, he now stood alone as the most advanced and avant-garde artist in Paris. Mondrian was fifty years old at this point. After five years in exile, Mondrian had worked hard and long to achieve his final style and he had become rigid in his philosophy, a stance that isolated him from his more flexible colleagues. But there was an aura about Mondrian that attracted abstract artists who made the pilgrimage to his Spartan studio at 26 Rue du Depart in Montparnasse during the 1920s. He dedicated his work and his art, which was the achievement of logic and deep thought, to “the man of the future.”
In 1924, Mondrian left the De Stijl movement. It was not only that he was a long way from his Dutch colleagues or that their work had taken roads quite different from his own but that Theo van Doesburg began use the diagonal line. For Mondrian, the diagonal was simply impermissible in his universe, which was timeless and unchanging. The diagonal with its implications of mobility, dynamism, and thus change had no place in Mondrian’s practice and the two artists went their separate ways. De Stijl ended when, after a vigorous career spreading the tenets of modern art and design, Van Doesburg died in 1931.
Like many artists of his generation, Mondrian was forced to flee another war, when the Germans resumed their campaign to conquer Europe. Wary of being disrupted by yet another war, unlike Picasso and Braque and the other Cubists, Mondrian did not remain in Paris. In 1938, recognizing the signs of danger, his first stop was London, but by the end of 1939, he made his way to New York City, far away from battlefields. Mondrian lived the last years of his life in New York, a city of bright lights, jazz and swing dancing, brightening the life of the artist who loved the urban grid flickering with incandescence. It was here, with his last grid paintings drying on easels, that Mondrian died in 1944.