An explanation of Mondrian's oeuvre by Michael Sciam

The visible and the invisible

God and our idea of God

Two opposing motions

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
La Disputa del Sacramento, Diagram B

On the previous page we highlighted a progression that tends to unite in the figure of God the multiplicity of human figures that are observed below. We will now see how, in addition to this motion that proceeds from the bottom to the top, the composition presents a simultaneous progression that descends from the top to the bottom.

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
La Disputa del Sacramento, Diagram C

The gilded canopy at the top of the fresco evokes a large circular space that ideally extends beyond the painted wall upward. Descending, that portion of the circle becomes a semicircle (with Christ) which then transforms into the circle with the dove (symbol of the Holy Spirit) which finally concentrates in the small circle of the monstrance placed on the altar.
From an immense circle that is only partially visible (symbol of the totality in which the figure of God is inscribed), the space proceeds downwards, concentrating on the monstrance.

From earth to heaven and from heaven to earth

We thus observe two opposing motions: on one hand we see a motion of elevation of the contradictory figures scattered on the ground towards a more orderly semicircle (saints and prophets) that then becomes a quasi-circle (Christ) and finally a sphere (in the hand of God) and on the other we see a motion of descent from a totality, suggested by the golden cap at the top, towards the quasi-circle with Jesus (God who becomes man) that then becomes a complete circle (the Holy Spirit) to finally concentrate in the small circle of the monstrance. One contemplates a progression from earth to heaven and a descent from heaven to earth. With great mastery in the art of composition, Raffaello evokes in this way the meeting of men with the divinity.

The reading of the four roundels in a single sequence seems plausible due to the fact that they are all painted in gold. From the largest at the top to the smallest at the bottom, the golden energy is concentrated in the monstrance above the altar, the earthly symbol of the kingdom of God.
The fresco thus shows a progression from the multiple toward the one (from the bottom to the top) and a descent of the one toward the multiple. To express this, Raffaello uses contrasting circular tensions that open, close and open again.

Opening up to diversity and concentrating into unity

The lower part of the fresco has the monstrance as its vanishing point. The parallel lines of the floor and the whole scenario of human figures converge towards that point. The middle area (saints and prophets) does not seem to have any vanishing point but has as its center the circle of the Holy Spirit that concentrates in itself the semicircle on which the twelve figures of saints and prophets multiply. While this semicircle opens up revealing the twelve figures, the Holy Spirit closes in synthesis to reiterate that saints and prophets draw inspiration from that center together with the contiguous four books of the Gospels. While the semicircle of clouds opens to the diversity of holy men, the round of the Holy Spirit concentrates them into unity.

It was said of the golden canopy that at the top of the fresco evokes a large circular space that extends beyond the painting. Inside the cap, one can observe lines that seem to come from the figures of the saints and prophets and continue upward to meet ideally at a point beyond the painted image:

La Disputa del Sacramento, Diagram D

The imaginary point towards which those lines converge is the place where, in terms of composition, the fresco – especially the upper-middle part – finds a real synthesis or, if we want, its “vanishing point”. That point seems to support from above the whole complex structure below. Descending along the central axis, we see the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) supported by that point without which the figure of God would lose tension and concentration; the circle of Christ and all the clouds with the saints and prophets would seem to be suspended in the air. It seems to me that this invisible point is fundamental to give meaning and life to the image.

Unity of human semblance and true unity

According to this interpretation, the fresco would show a unity of human semblance, which responded to the needs of the client, but – at the same time – would indicate a supreme unity that the painter places outside the painted space as if he wanted to say that the true unity remains an elusive entity, invisible and, therefore, not representable.
It almost seems that the painter has tried modesty in facing an idea of totality that was all inside the image as it had made some years before his master Pietro Vannucci (Il Perugino) in the fresco L’Eterno con Profeti e Sibille realized for the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia:

L’Eterno con Profeti e Sibille, 1500, Fresco, Collegio del Cambio, Perugia

In La Disputa del Sacramento, that celebrates the certainties supported from the Church, it seems that Raffaello wanted to leave an open glimmer towards the imponderable.

Ahead of his time

I am not sure, however, that the painter has done it in a conscious way. I believe, rather, that he followed his eye and, usually, the eye of a great artist can go far beyond his conscious reasoning. I mean that to the painter’s eye that external point was indispensable in compositional terms to confer energy and unity to the whole. In the capacity of executor of the commission, Raffaello realized what was requested by the client and the latter was certainly satisfied but, as an artist, I believe that he intuited and expressed in his work more than what was requested of him. Through form, an artist of the sixteenth century has expressed meanings that today we can understand as current while we can no longer identify with stories, characters and beliefs of his time.

Let’s now return to Broadway Boogie Woogie.

Mondrian wrote in 1920 that “the straight lines intersect and touch one another tangentially but continue uninterruptedly.” and as Maurizio Calvesi points out: “the result radiates out from the painting to the infinite, but the canvas exhausts the intuition of the whole within itself.”

The lines act as a plastic symbol of eternal energy that flows and shapes all things. Neoplastic lines manifest themselves on the canvas generating harmonic relationships and then flow back into the real space of the world of which the canvas is a part; a part that hints at ideally represent the whole.

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram A

Our idea of an unverifiable unity

Therefore, the yellow-red-blue unity reopens to the multiplicity of the small squares and to the infinite space of the straight lines. The One manifests itself and then flows back into the multiple to reformulate itself infinite times in the attempt to grasp a whole that will never be reached because it is infinite. It is a process that tends towards unity but never reaches it in a definitive form.

La Disputa del Sacramento, Diagram E
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram A

Objective and subjective unity

Broadway Boogie Woogie also speaks to us of an objective unity, not representable in its totality, which becomes temporarily visible in the form of unitary synthesis. The objective unity corresponds to the space of straight lines which, as we said, evokes the totality of the real physical world, while the mental and therefore finite translation of that infinite space is generated by the straight lines themselves which are progressively united in the form of small squares, symmetries and planes in an ideal synthesis. This process is what Mondrian called the “subjectivization of the objective.”

The invisible becomes visible

In Raffaello’s work, the objective unity (the external point) supports and gives life to the subjective unity (the God in human guise), just as in Broadway Boogie Woogie the straight lines (a symbol of infinite universal energy) give life to the visible unity within the painting. Both Raffaello and Mondrian therefore speak to us of an invisible unity and a visible unity that gives concrete but not exhaustive form to the invisible. In the sixteenth century, the subjective representation of the objective is a bearded man holding a sphere in his hand. In the twentieth century, the subjectivized objective appears in abstract form because, in the meantime, we can no longer believe in a God-man sitting in the sky. In my opinion, we are in front of two sacred images because both present an idea of synthesis and unity of all things, in other words, an idea of God. Both ideas of God seem plausible for the time in which they occur.

The universal becomes particular

In the work of the sixteenth century, objective unity (the point outside the painting) and subjective unity (the figure of God the Father) are fixed entities and remain separate and distinct. In Broadway Boogie Woogie objective unity (the continuity of the straight lines) and subjective unity (the synthesis of yellow, red and blue) are dynamic entities and linked together by a process that transforms one into the other (the straight lines that become the unitary plane and the unitary plane that then reopens to the straight lines). In Broadway Boogie Woogie the absolute becomes relative; the objective becomes subjective; the eternal becomes everyday, the external becomes internal and then all of this returns to the eternal, the objective, the external and the absolute.

What Mondrian calls “true reality” (absolute, objective, eternal) becomes “our reality” (relative, subjective, everyday) without ever detaching from “true reality”.

La Disputa del Sacramento, Diagram E
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram A

A circular motion made of straight lines

In Broadway Boogie Woogie the multiple becomes one and then the one opens up and becomes multiple again. A process in which the end coincides with a new beginning evokes the idea of a circular motion. A circularity that, however, is expressed with straight lines. A circularity so wide as to appear rectilinear; like the horizon of a sea that is actually round. It takes a long time (an infinite time like the extension of a straight line) Mondrian seems to say, before we can contemplate the circularity that unites all things.

The round is often used to express the idea of an absolute synthesis, but the circular shapes we can paint on a surface will never be as extensive as the processes of real life. In painting, straight lines keep the space open while curved lines tend to tighten and close the space in on itself. The Dutch painter uses straight lines, i.e., a symbol of extended and open space that seems to invite us to open our minds; not to close ourselves immediately into descriptions, definitions and judgments that would inevitably leave out much of what is real.

The rectilinear geometry of the Broadway Boogie Woogie responds to a need for clarity but, at the same time, exhorts us to open up to the multiple aspects of the world; to contemplate all its variety without, however, renouncing partial and temporary syntheses, that is, never absolute and definitive. In daily life this is certainly very difficult. How much fear it arouses in the human soul to be open to variety and to confront diversity. Every closure, every form of intolerance and racism is born of fear.

La Disputa del Sacramento, Diagram E
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram A

Different visions of one God

With a God with human features, Raffaello satisfied his clients but, with a wise use of form, he left a gap open and, consciously or unconsciously, with that point outside the image he tells us today that their idea of God was not yet God. Five centuries later, a Dutch artist tells us that what we call God is our idea of God and not already God himself. “God is not Catholic.” Pope Francesco told me in one of our meetings. “It is ecumenical, it is one God that each religion reads through its own Holy Scriptures, knowing, however, that God is unique, has no name, has no figure.” (So writes Eugenio Scalfari of one of his dialogues with Pope Francesco). The unity of the Broadway Boogie Woogie has no figure. Because it expresses itself in abstract form, the unity of the Broadway Boogie Woogie can represent the different visions of one God.

My idea, your idea, his idea of God

Everyone talks about one God, but everyone tries to impose his own idea of God.
Today, more than ever, it is necessary to find common ground. If God is one but the ideas of God may differ, there is a communication problem between humans concerning my idea, your idea, his idea of God.
We humans have a need to share common rituals. If you call him by one name and I call him by another, if you pay homage to God in a certain way and I do that in a different way than you and I end up believing that the God we pay homage to is also different. We allow ourselves to be influenced by appearances and often confuse the subjective (our representation of unity) with the objective (God Himself), the visible with the invisible.

Can God depends on man’s ideas?

We should always remember that one thing is God and another thing is our ideas about God. As Immanuel Kant said, we can only know our representation of things and not the things themselves. Could changing our idea of God mean changing God? And what kind of God would be a God who depends on man’s ideas? To equate the thought of men with God, who according to a certain definition is immutable, means, in the final analysis, to sclerose thought. That is why, perhaps, certain religious doctrines struggle so much to adapt their ideas to the reality of new times and are so reluctant to revise and update the way in which they interpret the divine. The idea of God can change because our ideas are no longer the immanent and totalizing measure of the world, as was believed in the past.

Our attempts to describe God

Can an idea of God that changes over time be true? Zen spirituality teaches us not to get stuck on ideas. Perhaps we should imagine God without thinking of him. Therefore, I prefer to think of a divinity in abstract form. Certainly ideas and words have their great value: the Holy Word. Following the threads of thought, the word describes, evokes, tells, and we humans often need the warmth of a tale. However, the more we think and attempt to describe God, the further away we get from God. I think of the legend of the Tower of Babel: the more men raised their tower to get closer to God, the more he created disorder with different languages that made each other unintelligible. The more men tried to reach and conquer the one, the more it opened up to the many. Like the unity of Broadway Boogie Woogie.

A lonely and tiring path

Is it therefore the words and ideas of men that distance us from God? In fact where the importance of words is emphasized, spirituality often becomes an oppressive moral rule. Here, perhaps this is one of the crucial points: can man’s spirituality be reduced to a set of moral laws? The path that leads to God in a form free from dogmas, rituals and pre-packaged and often obsolete images has always been and still is a lonely and tiring path.

With all due respect for certain institutions that are centuries old, I believe that making a moralistic use of God today is an abuse, an abuse and an exploitation of God. To pretend that a certain idea of God is true always and in any case means putting man and his ideas above everything else and, therefore, above God as well. Men still confuse the true God with their idea of God. Our contemporaries still confuse the subjective with the objective. Thus it happens that men still make war on each other when two different ideas of objective unity do not correspond.

When we speak in the name of God, we need a lot of humility and respect for other ideas of God that are worth as much as ours because all of them are only subjective representations of a probable but not verifiable objective entity. There is no way to establish when a certain idea of God comes close to the presumed objective reality, but there is a certain criterion to understand when it moves away from it and this happens every time a certain idea of God tries in every way to impose itself on the others. The distance from God becomes unbridgeable when, to this end, violence is used.

An inexhaustible source of variety

In Broadway Boogie Woogie a certain configuration of unity changes and opens up to new possible configurations. The idea changes, that is to say, the subjective reality but not the objective reality, the vital energy that in the painting is expressed with virtually infinite straight lines made of the most vivid colors such as yellow, red and blue. A secret and unreachable energy that generates us, our bodies, our emotions and our ideas. Ideas that, precisely because they change, are kept alive and current and therefore suitable to put us back in tune with the inscrutable “designs” of the objective entity that may be eternal and unchanging but, as far as we can see on this planet, is also above all an inexhaustible source of variety.

Yellow, red and blue are the most different and contrasting colors; in the neoplastic language they are a finite symbol of the infinite variety of the world. An image in which such heterogeneous parts are equivalent makes one think of the question of diversity in which none of the components claims to impose itself on the others. In Broadway Boogie Woogie the three primary colors interpenetrate and become a single entity while maintaining each of their specific characteristics. Each part contributes with its own particular nature to the balance of the whole. I think of the words of Pope John Paul II when he said “the roots of each are not erased in universality.”

No flattening of diversity

Globalization cannot mean flattening of diversity. In Broadway Boogie Woogie a true unity is given in the synthesis and equivalence of all the components and not in the overpowering of one over the others. The dynamic process we have observed in the painting finds a moment of pause only when all the components reach equilibrium in the unitary plane. The world will not find peace as long as one prevails over the others, precluding balance, harmony and unity to them and to themselves. Paradise on earth?

Today it is necessary to think complexity with the parameter of equivalence and no longer of symmetry or equality. In a universe that is believed to be symmetrical, the condition for an equivalence of two different things is their equality, i.e. the negation of diversity. Two different things will never be symmetrical or equal but they can acquire the same value, that is they can be equivalent. The space of Broadway Boogie Woogie is not symmetrical and yet each thing, although different in shape and/or color, is as valuable as the other. This is one of the secrets of neoplastic geometry that, in my opinion, will be of great help in the search for new possible social and spiritual models.

Another reflection on the visible and the invisible in Broadway Boogie Woogie:

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram B

Equivalence of visible and invisible

The synthesis of yellow, red and blue that evokes unity presents on the right an area of white color that has its own measurements and proportions. In that area, the “void” (white) is equivalent to the “full” (yellow, red, blue) and this contributes to a more balanced, stable and lasting fullness. This suggests equivalence between between visible and invisible as if the concrete and visible matter (the unity of yellow, red and blue) sprang from the invisible matter-energy (white). White, gray, yellow, red and blue constitutes in fact a progressive transition from the lighter, ethereal and indistinct value (white) to the darker, solid and definite value (blue). Through the gray little squares, the yellow lines draw from white and then reach, through red, the opposite value in blue. From the invisible (white) to the concrete and clearly visible (blue). The definite springs from the indistinct.

I did not bother making a precise measurement, but something tells me that the amount of the four colors added together is equivalent to the amount of white or slightly less. If the “full” represents what appears in an evident way to our senses while the “empty” represents what we are not able to see but that also exists and continuously nourishes us, how not to feel the deep wisdom and sadness of such a geometry; what we see depends also on what we do not see.

A spirituality of the future

Expressing themes of a spiritual nature through pure relationships of form and color means presenting them in a universal way that transcends the different languages and cultures for new human beings and citizens of the world.
Here we have a possible spiritual path of modern thought, a sacred vision that is expressed in a precise language and is therefore no longer necessarily in conflict with science and modernity, a rational vision that is well aware of the imponderable aspects of life.

All this is of crucial importance for a spirituality of the future.

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