An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Mondrian’s revolution

The Pier and Ocean works
A milestone in art history

What we have seen so far is confirmed by new works Mondrian produces in 1914.

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 and by a pier jutting out from the beach into the sea. The latter are therefore also called Pier and Ocean.

Pier and Ocean 4

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 Pier and Ocean 4 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.

Nature and human artifice

The horizontal sea and the vertical pier

Pier and Ocean 2, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 2, 1914,
Charcoal, Ink and Gouache
on Paper,
cm. 50 x 62,6
Pier and Ocean 3, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 3, 1914,
Charcoal on Paper,
cm. 50,5 x 63
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914,
Charcoal on Paper,
cm. 50,2 x 62,8

A square unifies horizontal and vertical

On examining the above three composition in sequential order, we can see a rendering of the extended horizontal line of the sea (Pier and Ocean 2) concentrating toward the center into a vaguely quadrangular area (Pier and Ocean 3) which is then transformed into a group of more or less defined squares in the upper-central zone of Pier and Ocean 4.

Pier and Ocean 4, 1914 with Diagram

Balancing imbalances between opposites

The opposing segments, which at the bottom tend to disperse individually, gradually unite upward sketching out semblances of square proportions that finally take decisive shape in the central square where the opposite directions for a moment are equivalent. The horizontal extension of the sea (the natural) and the motion of concentration exerted by the vertical of the pier (the human artifice or as Mondrian says the spiritual) find a synthesis in the square. The continuous predominance of one aspect over the opposite finds a moment of pause when the opposites are equivalent. When this happens the duality that governs the composition through sudden prevalences of horizontal or vertical is annulled and unity for an instant prevails. The square thus appears as an element that ideally unites the entire composition.

Fig. 1
Study of Trees 1, 1912,
with Diagram
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 2
Composition II, 1913,
with Diagram
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 3
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914,
with Diagram

Illusionistic space turns into real, concrete space.

Same as the vertical trunk of a tree unifies the multifarious horizontal expansion of the branches, a rectangle (Fig. 2) and then a square form (Fig. 3) 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 (Fig. 1)) turns into real and concrete space (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3)

Pier and Ocean 5

Founding a new plastic space

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Charcoal, Ink (?) and Gouache on Paper, cm. 87,9 x 111,7

Although painted in a sketchy way, I consider this painting one of Mondrian’s most significant compositions. With Pier and Ocean 5 the artist 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 orthogonal relationship

The number of signs, i.e. the degree of spatial multiplicity, gradually increases from Pier and Ocean 4 to Pier and Ocean 5 and it is only in the latter that all the signs are expressed solely and exclusively through perpendicular relations:

Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915

Same as in Pier and Ocean 4, in Pier and Ocean 5 the pier develops from the bottom in the center of the composition. 

A state of becoming

In Pier and Ocean 5 the linear strokes intersect, combine with one another, and separate once again in a constant alternation of the predominance of one direction or the other. Despite its general symmetrical layout, the composition depicts a reality in a state of becoming. Every sign turns into something different but can always be traced back to a single intimate reality (the perpendicular relationship) constantly changing in appearance:

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915 with Diagram A

A multiple space unified by a square form

The interaction between the upward vertical progression of the the pier and the horizontal expansion of the sea generates a square where horizontal and vertical attain equilibrium. While one direction prevails over its opposite elsewhere, generating the manifold space as a whole, the two directions are equivalent in the square. In other words, though different, they acquire the same value and when the opposites attain equivalence, duality ideally transforms into unity. 
The juxtaposition that produces open and unstable situations elsewhere is transformed into interpenetration that generates harmony in that square where, for an instant, the plurality of ever-changing signs, a bi-dimensional rendering of the world endless variety, is expressed as one.

Unity of nature and mankind

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.

Balancing body and mind

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 and very often imbalanced external space is captured in a more stable and harmonious synthesis. 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 (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.

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:

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915 with Diagram B

Unlike the central square, the incomplete squares 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 the fact that everything is connected and that each thing depends on its opposite.

As mentioned, the square symbolizes the space of consciousness in which a multifarious imbalanced reality becomes for a moment a balanced synthesis. It is, however, obvious that human consciousness cannot contain within itself the totality of the world and will never be able to comprehend reality as a whole. 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.

The square unit opens up

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:

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, with Diagram C

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. 

Unity opens up to duality and multiplicity

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 vertical rises, interpenetrates with the horizontal, and produces a unitary synthesis that opens up again to the horizontal higher up. The unity generated with the first square opens up again to manifold space with the second. The synthesis generated by the spiritual quest for equilibrium and unity re-opens to the natural. It is in fact the horizontal (a symbol of the natural for Mondrian) that re-opens the square symbol of unity.

The unity that Mondrian strove to express is a temporary synthesis generated momentarily by the subject in its changing relationship with reality, not something to be attained once and for all. Establishing equilibrium between the manifold, ever-changing 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 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. Recall once more the example of a tree observed from far and close distance.

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?

Additional reflections

Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge, 1901
Study of Trees 1, 1912
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Composition II, 1913
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915

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.