An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Neoplasticism – Part 2

Between lines and square

Expansion and concentration

With respect to most of the canvases of the early 1920s:

Composition with Blue, Yellow, Red, Black and Gray, 1922, Oil on Canvas, cm. 42 x 50
Composition with Blue, Yellow,
Red and Black, 1922, Oil on Canvas, cm. 42 x 48,5

in the new works the lines acquire greater autonomy and the composition becomes more dynamic:

Composition with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black, 1929, Piet Mondrian
Composition with Red, Blue,
Yellow and Black, 1929, Oil on Canvas, cm. 45,1 x 45,3
Composition with Yellow, Blue, Black and Light-Blue, 1929, Piet Mondrian
Composition with Yellow, Blue, Black and Light-Blue, 1929, Oil on Canvas, cm. 50,5 x 50,5

The intuition of the whole

The lines have in fact grown in thickness and continue now beyond the perimeter of the canvases. As Maurizio Calvesi points out, the canvas is “an ideal center in which the spatial event is determined in its wholeness and totality no less than in its dynamic continuity. Mondrian wrote in 1920 that the straight lines intersect and touch one another tangentially but continue uninterruptedly. The result radiates out in fact from the painting to the infinite, but the canvas exhausts the intuition of the whole within itself.” The lines hint at the immeasurable extension of physical reality the canvas is part of; a part which aim at ideally concentrating the whole in its essence.

With the lines taking on the function of expressing space that continues uninterruptedly, the artist’s gaze can concentrate on the square and a smaller number of planes.

Finite and infinite

Composition en Rouge, Bleu et Jaune, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 10
Composition en Rouge, Bleu et Jaune, 1930, Oil on Canvas,
cm. 51 x 51

The two perpendicular lines running through these new compositions divide its plane into a series of open sections that expand, together with the lines, beyond the perimeter of the painting. We see the inner sections as squares only by relating them to the perimeter of the painting. It is the sides of the canvas that determine the proportions generating on the canvas. These compositions are therefore in dynamic equilibrium between a space expanding and the same space momentarily concentrated in finite and more stable relationships. This interaction between infinite space and finite space generates the proportions that work together with the weight of the colors toward a dynamic balancing of the whole.

Defined and undefined

Composition II with Blue and Yellow, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 11
Composition II with Blue and Yellow, 1930, Oil on Canvas,
cm. 50,5 x 50,5

The rectangular and square fields, large or small, are in unstable equilibrium between the infinite extension of the lines and the finite space of the canvas. These fields are defined and undefined at the same time. This interaction between definite space and indefinite makes the closed and stable square appear uncertain. Our quest for balance and unity is challenged by the unforeseeable course of life (the endless lines and the variable proportions nearing unity without ever really attain it). On observing these works, we are faced with a space that lasts and is already different a moment later.

Certain and uncertain

Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 12
Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931, Oil on Canvas, cm. 50,5 x 50,5
Fig. 12a
Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931,
Diagram

Fig. 12 presents four areas verging to the proportions of squares (1, 2, 4) which are fully accomplished in area 2 only which however remains open and therefore subject to the expanding action of the lines. The closed area 1 appears as the only well defined square (slightly horizontal to compensates the vertical prevalences of areas 3, 5, 6) while area 5 again suggests indeterminate proportions. The parts express an intimate sense of permanence and duration while everything is nonetheless on the verge of flux and motion.

Open and closed squares

Composition 1 with Yellow and Light Gray, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 13
Composition 1 with Yellow and Light Gray, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 50,5 x 50,5

Fig. 13: Two perpendicular lines and two segments generate planes tending toward square proportions. The visibly thicker vertical segment serves as a counterweight in the lower right section to the visual weight of the yellow square in the upper left section. This composition is a clear example of how we identify as squares areas which actually extend indefinitely beyond the space of the canvas.

Composition with Yellow, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 14
Composition with Yellow, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 46 x 46,5

Fig. 14: While the squares open up and expand in various works of this period, other compositions show a square proportion which appears in a closed form clearly defined by four sides. The two central perpendicular lines seem intent on pulling the square unit toward the upper section and the left, while the accent of color exerts a pull to the right. Unity is challenged by opposite directions. How often this happens during our daily lives.

Fig. 13: While the opposite lines “run away”, something remains to generate a variety of more or less square fields on the point of change. The painter seeks to express unresolved squares while maintaining their visibility at the same time (Fig. 14). These compositions express therefore dynamic situations resulting from a space expanding toward infinite (the opposite lines that continues uninterruptedly) and the same space momentarily concentrating in one or more finite squares.

An ideal balance

Composition with Yellow, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 14
Composition with Yellow, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 46 x 46,5

In Fig. 14 Mondrian appears to have wished to express a variety of uncertain square proportions a moment before or a moment after they attain equivalence, to express a variety of probable but not given for granted unitary syntheses, i.e. to diversify unity.

The message of these compositions seems to be that there is nothing more different than entities that appear to be almost the same.

Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 15
Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, Oil on Canvas, cm. 45,4 x 45,4
Fig. 16
Composition A with Red and Blue, 1932, Oil on Canvas, cm. 55 x 55

Fig. 16 consists of seven different areas; some verge to proportions of squares (1, 2, 3) while others show a prevalence of one direction over the opposite. 

Fig. 16a
Diagram

Square 2 remains open at the bottom and to the left while square 3 opens toward the top and to the right. The red and the blue planes extend beyond the canvas as well. Area 1 is the only fully accomplished square closed on four sides.

Multiplying unity

Fig. 16
Composition A with Red and Blue, 1932

At this stage Mondrian still considers color as a symbol of the natural whereas “non-color” (white, gray, black) symbolizes the spiritual.

Unbalanced relationships between horizontal and vertical of red or blue color are a plastic symbols of the ever-changing appearance of things (the natural) whereas white open squares (2 and 3) suggest the on-going search for synthesis and balance (the spiritual) which is finally fully achieved with square form 1 where opposites reach a relatively stable unity.

Fig. 16a
Diagram

Heterogeneous, unbalanced situations (the red and blue planes) gradually become relatively steady (2, 3) and then fully constant (1). 

The areas that remain open appear as squares only if seen in relation to the sides of the canvas. In actual fact, we do not know how each area develops beyond the boundaries of the painting. A slice of definite space (the closed square) coexists with slices of indefinite space which may change a moment later. The painter appears to have wished to express a variety of possible unitary syntheses, i.e. to multiply unity.

As mentioned the artist seeks in these works to open and expand the square while maintaining its visibility at the same time. The concept of space here is still essentially the one that inspired his work from the very beginning: opening up to variety and mutability on the one hand while tending to concentrate on the other and thereby generating an ideal, more constant synthesis which then re-opens to variety and mutability. 

Intuition more than cool elaboration

The play of equilibrium regards not only form but also very subtle vibrations of color. The planes appear to have been painted there and then, thus suggesting intuition more than cool elaboration. The fields of red are splendidly rendered, as indeed are those of white, which have none of the flatness unfortunately seen in standard reproductions. There are extremely subtle variations of every primary color, as there are of every shade of gray. As Jaffé wrote: “The painter let himself be guided by his feeling for color and rhythm, and he made alterations and corrections as he worked; over paintings to change the color of some of the areas can still be detected. The skilled treatment and masterly balance of the canvases are the result not of a theory but of a long experience as a painter.”