Mondrian’s abstract work is possibly the most recognisable of all modern artists. Piet Mondrian grew up in Amersfoort in the Netherlands, and learned to paint with his father, who was a drawing teacher, and his uncle, also a keen artist. Although he had experimented a little with abstraction, Pieter Cornelius Mondriaan, as he was then known, was primarily a representational painter, although he experimented with other styles which were fashionable at the time, such as pointillism and Fauvism.
“Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have no value for man.” – Piet Mondrian
Around 1908, Mondrian became interested in Theosophy, a movement founded by a Russian woman, Helena Blavatsky, and he joined the Dutch branch of the Theosophical Society. The main tenets of Theosophy are:
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
- To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
Chasing spiritual knowledge through art led to him pursuing abstraction, and he became heavily influenced by the cubists, in particular the Moderne Kunstkring (Modern Art Circle) exhibition in Amsterdam had a profound effect on him.
“As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. The new plastic idea cannot therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation – this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour.” – Piet Mondrian
Soon after this exhibition he moved to Paris, marking his departure by changing his name to the now familiar Piet Mondrian. The more abstract elements start appearing in his work immediately after the move. This is most noticeable in The Sea, Horizontal Tree, and Still Life with Gingerpot II, all from 1911-1912.
World War I broke out while Mondrian was visiting the Netherlands. This forced him to remain for the duration of the conflict, isolating him from Paris, the centre of the art world at the time. His fortunes changed however, when he met Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg, two artists also journeying into abstraction.
The three began to refine the theory of their work, their ideas were later expanded on by M.H.J. Schoenmaekers, a mathematician and fellow Theosophist who published several essays on their proposals. These essays were the first output from what was later to become De Stijl. De Stijl was officially founded in 1917, and grew to 100 members and their journals had a circulation of 300.
In 1917 Mondrian coined the term Neoplasticism to describe the theory behind his work, and the design principles of De Stijl. The clearest explanation of his work came earlier though, in a letter he wrote 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.
It’s difficult to choose between them but I find the painting above, Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black, to be the strongest of his neoplastic work. It shows the pattern of Euclid’s Golden Ratio within it, and the large red square gives the eye a place to rest.
Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black is currently housed at the National Museum, Belgrade, Serbia.
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