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Between unity and multiplicity
Almost all the planes of Fig. 2 differ from one another in terms of form. A composition expressed as a chromatic variation of the same measurements (Fig. 1) gives way to a space where there is change in the size and shape of each individual colored plane. Multiplicity is now expressed both through color and form.
With respect to Fig. 2, where everything randomly changes, Fig. 3 presents a more homogeneous set of planes:
The planes highlighted in Fig. 3 diagram display analogous proportions whereas those outside this area are developed more freely. As a whole, those planes form a vertical field stretching from the bottom to the top of the canvas. The vertical field corresponds to two approximate square forms placed one above the other. As in the case of some previous works, Mondrian again adopts a constant parameter serving to establish a more controlled rhythm in the alternation of planes.
Observation of Fig. 2, 3, 4 in sequence reveals that the compositions tend toward a certain order. While everything changes in Fig. 2, a part of the composition develops various combinations of the same basic module in Fig. 3 and even more so in Fig. 4:
Let us examine Fig. 4 and an additional similar work Composition C (Fig. 5):
We note here two contiguous yellow planes of rectangular proportions verging on squares. The same shape reappears lower down once in red and once in light gray. On the right, a large blue area proves to be the sum of the initial module repeated twice vertically:
Lower down we have three rectangles – one yellow, one black, and one dark gray – presenting proportions that are half the initial module. Though different both in color and in size, these planes are based on the same parameter. Each is an expansion or contraction, either vertical or horizontal, of a pre-established unit of measurement.A
A measured development
After a phase of greater constancy to be observed in the central area, everything changes unpredictably.
Returning to the eight planes that are wholly proportional to the module, we note that they form a large square when viewed all together. It is a slightly more horizontal square to compensate for the vertical development of the canvas. The space in this square field displays a certain degree of constancy whereas everything changes around it.
With a large square visibly structured and colored within, Mondrian seeks in Composition B to present a unitary synthesis open to multiplicity, almost as though intent on effecting interpenetration between the white rectangular unity of Checkerboard with Light Colors and the three rectangles – one yellow, one red, and one blue – in its immediate vicinity:
In Composition B (Fig. 4) we contemplate a colored synthesis we have glimpsed at in Checkerboard with Dark Colors:
Colors influence the perception of form
The large square form appears to open in the top left corner and expand upward through a red plane that is no longer based on the initial module.
The contrast between black and blue in the lower right section appears so faint (in the original more so than in reproductions) as to suggest continuity between one hue and the other and hence a reopening of the form. Chromatic value has an influence on the clarity with which the form is perceived.
Observation of the red shows how variations in size and proportion can make the same color look different. This is accentuated by relations with the neighboring colors. The red appears almost lighter alongside black than gray or yellow, next to which it appears to acquire greater weight and solidity.
In relation with one another
Things have no value in themselves but are defined and acquire value in relation to one another. It is not possible to single out an entity and appraise it independently of its context. A space of this nature can serve as a sort of gymnasium in perceiving the value of things as they take on relative and temporary qualities through reciprocal influence. Such space can be a stimulus to contemplation of the changing complexities of present-day reality.
Fig. 5 – Diagram B: The two squares, one black (A) and one grayish-white (B), in diagram B express a condition of equilibrium between opposites. The two squares are placed one above the other, one darker and heavier, the other lighter in both senses. The composition displays a balance of vertical and horizontal and of black and white in this area, i.e. a synthesis of opposites in terms both of form and of color.
A multicolored unity
Reading the composition again from the bottom up, we see a black square, a white square, and a third made up of yellow, red, and blue. These three squares give birth to a unitary synthesis dynamically transposed into the vertical. Proceeding vertically from the bottom of the composition, we have the two opposite values (black and white square forms) that open up to the three primary colors, as well as to variations in the vertical-horizontal relationship (D and E).
With the three vertically placed square forms (A, B, C, D, E) we contemplate a dynamic synthesis of elements which Mondrian identified as plastic symbols for the spiritual (vertical, white, black) and the natural (horizontal, yellow, red, blue):
This is why I consider the Checkerboard with Dark Colors as an intermediary stage between Checkerboard with Light Colors and Compositions B and Composition C.
When van Doesburg talked to Mondrian about founding an art magazine, Mondrian was initially reluctant. He thought that the times were not ripe, that Doesburg should be satisfied with a column in a small newspaper and that the spread of new ideas could only go slowly, gradually. Nevertheless, van Doesburg’s entrepreneurial spirit won out and in October 1917 the first issue of De Stijl was published.
When Mondrian returned to Paris in February 1919, the magazine De Stijl regularly published monthly sequels to essays written by the artist. Eager to make his ideas known to the French, Mondrian had been writing more than he painted for over three years. He got help for the translation and publishes in 1920 at his own expense a brochure entitled “The Neoplasticism” that however did not arouse the hoped for interest also because of a rather clumsy translation. The publication will also be ignored by art critics.
Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Sa Vie, son Oeuvre, 1956
The need for a visible unity
As mentioned, Composition B (Fig. 4) and Composition C (Fig. 5) try to express unity in a composite form:
The large square of Composition B (Fig. 4) evoking a composite unity can be seen as purging itself of all multiplicity to become a homogeneous white field defined by black lines while the three primary colors (symbolizing the natural) return to the outer area.(Fig. 6):
A greater level of synthesis
The square area in the center of Fig. 6 suggests a certain parameter of constant space, whereas all the rest displays free variation of the perpendicular relationship oscillating between the predominance of one direction or color and another.
In short, Mondrian returns here to the conception of unity expressed in Fig. 1, i.e., a unity of the two opposite values, black and white, but with the substantial difference that, with respect to Fig. 1, the composition has now become wholly asymmetric and the sense of variation is no longer expressed solely through color but also through form:
Observe the sequence below. All the variety of Fig. 1 is gradually reduced until all that is left on the canvas is what could be interpreted as a part on which the painter seems determined to concentrate. This part includes the white unity and three planes, each in a primary color and each now differing from the others in size and shape (Fig. 6):
There is a choral sense of variation in Fig. 1 with a large number of equal shapes varying in appearance only through color. The new canvases (Fig. 4 and 6) present a smaller number of parts that vary both in form and in color to make every point in the space unique and unrepeatable. There is a decrease in the number of parts but an increase in their reciprocal diversity. The sense of multiplicity expressed in primarily quantitative terms now gives way to a sense of multiplicity expressed through difference in quality.
The layout of Fig. 6 was to become the model for nearly all the canvases painted by Mondrian during the early 1920’s, where the compositions develop a large white square defined on four sides by black lines and placed in a state of dynamic equilibrium by asymmetric fields of whitish, gray, yellow, red, and blue planes:
Every canvas of 1921- 22 expresses space in a state of unstable equilibrium between a variety of heterogeneous situations and a component tending toward greater uniformity and constancy. Each part seeks to distinguish and separate itself from the others. The space grows and multiplies through diversification while remaining more homogeneous in the center, where it expresses a synthesis of all the variation in shape, size and color between two opposite values – horizontal and vertical, white and black – which find a synthesis in the white square area marked by black lines.
The square form
Mondrian does not see the square form as a closed and pre-established geometric shape but rather the given moment in which the relationship between opposites (horizontal and vertical) attains a certain balance which is then lost when they again start to challenge and attain predominance over one another. The balance between opposites is of a dynamic nature same as the equilibrium between contrasting impulses we often search within ourselves.
Certain critics have often stressed the geometric aspect of Neoplastic painting, thereby prompting reactions on the part of others who reject the reductive view of Mondrian’s art as “geometry” for its own sake. This may be because few have understood the marginal role actually played by geometric schemata in the evolution of Mondrian’s visual thinking and in the work of true abstract painters in general.
Around 1925 Theo van Doesburg introduced what he called Elementarism in his new works: the composition based on the diagonal.
Mondrian, who had regarded van Doesburg as one of the few people with whom he had a close spiritual affinity, was bitterly disappointed by van Doesburg’s failure to understand the dynamic equilibrium of opposites (horizontal and vertical) Mondrian had set forth as a fundamental element of his work and De Stijl.
The artistic break with van Doesburg was definitive; on a personal level, however, they resumed contact some time later.
In the spring of 1925, the art critic Paul Sanders is in Paris and frequently visits Mondrian in his studio.
The painter entertains Sanders by telling him about the great potential of radio and phonographic music reproduction, jazz, and electronic music.
Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Sa Vie, son Oeuvre, 1956
In the compositions of the early 1920’s the lines stop short of the edge of the canvas. It is almost as though they were blocking one another, as though Mondrian wanted to make the colored planes more independent and give greater freedom to color, which is defined and limited on the canvas but expands freely in the vicinity of the edges and outside, that is to say, towards the real world where all kind of forms and colors randomly and sometimes chaotically interact with one another. The canvas instead is the place where all forms and colors are distilled and come together in harmonious ways.
In Fig. 10 to the right of a large red square and to the right of a smaller black square below (2), we see a slightly more horizontally developed whitish square field crossed by a vertical segment (4) and slightly more vertically developed grayish square field crossed by a horizontal segment (3):
This too is a way of evoking a sense of variation while keeping the space comparatively constant, with the same configuration (a square concept) changing position, proportions, and colors. This is a way of opening up unity (the square) to multiplicity or showing multiplicity evoking at the same time a tendency towards synthesis and unity.
Everything seems subject to change in these compositions in terms of form or color. The space is in motion. More balanced syntheses are generated every so often (Fig. 10 and Fig. 11 Squares 1, 2, 3, 4).
Fig. 11: It is form that establishes equivalence in the lower-right corner while color blue reopens it. Elsewhere It is instead color more than form that generates a large blue field of square shape (Fig. 12).
The square unit is stirred by an asymmetric distribution of colored planes of various size and proportions. Mondrian suggests the uncertain and temporary nature of our attempts to find balance and unity of opposites.
Every Neoplastic composition expresses this dialectic between the contradictory aspects and the unforeseeable flow of existence in everyday 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 size, proportion and color change it.
In 1921 financial problems induced Mondrian to consider abandoning painting altogether. However, various friends in Holland helped him to obtain commissions either for copies, watercolors and drawings of flowers which finally enabled him to keep his head above water.
In the same year a painting by Mondrian was included in the exhibition “Les Maitres du Cubisme” organized by Léonce Rosenberg at his Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris. Rosenberg, unable to sell Mondrian’s work, promised Mondrian the purchase of six paintings. This promise was not kept because of the failure of the exhibition.
In 1923 Mondrian met the Belgian writer, poet, painter and art theorist Michel Seuphor who became Mondrian’s colleague and friend. In the first Mondrian biography (1956) Seuphor writes: “Once he had laid the foundations for the new language called Neoplasticism, Mondrian worked to explore all its possibilities without ever exhausting its potential. How many times, during this long Parisian period, did I have to listen to comments referred to Neoplastic compositions such as “laziness of spirit”, “stupid stubbornness”, “incapacity for renewal” etc.? I used to caricature these kind of remarks by ironically stating that Mondrian did in fact repeatedly paint only one work.”
Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Sa Vie, son Oeuvre, 1956
Other compositions of the same period present a medium-sized or large white square that is left open to the upper right corner (Fig. 13) or to the left (Fig. 14):
Some canvases of this period display splendid subtle variations of gray, whereas the yellows, reds, and blues sometimes appear understated.
The continuous interaction between opposites that produces open and unstable situations elsewhere is transformed into interpenetration that generates balance and harmony with the square.
All these works show Mondrian’s endeavor to compenetrate the human desire for balance and certainty (the square proportion) with the unpredictable variety of life (imbalances between horizontals and verticals of changing color) without sacrificing either aspect.
A vision of the whole
Even when the square ratio seems to prevail, the balance of the composition is influenced by all the elements and not only by the square. Every part is unique and unrepeatable but nevertheless contributes to the overall economy of the work, and it is precisely a vision of the whole that determines the relative value of each individual part. It is important to reassert that we use the word „square“ to describe a balanced relationship between horizontal and vertical which is in fact never a preconceived geometrical form.
Mathematics have nothing to do with Neoplastic space. Every square proportion of each individual composition is different from the other according to the context: here we see a slightly more vertical square and there a square which slightly expands horizontally.
Heaven or hell
There are no elements in Neoplastic space endowed with absolute validity. It is therefore not the square in itself but the whole, i.e. a space that starts from a condition of change, attains momentary equilibrium, and then flows back into the unstable alternation of situations. If constancy predominates, the space is atrophied in a static square and bears little resemblance to life.
Conversely, if change prevails, the space is in danger of becoming chaotic and appeals less to the human mind. The subtle balances produced in Neoplastic space are a transposition of the far more complex and never achieved equilibriums of existence. How many times in our lives have we had the impression of being able to attain a stable and lasting balance that is then always challenged by existence? We often suffer imbalances between the opposing impulses of instincts and mind and we would always like to find balance and unity of our being, that is, our own inner paradise.
Many times during an existence one can reach paradise and many times one can find oneself in hell; what Mondrian called the tragic; when duality (diabolus) (from the Greek dia = through and ballo = to put in the middle, to separate, to create fractures) lacerates the integrity of consciousness and unity is lost. Unity is manifested with an equivalence of horizontal and vertical (the square proportion) while elsewhere the horizontal prevails and dominates over the vertical and vice versa.