An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

A visual presentation

A glance at Mondrian’s oeuvre evolution process

This page presents the major steps of Mondrian’s oeuvre evolution process from the first naturalistic paintings up to the last Neoplastic abstract compositions.

How does the Dutch painter come to a space based on perpendicular lines and yellow, red and blue colors?

The visible

The artist begins to paint in accordance with the tested canons of the naturalistic painting, otherwise called figurative:

Fig. 1
Farm Scene with St. Jakob’s Church, 1899
Fig. 2
Wood of Beech Trees, 1899
Fig. 3
House on the Gein, 1901

The interpretation of the visible

Around 1907, the earlier landscapes of the naturalist phase are stripped of trees, houses, and any sign of human presence and seem to want to express an unspoiled nature:

Fig. 4
Stammer Mill with Streaked Sky, 1905-06
Fig. 5
The Red Cloud, 1907-08
Fig. 6
Seascape, 1909

At the same time the painter’s attention turns to constructions such as mills and lighthouses:

Fig. 4
Stammer Mill
1905-06
Fig. 7
Mill at Domburg
1907-08
Fig. 8
Lighthouse
1909

In the compositions that expand horizontally, the gaze is opened to the infinite dimension of nature while in the vertical architectural volumes everything is concentrated in a finite space in which human beings think, design and build to rise from a primitive condition of nature.   

While an horizontal extension prevails in the natural landscapes and vertical development in the architectural volumes, the two opposite directions interpenetrate in the figure of a tree:

Fig. 6
Seascape, 1909 with Diagram
Church Tower at Domburg, 1911, Piet Mondrian, with Diagram
Fig. 9
Church Tower at Domburg,
1911 with Diagram
Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 10
Study of Trees 1, 1912 with Diagram
Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 10
Study of Trees 1, 1912, Black Crayon on Paper, cm. 66 x 89,1 with Diagram

In the tree the branches extend horizontally toward the sides while the trunk leads them back toward the center.

The later abstract compositions formed by horizontal and vertical lines are already present in the figure of the tree although still in a form veiled by appearances.

The visible and the invisible

Around 1912 the space evolves in a cubist sense (Fig. 10 – 11 – 12). The basic structure of the tree reappears within a rectangle at the center of an abstract composition (Fig. 12) where a multiplicity of horizontal and vertical strokes now express in a clearer form the disordered set of branches in the naturalist tree:

Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 10
Study of Trees 1,
1912 with Diagram
Tableau N. 2, Composition N. VII, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 11
Composition VII
1913
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 12
Composition II
1913 with Diagram
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 12
Composition II, 1913, Oil on Canvas, cm. 88 x 115 with Diagram

The relationship between horizontal and vertical, which is expressed in a rather univocal and static way (Fig. 10), multiplies (Fig. 11) and takes on ever changing combinations (Fig. 12). One could say that a single tree (Fig. 10) appears now in many different ways albeit in abstract form, that is, in essential terms. While the composition expresses a variety of precarious relationships between opposites, the central rectangle shows a steady relationship between the opposing directions that elsewhere tends instead to become unbalanced in a variety of ever-changing situations The rectangle suggests something more stable and enduring (the spiritual) in a sea of changing situations and precarious balances (the natural evolution of existence).

From a rectangle to a square

All this is confirmed by new works that take as their motif a pier extending into the sea (Fig. 13 – 14). The artist probably saw the pier structure as a solid element, the symbol of permanence, interpenetrating with the dynamic flow of the sea. Permanence is invoked by the spiritual with respect to the manifold aspect of nature and changeable course of life.

Fig. 10
Study of Trees 1,
1912 with Diagram
Fig. 13
Picture of a similar whereabout
Fig. 14
Pier and Ocean 2,
1914 with Diagram

The pier develops from the bottom-center of the composition (like the trunk of the tree) and same as the trunk with respect to the branches, the vertical pier tends to concentrate the horizontal expansion of nature (the sea).

Pier and Ocean 2, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 14
Pier and Ocean 2,
1914 with Diagram
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 15
Pier and Ocean 4,
1914 with Diagram
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian with Diagram
Fig. 16
Pier and Ocean 5,
1915 with Diagram

The interaction between the vertical of the pier and the horizontal of the sea generates a vague quadrangular area (Fig. 14) that in the center-high area of Fig. 15 concentrates into a series of square proportions that finally become a single square expressing the most balanced of relationships between the opposite directions (Fig. 16).

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian with Diagram
Fig. 16
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, with Diagram

Just as in the figure of a tree (Fig. 10), the vertical trunk unites a multiplicity of branches, a rectangle (Fig. 12) and then a square (Fig. 16) unite in a more balanced form a multiplicity of unbalanced relationships between horizontal and vertical strokes:

Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 10
Study of Trees 1
1912 with Diagram
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 12
Composition II
1913 with Diagram
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 16
Pier and Ocean 5
1915 with Diagram

By reducing the ever-changing appearance of the world to a multitude of orthogonal signs, Mondrian performs an arbitrary operation with respect to our common perception of reality. However, this allows him to express on the contained space of the pictorial surface the widest diversity while maintaining something constant (the perpendicular relationship).

The process of abstraction allows the artist to contemplate the infinite variety of the world without sacrificing the idea of synthesis and unity that arises from his inner world. Each sign is different from the other but they all share the same intimate essence (the orthogonal relationship), just as every single thing in nature is different from the other but they all share the same basic elements that reveal an invisible overall design.

“There is a common design to all things, plants, trees, animals, humans and it is with this design that we should be in consonance.” (Henri Matisse)

The task of faithfully representing the fleeting appearance of things has since been taken over by photography.

The square proportion that took shape during the cubist phase (Fig. 16) will inform almost all the works Mondrian paints in the course of the 1920’s and the 1930’s (Fig. 17 – 18 – 19).

Composition with Blue, Yellow, Red and Gray, 1922, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 17
Composition with Large Red Plane, Bluish Gray, Yellow, Black Blue, 1922
Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1927, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 18
Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1927
Composition C with Gray and Red, 1932, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 19
Composition C with Gray and Red, 1932

The square will be a constant element but one that is in constant flux and unstable balance between opposing directions. In Fig. 16 already we can see a variety of squares that are not quite reached like the central one:

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian with Diagram
Fig. 16
Pier and Ocean 5
1915 with Diagram

The squares which remain incomplete evoke a sense of variation (the infinite shapes of nature and the never fully attained balances between opposites we strive for during our lives) while the central balanced square suggests the possibility to reach the ideal unity invoked by the spiritual within us.

A new plastic language

The synthesis and unity evoked by the square is dynamic and therefore reopens to the multiplicity of rectangles of different size, proportion and color:

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian with Diagram
Fig. 16
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, with Diagram
Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 20
Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, with Diagram
Composition B, 1920, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 21
Composition B, 1920 with Diagram

The drawn squares we see in Fig. 16 become a variety of colored squares (Fig. 20) that unite into one large square of colors (Fig. 21) which becomes later a large white square (Fig. 22).

Fig. 22 presents a set of straight lines that generate a dynamic space in a state of unstable equilibrium between heterogeneous entities (areas of different sizes and colors) and an opposing tendency to concentrate and unify that variety in an ideal synthesis of opposite values (the white square field in which opposite black lines attain approximate same size). While one direction prevails over its opposite elsewhere, the two directions are equivalent in the square. In other words, though different, they acquire the same value, duality disappears and all of the multiple space generated by the continuous predominance of one direction over the opposite one is transformed into a relatively stable and unitary synthesis. The continuous interaction between opposites that produces open and unstable situations elsewhere is transformed into interpenetration that generates harmony through the central square.

Composition with Yellow, Red, Black. Blue and Gray, 1920, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 22
Composition with Yellow, Red,
Black. Blue and Gray
1920

Mondrian does not see the square as a closed and pre-established geometric shape but rather the given moment in which the relationship between opposite drives, i.e. horizontals and verticals, attains a certain balance which is then lost when the different aspects again start to challenge and attain predominance over one another. The balance of the composition is influenced by all the elements and not only by the square.

Each neoplastic composition expresses a dialectic between the changing aspects of existence and the human need to find something more stable and enduring. A square proportion holds the space constant while variations in shape to color change it. Prompted by the unpredictable flow of existence, we have to open ourselves to the new while on the other hand we try to preserve the balances until there.

Just as Mondrian chose out of all the possible relations of form the fundamental one expressing the utmost contrast (horizontal-vertical), in terms of color his eye preferred the fundamental primary colors. Moreover, yellow, red, and blue seemed to him the freshest and the best able to transform the painted surface into a living and exuberant reality.

Every Neoplastic composition expresses this dialectic between the changing aspects of life and the human need to stabilize them and find something of greater constancy and duration. A square form keeps space constant while differences in proportion and color change it. We are constantly stimulated by the unforeseeable flow of existence in everyday life and open up to innovation on the one hand while seeking to maintain the integrity of our established equilibriums on the other.

A new vision of reality

Throughout the 1920’s the white square field (Fig. 22) reopens to a variety of square and non-square areas, now white and fully enclosed on four sides (Fig. 23 – 25), now blue, red or yellow opened on one on two sides (Fig. 24 – 26):

Composition II with Blue and Yellow, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 23
Composition II with Blue and Yellow
1930
Composition en Rouge, Bleu et Jaune, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 24
Composition en Rouge, Bleu et Jaune
1930
Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 25
Composition 1 with Red and Blue
1931

This is a way of evoking a sense of variation (the ten thousand different shapes of the nature around us) while keeping the space comparatively constant (the unity invoked by nature within us i.e. the spiritual).

Between 1920 and 1942 the square form is a constant feature but in a state of continuous evolution. The square is always different in appearance but always the same, just as the waves of the sea are always new and different from one another but still made of the same water.

Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 26
Composition with Blue and Yellow
1932
Composition A with Red and Blue, 1932, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 27
Composition A with Red and Blue
1932
Composition C3 with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 28
Composition C3 with Red, Yellow and Blue
1935

Nature and life still remain the primary source of inspiration for abstract art. The beauty of a flower is certainly a model to be examined and from which to learn. I am thinking of certain watercolors by Paul Klee, the enchanting fragrance of the natural colors, and the incredible wealth of forms that the world offers to our gaze. The ten thousand different lines that we see around us prove on closer examination to be a single interminable line, because in nature everything is different, manifold, infinite, and at the same time one. Everything is one just as every individual thing is a complex set of parts. the apparent simplicity of a leaf is a small universe and that the immensity of earthly nature is a bluish-white spot in the infinite space of the macrocosm. The immensity of earthly nature is as simple as a leaf, which is as complex as the entire planet. Multiplicity becomes unity and unity reveals multiplicity.

The last accomplished canvas:
A synthesis of Mondrian’s entire oeuvre

The interplay between multiplicity and unity lies at the heart of Neoplastic new vision of reality and will find magnificent representation in the last work completed by Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie:

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie 1942-43

The above is not just an exercise of cold geometry for its own sake.

“Art conveys the deepest thought by means of the simplest form.” (Albert Einstein)