An explanation of Mondrian's oeuvre by Michael Sciam

Our reality and true reality

We usually see the boundless horizon of the sea as a straight line, whereas it is actually curved. Is what we see true reality?

Mondrian’s oeuvre is a process aimed at building a plastic space through which to see reality in a new way. A space capable of evoking outer and inner reality in their dynamic and inseparable constant interaction. A Copernican revolution with respect to art that until the early twentieth century focused on the forms of the external world, that is, on the so-called realistic or vulgarly called figurative vision, that is, only that part of reality that we are able to perceive.

Microcosm and macrocosm

What we call reality is only a part of the real world. Our senses do not grasp the reality of the microcosm that generates and is the substance of everything we see. In his writings Paul Klee says that art makes visible the invisible“.

By abstracting from the appearances, that is, from a partial reality, painting can evoke in its own way the visible and the invisible, that is, a truer reality. It is rather naive to call painting that imitates semblances realistic and to brand as incomprehensible that which, by widening the gaze, also evokes the part of reality not directly accessible to us.

Even the distinction between fullness and emptiness no longer makes sense since “emptiness” is just a different concentration of the same energy that generates “fullness.” Abstraction, when it is not just a convenient shortcut, restores to painting a universal gaze. One can therefore understand why it cannot satisfy the convenient strategies of easy entertainment pursued by so many contemporary art museums.

How to simultaneously evoke outer world and inner world, macro and microcosm, visible and invisible except by abstracting from the outward appearance of things? 
“As for details, the painter no longer has to worry about them. There is photography to render a hundred times better and faster the multitude of details.” (Henri Matisse)

In the previous chapter we said that Mondrian regarded Cubist space not as objects in motion (as it was for other Cubist and Futurist painters) but rather as the representation of a common, intimate structure of things. I shall now endeavor to explain this.

Everything, from minerals to plants, animals and human beings which we perceive as individual (not divisible) units are actually a multiplicity of parts each composed in turn of tissues, cells and atoms. A very complex and virtually infinite reality that we do not perceive.

Mondrian: “Yes, the one is one only in appearance: it is part of the whole and is at the same time a whole composed of parts… Each thing shows in smallness again the whole. The microcosm is equal in composition to the macrocosm, says the sage.”

As Blaise Pascal said, our sense of reality is partial and generates in-between the whole and true reality which consists of an infinite microcosm and an infinite macrocosm.
This is one of the reasons why in his Neoplastic compositions Mondrian will use endless perpendicular lines suggesting infinite space expanding towards opposite directions:

Composition N. 12 with Blue, 1937-42, Piet Mondrian
Composition N. 12 with Blue, 1937-42
New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian
New York City, 1942

Mondrian: “The straight line is the plastic expression of maximum speed, maximum energy and therefore leads to the abolition of time and space.”

Unveiling true reality

This clearly shows the overcoming of the concept of nature as the only part of phenomena that we are able to perceive (realistic or figurative painting) and its extension to the infinite variety of phenomena that make up the microcosm and macrocosm. As long as man considered himself the measure of creation, reality had necessarily to coincide with what he is given to see.

For a long time and even today we believe that what appears to our senses is reality and the rest we have defined metaphysical, beyond, supernatural. Ascertained through the experimental sciences that what we see is only a part of reality, the beyond becomes a “here and now” that we do not see but that is just as real and substantial component of everything we are given to see.

“Time is real for us. Beyond time is the true reality, but not our reality. By means of our reality we have to come to the true reality. Hidden more or less by our reality, the true reality is always present. Progress is unveiling of the true reality.” (Mondrian)

The “supernatural” is beyond that part of nature that we can perceive but it is still nature. There is nothing surreal in all this but only a healthy and more current expansion of our idea of reality.

“Art must look not at the appearance of nature but at what nature really is. If we wish to fully represent nature, we are forced to look for another plastic expression. And it is precisely out of love for nature and reality that we avoid its natural appearance”. (Mondrian)

A lasting interpretation

If by reality we should mean only the way things appear to us, we would have to conclude that in today’s world, where the appearance of things change so rapidly, reality has no lasting consistency which is, indeed, a recurrent impression today.

“Everything we see fades away. Nature is always the same but nothing remains of it, of what it appears. Our art must give the thrill of its duration, must make us taste it eternal.” (Paul Cézanne)

Henri Matisse: “Beneath the succession of moments, which makes up the superficial existence of beings and things, cladding them in shifting appearances that soon vanish, one can look for a truer, more essential character, to which the artist will cling in order to give a more lasting interpretation of reality.”

Cézanne and Matisse too, sought among the changing semblances of our reality a truer reality. Cézanne tried to express a more essential character by means of a cylinder, a cone and a sphere; Mondrian found a key to the eternal in the perpendicular axiom.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919

A broader spectrum of reality

The new concept of space invite us to consider reality starting from the infinite structure of microcosm and expanding toward an uncatchable macrocosm. Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors has the function to express the idea of a manifold space which is at the same time the space we see around us and the invisible infinite space which exists beyond our reality. How to express the visible and invisible, the outer and inner space of each single thing including ourselves if not in abstract form? No longer dwelling on the outer fleeting appearance of things – for this we have today photography and video -, this kind of abstraction (not any type of abstract painting) suggests a broader spectrum of reality.