An explanation of Mondrian's oeuvre by Michael Sciam

Unity of all things


La Disputa del Sacramento, which is also called Trionfo della Chiesa, is one of three wall frescoes that were commissioned by Pope Julius II Della Rovere to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican palaces. The room has this name because the most important documents of the administrative and political life of the Papal State were usually signed there. La Disputa del Sacramento illustrates the theme of theology.

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

Opposing forces

The fresco is inscribed in a semicircular wall. Raffaello starts from this pre-existing datum and develops the composition according to a rhythm of concave curved lines that contrast with convex curved lines. Like Mondrian, Raffaello was well aware that a painted surface acquires vital energy from the juxtaposition and encounter of opposing forces. This contrast generates compositional tensions that contribute to the vitality of the represented scene.

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

Physical and metaphysical worlds

In the lower part of the fresco we see a group of figures who seem to burst onto the scene and distribute themselves animatedly around an altar. Presumably, they are discussing theological issues and each seems to have a certain idea to make their point. In that group, one can recognize some characters of the time including Beato Angelico, Bramante, Francesco Maria della Rovere, Pope Julius II, and Girolamo Savonarola.

The middle zone depicts an imaginary or metaphysical space where saints and prophets of Christian history are seated in the sky, that is, an intermediary between men and divinity. We note, among others, St. Peter, St. John the Evangelist, Abraham, St. Paul.

From earthly figures to God

Earthly randomly assembled figures become higher up an ordered group of twelve figures that are more significant for the Church (saints and prophets); it is synthesized towards the center in the three most emblematic figures (the Madonna, Christ and St. John the Baptist) and finally reaches unity at the highest point with the figure of God. From a disjointed group of earthly figures we pass to a more uniform semicircular motion (saints and prophets) from which a more stable semicircle is generated (Christ) that finally becomes a sphere in the hand of God.

In this way the painter evokes a progression from the bottom to the top: from an open space that on the ground spreads out horizontally to a space that, developing vertically, concentrates in synthesis, evoking unity. From multiplicity to the one.

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

From the multiple to the one

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie

Unity of all things

In a completely different way we see both in the 16th century fresco and in the modern painting a progression from the multiple towards the one. From an image that presents the One to us in majestic and regal form we come to an image that presents the One by means of perpendicular lines and primary colors. Because it expresses itself in abstract form, the modern image no longer presents only a small circle of human characters but opens itself ideally to all living forms.

The one descending from above and unity generating from below

From straight lines to small squares and larger planes Broadway Boogie Woogie shows a progressive internalization of space through which unity is generated. This is equivalent to saying that the One does not impose itself from above but is born in the space of consciousness as a result of a continuous interaction between the external world and the inner world.

Static and dynamic unity

The unity we see in Broadway Boogie Woogie is not an immobile entity, given a priori once and for all, but the result of a dynamic process that reconciles opposing impulses by balancing them; a condition of balance that, once achieved, can also be lost. A unity that must always be regained through daily action.

Matter and spirit

Piet Mondrian writes: “Through the internalization of what is understood as matter and the externalization of what is understood as spirit – so far too separate! – matter-spirit become a unity.” The spiritual would thus be a mode of being, the most complex and refined, of energy-matter. When we speak of spiritual matters we prefer to say energy rather than matter because the term energy is associated with a living and active entity while matter still evokes something defenseless.

Let’s now delve into the four points listed above.

Unity of all things

In the modern painting there is no longer a trace of altars, illustrious men, popes and saints. We no longer see angels, nor the image of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Would the unity we see generated in the painting of 1943 – a yellow, red and blue plane – therefore be a modern interpretation of the idea of God that we see in the fresco of 1508?

In La Disputa everything leads back to man, or rather, only to some men, as if the relationship with God concerned only a certain elite of the human race. On the left side there is a timid and sparse piece of nature with some trees; the whole sky is subject to the order of the Saints, the Prophets, Christ and a God with human features.

An image of nature

“It is necessary to give a conscious image of nature, until now we have only considered the image of man” said Cézanne at the end of the nineteenth century.

Giving a conscious image of nature means widening one’s gaze and contemplating the infinite variety of the world of which the human species is only one of the innumerable components.

The Garden of Heaven, Peter Wenzel, Purchased in 1831, Vatican Museums, Roma

A painting by the Austrian painter Peter Wenzel (1745-1829) shows an attempt to account for the great variety of creatures present in nature. Obviously, no painting can ever represent the infinite multiplicity of nature; a multiplicity of which science and the media make us aware today. How can the myriad of different existing things be evoked in a painting except by abstracting from the apparent form of each individual thing?

A common design

“There is a design common to all things, plants, trees, animals, men, and it is with this design that one must be in consonance” (Henri Matisse).

The “common design” of which Matisse speaks is what binds and unites all things despite their apparent diversity. How to “draw” such an idea? Cézanne suggested tracing the variety we see in nature to constant forms such as the cone, the cylinder and the sphere. Mondrian finds in the perpendicular relationship a way to express a common design: “The orthogonal position plastically expresses the immutable; the rhythm of the composition expresses the relative.”.

Same basic properties

Expressing the multiple with the widest variation of the same thing (the perpendicular relationship) allows the changeable to be traced back to something more constant. By endlessly varying the relationship between horizontals and verticals and increasing this variety with the continuous alternation of the three primary colors, painting can evoke the multiplicity present in nature without getting lost in it.

Each form (slightly more horizontal or vertical, now of one color and now of another) suggests in fact the widest diversity but all forms share the same intimate nature (the perpendicular relationship and the three primary colors). Also in nature each living form is different from the others but they all share the same basic properties.

The process that first unites the multiple and then dissolves it also makes one think of every living organism which, at birth, concentrates in itself an infinite multiplicity of parts but, after a certain lapse of time, disintegrates, flowing back into the pure state of energy. Precisely because it is abstract, the painting succeeds in evoking reality on a universal level.

An idea of totality

As mentioned, the multiplicity that takes abstract form in Broadway Boogie Woogie can apply to all living forms and no longer just to an elite group of human characters gathered around an altar. “As for details, the painter no longer has to worry about them. There is photography to render a hundred times better and more rapidly the multitude of details.” (Henri Matisse). From this point of view, modern painting presents us with a new and more current idea of totality, that is, of what we are wont to call God.

“Nature is God divided infinitely.” (Friedrich Von Schiller)

If “nature is an infinite divided God”, the multiplicity we see in Broadway Boogie Woogie, multiplicity that with straight lines virtually extends to infinity, would be the divided God while the process of internalization that progressively unites that multiplicity into synthesis represents our idea of God. A God who is no longer just man. The only reason why it might seem licit to represent God in human form could derive from the fact that God is a postulate of the human mind, but here we enter into purely theological arguments that I dare not address.

Not only theology

The theme of the one and the multiple does not concern only theology, philosophy and science but also our common experience of daily life. We are confronted on a daily basis with the relationship between the one and the many when, through observation and analysis, we go deeper and then, overwhelmed by a sea of details, we try to bring everything under control by making syntheses. It is not, however, only an intellectual fact: we often experience a push towards concentration when rational explanations are replaced by a surge of the heart that transforms the fragmentation of a thought representation into the almost absolute synthesis of a felt vision.

Everything is one and multiple

Unity of all things but already every single thing is formed by a multiplicity of parts that we perceive as unity. The word “individual” with which we define a person means “non-divisible”, that is, one, but we know that each individual consists of a multiplicity of different parts.

If we observe a tree from a distance, it appears to us as a green dot. As we get closer, the tree reveals an increasing amount of detail, until it reaches an enormous complexity when we contemplate each individual leaf which, on closer inspection, reveals a small universe. The tree, which appeared as a synthetic green spot, now appears as an infinite reality. Moving away from the tree, the multiplicity in which we had immersed ourselves once again appears as a synthetic green dot.

Each thing is at the same time one and multiple according to the relationship of position and level of perception that we, from time to time, establish with things. How can we represent in painting the infinite multiplicity enclosed in every single thing and at the same time the immeasurable whole of all things? How but by abstracting from the contingent and particular aspect of every single thing?

The one descending from above and unity generating from below

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie

Physical and metaphysical

In the ancient fresco, a scene made up of real people is transformed into an imaginary scene; a real physical space becomes a metaphysical space, an evocation of a spiritual world, which, rising vertically, reaches divine unity.
Also in the Broadway Boogie Woogie the unity comes from an interaction between horizontal and vertical but everything remains on one plane.
In the modern painting there is no dichotomy between the many and the one, between everyday and eternal, physical and metaphysical.

The ancient fresco evokes a spiritual dimension that governs consciousness from above. From the manifold set of little squares to the unitary synthesis, the modern painting shows a progressive internalization of space and this urges us to think of the One not as an external entity, fixed a priori and once and for all, but as a dialectic path between opposite drives, between external and internal reality through which it is possible to reach a certain balance with oneself and with the world.

Since it is expressed in abstract form, the synthesis evoked in the modern painting is the unity of all things but also, simultaneously, the unity of the individual consciousness with respect to external reality.

Unity within

For Mondrian, unity is not a truth revealed once and for all in some heavenly place of which some men proclaim themselves interpreters, but rather the result of a constant search. God is found along the way, by trying and trying again for a lifetime. Grace is not something that descends from above through the intermediary of saints or prophets, but the fruit of the action of each individual man when his individual action is in tune with the universal reasons present in him and outside him.

Heaven and hell

Paradise is not a privileged place to be reached permanently in a second life but a condition of dynamic equilibrium that begins here and now. Many times during an existence one can reach paradise and many times one can find oneself in hell; what Mondrian called the tragic; when there is an imbalance between opposites and duality (diabolus) (from the Greek dia = through and ballo = to put in the middle, to separate, to create fractures) lacerates the integrity of consciousness and unity flows back into a contradictory multiplicity. Just what Broadway Boogie Woogie shows with the unitary plane reopening to the multiple.

Outer and inner unity

The unity we see in Broadway Boogie Woogie therefore evokes an ideal unity of all creatures and, at the same time, it evokes integrity and unity of one’s own consciousness. At this point, a question arises spontaneously, but I would not know how to answer it: how much can be individual and fruit of one’s own conscience in the contemplation of the divine and how much instead requires shared rules and rituals and therefore a specific doctrine to follow? The thought of Vito Mancuso and especially his essay Obbedienza e Libertà can help to find answers.

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie

Static and dynamic unity

The fresco of 1508 presents the One as the stable and definitive sum of all things. The monstrance on the altar is the earthly symbol of a permanent unity that is in heaven. Broadway Boogie Woogie presents the One as the result of a process of aggregation, growth and duration which, however, can disintegrate and reflux into a sea of contradictions (horizontal versus vertical). Contradiction generates doubts and questions that necessarily call into question faith. Contradiction, more than a blind belief in dogmas, can play a fundamental role in making faith more true and authentic.

Nothing in the world is thinkable for itself, but is instead judged through comparison with its opposite.” (Piet Mondrian)

An endless variation of the one

The One manifests itself in the Broadway Boogie Woogie and then flows back into the multiple to reformulate itself infinite times in the attempt to grasp a whole that will never be reached. The One is formulated countless times also and above all in order to grasp, from time to time, a harmonious relationship that is the result of the particular context. As the context changes, so does the form of the One. This is certainly true in visual terms referring to a painting. Can it also be true in existential and spiritual terms?

“It is necessary to arrive at a conception that is not doctrinal and static, but physical and dynamic of truth.” (Vito Mancuso)

Between particular and universal

I think of the many life situations that still do not find adequate consideration by official religious doctrines even though the current Pope Francesco has begun to revise certain established positions. Every life situation would need special consideration. There are no certain rules that can be valid always, in any case and for everyone. This means relieving spirituality of the burden of a moral doctrine. It is nevertheless true that rules must always apply, and so the question arises as a relationship between what can change and what must remain, between the dynamic and the static, between the particular and the universal.

It was said that if the context changes, the form of the One should also change. Can this also be true in theological terms? To say that the One changes according to the context in which it is generated, could this undermine the very idea of unity which, by definition, is immutable? With all due caution, we will return to this issue on the next page.

Here I only wish to highlight the dynamic nature of the unity we observe in Broadway Boogie Woogie in comparison to the static unity we see in La Disputa del Sacramento.

According to the rules of perspective, in the ancient fresco everything converges toward the vanishing point, a fixed point that unites the earthly scene in itself and coincides with the monstrance placed on the altar, a symbol of central and immovable truth of doctrine. In the modern painting, space converges towards a unity that constitutes a fixed point of a dynamic nature since it is the result of a changing relationship between opposite lines.

A relationship subject to change over time whose substance, however – please note – remains unchanged: yellow, red, blue harmoniously integrated in a different way where harmony stands for balance, justice and therefore truth.

“The fixed point of a dynamic type makes life a continuous interpretation, but with a coherent interpretative criterion.” (Vito Mancuso)

What can be an “interpretive criterion” for the painter?

The orthogonal position plastically expresses the immutable; the rhythm of the composition expresses the relative.” (Mondrian)

A firm principle allowing the widest plurality of situations

The artist evokes the immutable with the constant principle of the orthogonal relationship, which allows the widest plurality of situations to be generated while still maintaining a firm grip on the generating principle of all that multiplicity.

“Life thus appears in a perspective that gives it stability but does not immobilize it, that allows it to move but following a direction.” (Vito Mancuso)

Each entity in Broadway Boogie Woogie is different from the others but all respond to the same universal logic (the perpendicular relationship). The situations change but the most intimate structure remains. And it is always on the basis of this intimate structure that the different versions of the One are generated.

Matter and spirit

“In past centuries to designate fundamental reality thought made use of the term being. Today physics teaches us that it is necessary to use another term for fundamental reality: energy.” (Vito Mancuso)

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

The perpendicular lines through which Mondrian elaborates his compositions are not geometric entities affixed to the canvas in a static manner, but rather visible traces of energy that crosses the space of the canvas, continuing virtually to infinity. The lines are signals of primordial energy that gives rise to the matter of which all things in the world are made, from the simplest to the most complex.

Mancuso goes on to say that “energy generates work… (…) Energy, in fact, is a Greek term (energheia) that means precisely ‘at work,’ ‘in action,’ en-ergon.”

The unity of Broadway Boogie Woogie springs from the energy (the straight lines) that generates the matter (the little squares) which is ordered (the symmetrical sequences) and grows towards more stable structures (the planes) until the unitary plane that presents the highest degree of internalization of outer space. In this process we see the primordial energy reach a spiritual dimension. In modern painting there is no dichotomy between the physical and the metaphysical, the material and the spiritual.

“There is no intelligent design descending from above. There is, however, a design, which has become increasingly intelligent to the point of producing the very reality of intelligence, that has laboriously formed from below.” (Vito Mancuso).

From below, that is, from the primordial energy (the straight lines) towards the matter (little squares) that grows (planes) internalizing itself (unitary plane).

“Through the internalization of what is understood as matter and the externalization of what is understood as spirit – so far too separate! – matter-spirit become a unity.” (Mondrian)

When we say spirit, we think of sacred and mysterious things, and it is also true that there are many things that the human mind cannot explain. Nevertheless, to say that spirit is a mode of being of energy-matter does not mean at all to reduce or cancel the imponderable of the spiritual sphere. It means, more simply, to put visible and invisible phenomena on the same level; to understand that the “full” depends on the “empty”.

In Broadway Boogie Woogie, the color white suggests the “empty” and the invisible. It means contemplating a spectrum of realities that our senses cannot grasp but which are no less real for that. It means considering the imponderable as a natural continuation of the comprehensible and therefore, in essence, it means reconnecting to the whole and, therefore, to what we call God.

Broadway Boogie Woogie shows that it is possible to talk about universal issues without being bound to absolute and eternal truths. Universal is no longer necessarily synonymous with dogma as some, lacking in imagination, still claim.

The purpose of these reflections is certainly not to address issues of a theological nature that are not within the reach of the writer, but rather to demonstrate that a certain way of understanding painting can restore to art a universal vision that was believed to have been lost during the twentieth century.

As Michel Seuphor wrote in his 1956 beautiful biography on the Dutch artist:

“The development of Mondrian’s religious thought can therefore be summarized as follows: Calvinism is superseded by theosophy, which is itself absorbed (after 1916) by the New Plasticism called upon to express everything wordlessly.”

Copyright 1989 – 2023 Michael (Michele) Sciam All Right Reserved