An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Toward Neoplasticism

Giving concrete shape to the new plastic space

Constancy and unity

Unity evoked in Pier and Ocean 4 and in Pier and Ocean 5 by means of a square proportion was to inform the subsequent work:

Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 1
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914,
with Diagram
Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 2
Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, with Diagram

Unifying the colors

A drawn square (Fig. 1) opens up to a variety of colors, size and proportions; the variety tends to reduce and become more homogeneous around a white central square field (Fig. 2). Is white suggesting an ideal synthesis of the colors? The idea gains ground when we consider that around the white square field the colors – magenta and yellow express constancy whereas in other parts of the composition the same colors disorderly change.

Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 2
Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, with Diagram
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 3
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, with Diagram

The central white square (Fig. 2) becomes later a white central rectangle surrounded by yellow, red and blue rectangles of equal size (Fig. 3). The painter appears intent on gathering together the three colors in this area and therefore reassert the presumed function of white as an ideal synthesis of all the colors.

Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 1
Pier and Ocean 4
1914
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 3
Checkerboard with Light Colors
1919

Constant and variable

In Fig. 3 the linear segments of the previous works (Fig. 1) become continuous straight lines giving the composition a more dynamic appearance. The painting is divided into rectangles of the same size with the same proportions as the canvas. This gives birth to a wholly regular and constant layout in terms of form that is transformed by the alternation of color into a whole of variable appearance.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Oil on Canvas, cm. 86 x 106

We see a plurality of planes colored yellow, red (a light red verging on pink), and light blue mixed with other planes of gray and white. At least three different shades of gray can be seen. The straight lines are a darker gray that becomes almost black in some sections.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian, Diagram A
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, Diagram A

On observing the multitude of colored rectangles, we note that two, three, and even four rectangles of the same color gather in some areas to form larger units. We see a larger rectangle of a yellow color, one of blue, and three of red. 

Fleeting and durable

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian, Diagram A
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, Diagram A

Nature is a variation of the same basic elements

Having identified a larger unit, the eye spontaneously seeks others and is obliged in this search to address many other situations involving the absence of one or two basic units needed to form a homogeneous rectangle, the others being of a different color. In seeking larger rectangles of a single color we contemplate the virtually infinite variation of entities born out of different combinations of same elements. Isn’t nature an infinite variation of entities born out of different combinations of same elements?

The heterogeneous appearance generated by the quick succession of small rectangles becomes more homogeneous in the larger rectangles; from the ethereal and random to greater constancy and stability before returning to the haphazard succession of different things and moments; from a frenzied variety recalling the external world to homogeneous partial syntheses brought by mental contemplation that then open up again to a hectic multiplicity.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919

The natural (yellow, red, blue) and the spiritual (white, gray, black)

In addition to the five larger rectangles expressed in the three primary colors, the checkerboard presents one in white that also contains black lines forming a sign of equivalence. This is the only white rectangle of larger size present on the canvas. Its position is perfectly central with respect to the sides of the canvas and slightly raised. The white rectangle appears to be generated through a progressive purification of the colors that takes place along the vertical axis running through the center of the canvas. The vertical field can be seen as a dynamic upward progression leading to the white rectangle:

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Diagram C
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, Diagram C

Mondrian: “The unchangeable (the spiritual) is expressed in the composition by means of straight line or planes of non-color (black, white, and gray), while the changeable (the natural) is expressed by means of planes of color and rhythm.”

Color and non-color

The painter still distinguishes in this phase between color (yellow, red, blue) and non-color (white, black, gray) seeing the first as a plastic symbol of the natural and the second as symbolizing the spiritual. Just as the artist chose out of all the possible relations of form the fundamental one expressing the utmost contrast (horizontal-vertical), in terms of color his eye preferred the primary colors yellow, red, and blue because they seemed to him the best able to transform the painted surface into a living and exuberant reality. 

A common denominator

In the checkerboard Mondrian uses the three primary colors to express contrast and diversity, and white, black, and gray to produce an equally broad range of variation that appears, however, more homogeneous than the contrasting variation generated with the primary colors. On observing the range of grays, we note that the darkest shade appears to be as dark as the blue, just as the lightest shade of gray appears to be equivalent to yellow. It is as though the range of the three primary colors had been transposed into a parallel range of grays that intrinsically appear more unified than yellow with respect to red or red with respect to blue precisely because they are different shades of the same “color”. The artist appears to be seeking a common denominator in terms of color.  

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919

Reaching an ideal unity

If yellow, red, and blue symbolize the contrasting and vivid diversity of the real world, with grays and whites the painter brings into play an equally wide but more homogeneous variation. One might say that the three primary colors translate into a parallel range of grays (light gray equivalent to yellow, medium gray to red, and dark gray to blue) which, precisely because they are different tones of the same “color,” appear more unified than yellow with respect to red or red with respect to blue. On the one hand, the composition blossoms in a conspicuous and discordant plurality (yellow, red, blue), symbol of the manifold and changing appearance of the world, and – on the other hand – reconnects in synthesis through the most homogeneous variation of the grays between the two opposite values of black and white, which in a central rectangle express themselves as a unit. Through the colors of the spirit (black and white) the multiple aspects of the world (yellow, red and blue) find an ideal synthesis.

I must once again say that I am not here to talk about the beauty of this work as I do not believe that you can convey the beauty of a painting with words. The balance and harmony of the composition must be enjoyed by looking at the original painting. I write these notes to point out aspects that make this and other works by Mondrian significant on a philosophical and existential level and especially to show the substantial continuity between earlier and later works.

The one and the many

Nature and artifice

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919

The Neoplastic vocabulary

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors constitutes Mondrian’s first exhaustive formulation of what was to become the Neoplastic vocabulary underpinning all the subsequent work. From now on, Mondrian’s painting was to be a complex and dynamic set of relations between lines, segments, and planes (of color and “non-color”); between infinite space (lines) that becomes finite space (segments and planes) and then re-expands to the infinite. A process Mondrian used to define as “subjectivization of the objective and objectivization of the subjective”.

Recapitulating what we have examined so far:

Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
1912
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
1913
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
1914
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
1919

A tree in 1912, and three abstract compositions painted respectively in 1913, 1914 and 1919 show the same basic concept of a rich and multiple space which at the same time evokes synthesis and unity or, viceversa, a central unity which opens up to multiplicity.

The relationship between horizontal and vertical, which is expressed in a rather univocal and static way in 1912, diversifies through form (1913 – 1914) and color (1919). This evolution shows how the painter wishes to express a rich and diversified space while expressing at the same time the tendency toward a synthesis. Note how the synthesis always generates in the center of the four compositions.

The central area

The central area has played an important role in Mondrian’s evolution process since the early naturalistic works:

Wood of Beech Trees, 1899, Piet Mondrian
Wood of Beech Trees, 1899,
with Diagram
Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge, 1901,
with Diagram
Stammer Mill with Streaked Sky, c. 1906
with Diagram
The Red Tree (Evening), c. 1910
with Diagram

The central area of the composition calls for attention and consideration of the unitary synthesis which was a very important aspect for the Dutch artist.

As we shall see in the next chapter the center will, however, loose predominance throughout the 1920’s and the 1930’s in favor of a more dynamic composition.