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The Pier and Ocean works
What we have seen so far is confirmed by new paintings Piet Mondrian produces in 1914 and 1915 and in particular by the Pier and Ocean series of works culminating with Pier and Ocean 5. Although painted in a sketchy way, I consider this painting one of Mondrian’s most significant compositions and a milestone in western art history.
With Pier and Ocean 5 Mondrian lays out the fundamental principles of a new type of plastic space which constitutes the most effective answer to the questions posed by Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism.
The artist went to visit his family in the Netherlands in the summer of 1914 and was prevented from returning to Paris by the war, which broke out during his stay. Deprived of the brushes, paints, and canvases left in his studio in Paris, Mondrian began a series of drawings, and gouaches inspired by the sea as well as the sea interacting with a pier jutting out from the beach into the water. The latter are therefore also called Pier and Ocean.
Let us examine some of these works starting with two drawings inspired by the sea:
Fig. 2 is a drawing of the sea characterized by primarily horizontal and curvilinear lines with a few faint and isolated vertical elements:
We shall now examine four works inspired by the interaction between a pier and the sea:
Interestingly, the motif chosen by the painter evokes a structure similar to that of the tree, where the horizontal expansion of the branches corresponds to the horizontal extension of the are while the vertical structure of the trunk is reminiscent of that of the pier:
With respect to the figure of the tree, however, the Cubist subject of the pier immersed in the sea reveals more dynamic interaction between unitary element (the pier) and manifold element (the sea) than between the mutually static trunk and branches.
Nature and human artifice
Permanent and changeable
The artist probably saw the pier structure as a solid element, the symbol of permanence, interpenetrating with the ever-changing flow of the sea. Permanence is invoked by the spiritual with respect to the manifold aspect of nature and changeable course of life. These are issues that go beyond the particular aspect of a certain landscape which, of course, might have stimulated the artist’s inner vision. I therefore believe that the real plastic value of the Pier and Ocean series of works was drawn more from within the artist himself and the body of work he had previously done, than from the external landscape he had in front of him.
Fig. 4: The vertical pier draws the extended line of the sea horizon into a vaguely quadrangular area that is then concentrated in the upper section of Fig. 5 to become a set of quadratic shapes with one more defined square proportion in the center.
In the latest version of this series of works (Fig. 6), the variegated group of square shapes (Fig. 5) becomes a single square expressing in itself the most balanced relationship between the opposite directions:
The horizontal expansion of the sea (the natural) and and the motion of concentration exerted by the vertical of the pier (the human artifice or as Mondrian says the spiritual) achieve a perfect balance within the square proportion of Fig. 6.
The number of signs, i.e. the degree of spatial multiplicity, gradually increases from Fig. 3 to Fig. 6 and it is only in the latter that all the signs are expressed solely and exclusively through perpendicular relations.
A general symmetry governing the compositional layout can be seen in Fig. 3, 4, 5 and 6. Around the central axis of the pier (a symbolic projection of the viewer, like the tree trunk in previous works), the changing space of the sea is transformed into one of comparatively greater order and constancy.
Let us now examine in detail Pier and Ocean 5 (Fig. 6) and explain why I consider this composition a revolutionary milestone in western art history.
Every sign expresses something different in Pier and Ocean 5 and something changes every instant. Despite its general symmetrical layout, the composition depicts a reality in a state of becoming, the reality contemplated by the Cubist painters.
The duality expressed through the relationship between vertical and horizontal, which generates the manifold space as a whole, is cancelled out in the square, where the two very different and indeed opposite things are equivalent, i.e. assume the same value while remaining opposite. In that area, for an instant, becoming is transformed into being and multiplicity reveals intimate unity.
The eye can linger on that point and contemplate in a more stable form what constantly changes in appearance in the surrounding space through alternation of the prevailing direction.
The unity manifested during the first Cubist phase as a curvilinear concentration of space toward the center (Flowering Trees, 1912) and then with a more explicit external oval (Tableau 3, 1913):
becomes an internal oval (Fig. 2) and is then gradually transformed into a square representing synthesis and unity (Fig. 6). An external and absolute unity is transformed in an internal and relative unity that now partakes of the manifold space inside which it is born:
At this regard it is worth remembering what Mondrian wrote:“the compact curved line, which does not express any plastic relationship, has been replaced by straight lines in their mutual perpendicular position which expresses the purest form of relationship“.
The sign of equivalence between opposites is born inside a square and thus suggests an inner space. This square symbolizes the space of consciousness in which the changing external space is captured for an instant in synthesis. Examination of Pier and Ocean 5 reveals in fact that other areas of the composition suggest potential squares, which do not, however, attain the balance of the one in the center:
Unlike the central square, they appear unable to hold the dynamic external space and transform it into a more constant and permanent internal equilibrium. The incomplete attempts to internalize external reality evoke the moments in life when something escapes us and we cannot make the rationale of becoming our own. The central square instead expresses one of those rare moments in which we understand (internalize) the fact that everything is connected and that each thing depends on its opposite.
On examining Pier and Ocean 5 in the original, we can see erasures and constant adjustment of the different parts. This creates no disturbance and indeed contributes to the dynamic effect of the whole:
Illusionistic space turns into real space
Same as the vertical trunk of a tree unifies the multifarious horizontal expansion of the branches, a rectangle (Composition II, 1913) and then a square form (Pier and Ocean 5, 1915) unify an endless variety of relationships between horizontals and verticals:
The unifying function metaphorically assigned to the tree trunk gave way over a span of three years to a unity of space in itself (the square form). Illusionistic space (Study of Trees I, 1912) turns into a real, bi-dimensional space (Composition II, 1913 and Pier and Ocean 5, 1915).
Unity of space in itself
It is, however, obvious that the consciousness can only produce partial and temporary syntheses; it clearly cannot exhaust all the possible relations with the external world. Human consciousness cannot contain within itself the totality of the world and will never be able to comprehend reality as a whole (the space of the oval). Every synthesis generated by thought is necessarily partial and temporary, and must therefore open up again to the multiform and ever-changing aspect of physical reality. This is what all sensible people do when they call their certainties into question in the light of experience. This is what philosophy has been doing for centuries, as have the arts and above all the experimental sciences.
A second square can be seen in Pier and Ocean 5 above the square that we have identified as a unitary synthesis of the composition as a whole:
Inside the second square we see a vertical segment divided by two horizontal segments that extend beyond the boundary of the square to the right and left. The two small horizontal segments form two crosses with the two vertical sides of the square. These two signs tell us that unity is opening up to duality. The unitary synthesis achieved for an instant in the lower square in the form of the equivalence of opposites is again broken up into a duality that then flows back toward the variety of different situations marked again by the alternating predominance of one direction or the other. The unity generated with the first square opens up again to manifold space with the second.
A dynamic unity
For Mondrian the unitary synthesis is therefore a plastic symbol of the manifold and controversial space of reality, which attains measure and a harmonious condition in the space of consciousness before opening up again to nature and life. This is another reason why modern painting turns abstract: how can you simultaneously represent the outer and inner world if you just look at the external appearance of things through the so called realistic or figurative way of painting?
The equivalence generated in the square suggests the possibility of establishing balance and harmony between opposites. And this holds both for the subject’s relationship with the object (the external world) and for the subject’s relationship with itself: finding equilibrium between the contradictory drives within oneself, e.g. between the uncontrollable urges of the instinctual life (the horizontal) and the action of controlling and guiding the instincts performed by the mind or spirit (the vertical).
The spatial development observed in Pier and Ocean 5 tells us that while equilibrium can be attained, it is a dynamic equilibrium that does not necessarily last for long once achieved. The vertical rises, interpenetrates with the horizontal, and produces a unitary synthesis that opens up again to the horizontal higher up. Unity reveals itself for an instant and then appears again as multiplicity. The variable becomes constant and then reverts to variation.
The unity that Mondrian strove to express is a temporary synthesis generated momentarily by the subject in its changing relationship with the world, not something to be attained once and for all. Establishing equilibrium between the manifold appearance of nature and the synthesis invoked by the consciousness does not mean attaining fixed points and immutable truths. The square of Pier and Ocean 5 is not a potentially static and all-inclusive unity like the oval but a dynamic unity intrinsically linked to the manifold space in which it is born and toward which it returns a moment later:
The one becomes multiple and multiplicity reverts to unity. As mentioned, every synthesis generated by thought is necessarily partial and temporary, and must therefore open up again to the multiform and ever-changing aspect of physical reality. Moreover, Mondrian thinks of a unity which is intrinsically multiple and multiplicity which is one because everything is at the same time one and multiple.
To give a concrete example: a tree looks like a small patch of green when seen from a great 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 the microscopic structure of each individual leaf which becomes a small universe.
The initial green spot (we perceived as one) has become very complexed (multiple); the initial finite reality appears now infinite. 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, every single thing becomes multiple and then the multiple concentrates again in a unity.
What is the “true” nature and reality of a tree? Does it still make sense to paint a tree from a single viewpoint (the so-called realistic view) and claim that this is reality? How can we paint things that changes so quickly today in accordance with the changing positional relationship we establish with them? And how can we define realistic a way of painting the outer appearance of things if every single thing unveils an intrinsic endless reality? How can we simultaneously show the manifold and unitary aspect of each individual thing if not in an abstract form?
The above series of paintings inspired by the sea and by a pier can be considered a sort of conspectus of Mondrian’s work between 1908 and 1915, as though the Cubist space developed at length in his studio in Paris had finally found an outlet in contact with the Dutch countryside from which it originated.
I believe it right to say that these developments came about spontaneously without full awareness on the part of the artist. I further believe that while Mondrian still made explicit reference to certain landscapes (a dune, the sea or the pier and the ocean) in this phase, these were actually subjects that he had internalized back in his Expressionist phase with a very clear idea of their plastic value.
When Mondrian returned to these subjects in 1915, he drew them more from within himself than from the countryside in front of him. He addressed them again in order to tie up some loose ends left in the Cubist canvases painted in Paris. In doing so, he provided a de facto summary of the work carried out between 1912 and 1914.
Objective and subjective unity
In Pier and Ocean 5 external unity is visually translated for the first time into internal unity. Objective unity (the oval) and subjective unity (the square) coexist in Pier and Ocean 5 and, from that moment on, all of Mondrian’s plastic space was to rest on this idea of unity (the square) as the subjective symbol of an assumed and no longer visible objective unity (the oval). On examining the three compositions below, we see how the oval dissolves and a white squared field form emerges from inside the composition:
The one reveals multiplicity and multiplicity suggests unity
The square proportion that the painter devised in 1915 would become a constant but constantly transforming element of all subsequent work.
As mentioned, examination of Pier and Ocean 5 reveals that other areas of the composition suggest potential squares, which do not, however, attain the balance of the one in the center. The central square suggests a fully attained equivalence of opposites in a sea of unbalanced situations where other potential squares do not reach the balanced synthesis of the square in the center:
The composition tells us that the balance between opposing drives to which we aspire in order to achieve harmony with the outside world and ourselves is possible (a fully achieved square proportion) but it is always subject to new and unforeseeable imbalances (the unachieved squares). This is what happens in life.
This dialectic between certain and uncertain, unity and multiplicity will guide all subsequent work through compositions that present a variety of square proportions intermixed with horizontal and vertical rectangles of different colors where the square proportion suggests a certain tendency toward stability and unity while the mutable rectangles reopen to unforeseeable multiplicity. Between 1920 and 1942 this dialectic between the one and the multiple will follow four basic compositional layouts.
After Cézanne, who died in 1906, Braque and Picasso gave strong impetus to the birth of Cubist space between 1907 and 1911. In 1915, however, when Mondrian achieved a synthesis of Cubism, they instead went back to addressing the apparent forms of individual objects.
Mondrian replaced an illusionistic use of the pictorial surface (the supposed third dimension) imitating the transitory appearances of the world with a concrete use of the canvas that, without resorting to optical illusions, presents itself as a possible interpretive model of reality, which was for him constituted at the same time by an external space and an internal space in their inseparable relationship of dynamic interaction.
So-called Synthetic Cubism was a clumsy attempt to amalgamate the multiplicity generated by the Cubist analysis of reality without subjecting it to a common yardstick capable of uniting the fragments no longer under the apparent form of the individual objects from which they originated but in terms of their intrinsic spatial qualities. The synthesis was effected without taking into account the data resulting from the analysis. Synthetic Cubism thus left the fundamental issue of the dichotomy between objects and space unresolved.
Reflections on Pier and Ocean 5 existential meanings
Let us return for a moment to Pier and Ocean 5 and consider some aspects of a general character:
Unity of nature and mankind
The human dimension and that of the natural universe are not and never will be symmetrically commensurable (suffice it to mention the immense physical disproportion between the two terms). In certain situations, however, they can assume equivalent value for human awareness and attain an equilibrium taking into account the rationale both of mankind and of nature.
Mondrian saw the equivalence of opposites as the attainment of equilibrium and harmony between subject (the vertical which is for the artist a plastic symbol of the spiritual) and object (the horizontal symbol of the natural). What is the essence of the environmental question if not the search for better balance between men, with all their “artificial nature” (concrete, metal, plastic etc.) and nature as such? And since human beings are part of the natural universe, this essentially means reconnecting a part of nature (mankind) with the whole.
There is talk today of the Earth as one unique organism, of complexity, and of biological diversity to be protected. It is not only the scientific community but also religions that seek to act as interpreters of the environmental question. As I have already noted, ecology is a concrete example of the attempt to redress the balance between mankind and nature, subject and object, what manifests itself in the two-dimensional space of a canvas through the relationship between vertical and horizontal.
Body and mind
This holds both for the subject’s relationship with the object (the external world) and for the subject’s relationship with itself: finding equilibrium between the contradictory drives within oneself, e.g. between the uncontrollable urges of the instinctual life (nature, i.e. the horizontal) and the action of controlling and guiding the instincts performed by the mind or spirit (the vertical). In some cases, reason and moral rules oppress and limit the vital impulse; in others, life turns common sense and reason upside down. How are we to get by?
An ethical message
Disharmony between body and mind; internal imbalances that end up being projected onto the external world to create friction and conflict between individuals and between individuals and their environment. Mondrian’s aesthetic space therefore also contains an ethical message calling upon us to balance the opposites and neutralize the imbalances within us before thinking about others and the world as a whole.
The human search for unity
The human search for unity (be it the idea of a God or the unifying theories of science) is always counterbalanced by the multifarious aspect of nature and by the unforeseeable evolution of life. The infinite variety of nature may find a temporary synthesis under the unifying action of the spirit which then must always necessarily open up again to the endless aspects of nature. Human consciousness cannot contain within itself the totality of the world and will never be able to comprehend reality as a whole (the space of the oval).
Every synthesis generated by thought is necessarily partial and temporary, and must therefore open up again to the multiform and ever-changing aspect of physical reality. This is what science constantly does. This is what every human being does when, based upon the experience, he changes his ideas of reality.
Mondrian thinks of a unity which should be open to multiplicity because he does not believe in a permanent truth to be reached once and forever. Unity is just a human need of thinking the multiple natural universe; translate the infinite physical extension of nature into the finite dimension of thought.
Outer and inner nature
The unitary synthesis generated in Pier and Ocean 5 by means of a square is a plastic symbol of the controversial space of real life which attains measure and a harmonious condition in the space of consciousness before opening up again to the multifarious nature and unforeseeable events of life. It is worth remembering that we talk about the outer nature and the inner nature of mankind.
For consciousness these are two virtually infinite spaces because our inner world is no less complex and elusive than the immense variety of the outer world. The possibility of establishing balance and harmony between opposite entities holds both for the subject’s relationship with the external world and for the subject’s relationship with itself: finding equilibrium between the contradictory drives within oneself, e.g. between the uncontrollable urges of the instinctual life (the horizontal) and the action of controlling and guiding the instincts performed by the mind or spirit (the vertical).
Emotional drives and ethical rules
The sign of equivalence between opposites (the square form) urges us to attribute one and the same value to the parts of us that are closer to the natural world and those that instead characterize us as the human species, namely intellect and reason; disharmony between body and mind, conflicts between emotional drives and ethical rules; internal imbalances that end up being projected onto the external world to create friction and conflict between individuals and between individuals and their environment.
How rare and precious are instead those moments in which we see and understand the reasons of both parts of ourselves, when we manage to expand the space of our consciousness to such an extent as to contemplate all the diversity present within us as a dynamic unity.
Duality disappears for an instant. We feel that we are all one and everything outside appears to be in a state of harmony because there is harmony within. Contemplating that synthesis, reveling in the instant of an eternal joy that seems to unite us with the whole (the unity symbolized by the square of Pier and Ocean 5), then opening up again to see things separate and clash with one another in the multifarious disintegrative rhythms of everyday life (the multifarious space around the square unit of Pier and Ocean 5).
That idea of unity remains in the heart, a taste of universal life that is no longer revealed in the particular but of which our fleeting emotions and our constant pursuit of equilibrium are a component – albeit infinitesimal – capable of making an essential contribution to the whole.
A masterly use of form transforms an abstract composition made of small perpendicular dashes into a statement of wisdom inviting us to understand that one thing depends on the other in a dynamic equivalence of contrary aspects that, in a static vision of rigid content, work instead to divide consciousness, separating us from ourselves and from the world. Mondrian’s aesthetic space therefore also contains an ethical message calling upon us to neutralize the imbalances within us before thinking about others and the world as a whole.
The sky above us and the moral law within
Immanuel Kant spoke of the starry sky above and moral law within. The moral law consists in the rule that accommodates the instincts but keeps them under control. For Mondrian it is a balanced relationship between the natural urges and the control exercised by the spirit, as expressed in the sign of equivalence inside the square. The starry sky is for Kant the whole world, external reality, everything that can influence our inner balance, i.e. all the space around the square in Mondrian’s composition.
The equivalence of opposites means that morality must not be bigoted but also that the freedom is not the unbridled satisfaction of every desire. Kant defined freedom as being able to set oneself rules, i.e. being free to choose rules that are in any case necessary, both in coping with one’s inner contradictions (individual life) and in the relationship between oneself and others (social life).
Form becomes content
In interpreting the formal relations of Mondrian’s compositions, we can develop contents that speak to us about life, not in its fleeting appearances, however, but in its most intimate and authentic ways of being. Mondrian’s talent and intellectual honesty ensure that form acquires depth and reveals his intimate vision of things. With Mondrian form becomes content and aesthetics acquires an ethical value.