An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Mondrian’s Expressionism

The natural and the spiritual

The acceleration triggered by the process of industrialization and the new rhythms of life, not to mention the advent of photography, contributed to the transformation undergone by the arts as from the second half of the 19th century. No longer required to provide a faithful depiction of detail, painters felt freer to interpret the appearances of the world.

In the wake of the so-called Dutch luministic painting, as well as the work of Vincent Van Gogh and the Fauves painters, Mondrian begun around 1907 to use bright colors corresponding more to his inner vision rather than the more immediate appearance of things. At the same time the landscapes of the naturalistic period are gradually stripped of houses and any other sign of human presence and seem designed to emphasize the endless space of an unspoiled nature:

As the art historian Hans L. C. Jaffé observes, “His confrontation in 1909 with the infinity of nature coincides with his joining the Netherlands Theosophical Society, where man’s union with the infinitude of the universe was a central problem.”

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

In the compositions that expand horizontally, the gaze opens up to the infinite dimension of nature, while the vertical compositions with the buildings bring everything back to the finite dimension in which the human being thinks, plans and builds to rise from a primitive condition of nature:

Sea Towards Sunset, 1909, Piet Mondrian
Sea Towards Sunset,
Oil on Cardboard,
cm. 41 x 76
Zoutelande Church Facade,
1909-10, Oil on Canvas, cm 62,2 x 90,7

Nature and non-nature

The history of mankind has been a slow and laborious process of emancipation from natural conditions ever since the Stone Age. In striving to improve their living conditions, human beings alter the landscape with architecture and transform nature into artifice (the countless objects and tools used for human life today). How are we to define artifice? Is it a natural product or only a human product? And if mankind is part of nature, are the plastic, concrete, glass and aluminum used to alter the landscape and move faster between continents the result of natural evolution? It seems as if nature creates a “non-nature” through mankind. A curious contradiction. A contrast that finds a visual rendering with a vertical opposed to an horizontal.

Moreover, the inner life of human beings is marked by the search for equilibrium between contradictory drives such as the natural instincts and what we call intellect, reason or mind or as Mondrian used to say the spiritual, and hence opposition between a part of us that is closer to the natural world and another that most distinguish and separate mankind from the rest of nature.

Nature and “non-nature”, the natural and the spiritual find concrete visual expression with the horizontal-vertical opposition. The painter appears to focus in this phase on expressing contrast, both with the alternation of opposing thrusts and through the use of strong colors. Yellow is opposed to pink or green; red is opposed to blue; horizontal compositions are juxtaposed with others characterized by marked vertical development.

Another recurrent subject during this phase is the figure of a bare tree.

While horizontal extension predominates in the landscapes and vertical development in the architectural volumes, the two opposing directions interpenetrate and relativize one another in the figure of the tree: 

Balance and harmony with nature

In the tree layout the artist imagines an ideal balance between the horizontal infinite expansion of nature and the concentrated, measured space of man-made vertical constructions. The fact that the artist finds in a tree the synthesis between nature and human artifice suggests that he has wished for an artifice in balance and harmony with nature. Think of today’s ecological question.

In the figure of the tree the branches extend disorderly toward the sides while the trunk leads them back to a central vertical unity. Space simultaneously expands horizontally and contracts vertically:

The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10, Piet Mondrian
The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10, Oil on Canvas,
cm. 70 x 99
Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Study of Trees 1, 1912, Black Crayon on Paper,
cm. 66 x 89,1

The tree becomes a visual metaphor of a search for equilibrium between opposites: The multifarious aspect of outer and inner nature as well as the unpredictable course of life (symbolically evoked by the crowded, irregular space of the branches) on the one hand and on the other the human spiritual quest for constancy and unity (symbolically evoked by the solid trunk). In other words, the trunk would symbolize the unifying consciousness of man addressing the unforeseeable variety of the world suggested here by the manifold space of the branches. 

Is this reality?

In this phase Mondrian was in search of space based on a relationship between opposing entities generating multiplicity and evoking unity at the same time. At this regard we shall make a concrete example: A tree looks like a small patch of green when seen from far distance but then grows larger and reveals an increasing number of parts as we draw closer before finally displaying an enormous degree of complexity when we observe every single leaf (not to mention their microscopic structure). The initial green spot has become a multifarious reality. If the process is reversed, the tree loses its complexity and reverts to a simple patch of green. Depending on the positional relationship established in each case with the object observed, unity reveals multiplicity which then reverts to a synthetic unity. What is the “true” nature and reality of the tree? In a world that changes so quickly today in accordance with the changing positional relationship we establish with things, does it still make sense to paint a tree from a single viewpoint and claim that this is reality?

Multiplicity and unity

A relationship between multiplicity and unity can be traced back in some early naturalistic works. Around 1899 Mondrian paints some trunks of beech trees in a wood.

Wood of Beech Trees, 1899, Piet Mondrian
Wood of Beech Trees, 1899, Watercolor and Gouache on Paper,
cm. 45,5 x 57
Wood of Beech Trees, 1899,

Each trunk has its own particular appearance and, all together, they express the sense of variety seen in nature. Toward the sides of the painting the horizontal line of the ground sharply contrasts with the vertical shapes of the trunks whereas in the central upper part horizontal and vertical merge together to become one. 

The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10, Piet Mondrian
The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10, Oil on Canvas, cm. 70 x 99
The Red Tree (Evening) with Diagram

Plastic symbols of a deeper reality

Mondrian was a great painter capable of transforming the surface of the canvas into a precious artifact as regards richness of texture, combinations of color, and dynamic balancing of the composition. It is essential to see the original works in order to appreciate all their beauty. His aim in painting those landscapes and architectures was not, however, solely to reproduce the fleeting appearance of things. The artist read and interpreted those objects as plastic symbols of a deeper reality, as visual metaphors of existential meanings. Mondrian’s eye addressed the objects and situations of the external world but pulsated with a wholly internal rhythm.