An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

La Scuola di Atene and Broadway Boogie Woogie

Art, philosophy and science

La Scuola di Atene, Raffaello Sanzio, 1510 e Broadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian, 1943
La Scuola di Atene, Raffaello Sanzio, 1510 and Broadway Boogie Woogie, Piet Mondrian, 1943

We examine here a second fresco by Raffaello, La Scuola di Atene, which is located on the wall opposite La Disputa del Sacramento. We will then compare the two past works with Broadway Boogie Woogie to highlight themes of universal character common to the three works and demonstrate that, mutatis mutandis, the twentieth-century painting can represent a synthesis of the two sixteenth-century frescoes.

Theology vs. philosophy and science

In La Disputa del Sacramento, themes of a theological nature are dealt with, while La Scuola di Atene, presents themes of philosophy, the sciences and the liberal arts. The painting depicts the most important philosophers of ancient Greece under the vaults of a building that seems to have been inspired by Bramante’s plans for the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Roma:

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento, 1508, Vatican Museums Roma
La Scuola di Atene, 1508-10, Vatican Museums Roma
La Disputa del Sacramento, 1508, Raffaello Sanzio, Diagram A
La Disputa del Sacramento, Diagram A
La Scuola di Atene, Diagram A

Nature and artifice

In La Disputa del Sacramento the composition is divided between a real scene (at the bottom) and an imagined or metaphysical scene (in the middle-high part). In La Scuola di Atene the whole scene takes place, instead, entirely at the level of earthly life. If in La Disputa, from the horizontal of the earthly scene one rises vertically towards the spiritual and the divine, in La Scuola everything is concentrated on the human. In La Disputa we find ourselves in the open space of nature with the immensity of the sky above men. In La Scuola everything takes place in an artificial space where the sky (the infinite space of nature) is enclosed and measured by architectural vaults that are the work of human mind.

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento, 1508
La Scuola di Atene, 1508-10

Unity and duality

Through the three architectural vaults of La Scuola, the gaze converges towards the figures of Plato (on the left) and Aristotle (on the right):

La Scuola di Atene, 1508-10, Raffaello Sanzio
La Scuola di Atene, 1508-10
La Scuola di Atene, Plato and Aristotle

The composition therefore tends towards two points (the heads of the two philosophers). These are close but distinct and seem to compete for the vanishing point of the perspective construction. This is not accidental because the theme of the fresco is philosophy and science, that is, rational thought that proceeds through antinomies and therefore manifests duality. We therefore see how the formal structure of the two frescoes already tells us what their contents are: the unity of faith in the first and the duality of thought in the second.

Aristotle and Plato are in the center because their vision of the world, rather than that of Heraclitus (seated below with his arm resting on a block of marble and portrayed in the guise of Michelangelo Buonarroti) inspired the thought of the time.

La Scuola di Atene, Detail (Heraclitus)

A synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian thought

Plato holds his hand up, with his finger pointing upward, indicating the world of ideas. The line extending from Plato’s finger follows the arc of the architectural vault and descends back to Aristotle’s hand holding a book, while with his other hand the philosopher points to the earthly world.
“Aristotle’s horizontal gesture, symbolizes the organization of the world through the Ethics, and Plato’s vertical gesture the movement of cosmological thought that rises from the sensible world to its ideal principle” (Chastel).

La Scuola di Atene, 1510, Raffaello Sanzio, Detail
La Scuola di Atene, 1510, Raffaello Sanzio, Detail

Plato’s finger that, following the curve of the architectural vault, descends in correspondence with Aristotle’s hand, suggests a synthesis of the two philosophies, which was probably the idea that the commissioners of the fresco wanted to illustrate. How to express a synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian thought? In the two-dimensional space of the painting it can be done with a semicircle that ideally unites the two figures. Plato’s gesture goes upwards, encloses the universe (the sky circumscribed by the architectural vault) and then descends to the ground, joining Aristotle’s hand. Using the semicircle that materializes in the architectural vault, the painter connects and unites the philosophy of Plato with the philosophy of Aristotle, thus expressing, in purely visual terms, the historical-literary content that the client required.

To read the arch as a line connecting Plato’s hand to Aristotle’s hand is, obviously, unrealistic from a three-dimensional point of view, since – in a real space – that arch would be well beyond the two philosopher bodies. However, in the art of painting the contents are expressed through the only two real and concrete dimensions of the pictorial surface.
Every good painter has always built up his images by establishing relationships that, first of all, interact on the two-dimensional plane even if they evoke the illusion of a three-dimensional space. The formal relations are born on the two-dimensional plane and, through a wise use of geometry and a conscious reading of the observer, they acquire meaning. In painting, and probably not only in painting, form precedes and determines content.

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
La Scuola di Atene, 1508-10, Raffaello Sanzio
La Scuola di Atene
Broadway Boogie Woogie
La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
La Scuola di Atene

In La Scuola a variety of characters is concentrated in two predominant figures that compete for the vanishing point of the entire composition. The multiple here remains open to duality. Even the architectural vaults suggest continuous references of space towards a synthesis that is only realized as a relationship between the two figures of Plato and Aristotle.

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Oil on Canvas, cm. 127 x 127
A dispersed multiplicity of yellow, red and blue parts concentrate into a unity of the three colors
Broadway Boogie Woogie
The yellow, red and blue unity reopens to a multiplicity of parts.

On the wall depicting theology (La Disputa) we see a multiplicity evoking unity in the absolute terms of faith:

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

On the opposite wall, which illustrates philosophy, the sciences and the liberal arts (La Scuola), the multiple tends toward a synthesis that remains open to duality since rational thought proceeds by contradiction:

La Scuola di Atene
La Scuola di Atene, Diagram

In Broadway Boogie Woogie, the duality expressed by opposite lines becomes a unitary plane and this then reopens to a duality of opposite lines. In this perspective we can say that in the modern painting rational thought that develops through duality (philosophy, science and and liberal arts of La Scuola) becomes mystical or theological thought (La Disputa) and this remains open to the contradictory solicitations of reason and the real world avoiding to become clogged in preconceived and dogmatic formulas.

Rational theology and spiritual science

Broadway Boogie Woogie exhorts to think of a theology that also satisfies rational instances and a science that does not lose sight of the spiritual.

“I believe that cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research” (Albert Einstein).

One and multiple are usually considered opposite terms. Broadway Boogie Woogie shows a process from the many towards the one and of the one opening up again to the many. One and multiple appear to be opposites and irreconcilable if considered from a static point of view but reveal equivalence and unity if thought of in a dynamic way, that is, if thought of as opposites that unite through a sequence that transforms one thing into its opposite.

To give an example: black and white are opposites. Between black and white there is an infinite range of grays and if we could contemplate that range, white would progressively become black.
From this point of view, opposites seems to be a sort of escamotage of human’s mind to condense the infinite variations of nature (such as the one between white and black) into a short interval which therefore becomes easier to handle.

If we observe nature with a spiritual gaze, it evokes unity, and if we observe it with the analytical gaze of the sciences, nature itself never ceases to multiply, shattering the sense of unity evoked by the spirit.

“Nature is God divided infinitely” said Friedrich von Schiller.

Rational thought analyzes, creating multiplicity, what the spiritual soul perceives as an inseparable whole. It is also true that science today considers the infinite extension of its studies as a whole, but in its operation at a particular level, analysis often loses sight of the synthesis. In plastic terms Broadway Boogie Woogie exhorts us to contemplate the multiple as one and then return to consider all its infinite variety when unity re-opens to multiplicity. Edgar Morin speaks of: “continuous comings and goings between the parts and the whole”.

Expressing the imprecise with maximum precision

The plastic means used by Mondrian (straight lines, defined geometric shapes, three primary colors) are precise and therefore, already in the form evoke the clarity and determination of rational thought; nevertheless, the precision of the means does not preclude the possibility of dealing with what is commonly considered imponderable.
Italo Calvino comes to mind when he says: “Expressing the imprecise with maximum precision” and I think of Vito Mancuso when he writes: “(…) rationalism that reduces reality to the limits of human reason, excluding from the horizon of truth all that human reason cannot conceive and ending up depriving reality of every mystery and every depth. Against such a narrowing of rationalism, spiritual dialogue exalts the opposite perspective of rationality, which aims at a continuous opening of human reason towards the much broader logic-lógos of reality.”. This is tantamount to saying that the multiple becomes one and then the one reopens to the multiple and this is what we see in Broadway Boogie Woogie.

Art must make us taste nature eternal

What nature offers to our observation (often fleetingly) is the fruit of the same, intimate and more enduring reality. “Beneath the succession of moments, which composes the superficial existence of beings and things, cladding them with changeable appearances that soon vanish, one can look for a truer, more essential character, to which the artist will cling in order to give a more lasting interpretation of reality.” (Henri Matisse)

“Everything we see fades away. Nature is always the same but nothing remains of it, of what it appears. Our art must give the thrill of its duration, it must make us taste it eternal” said Paul Cézanne.

This is where the process of abstraction began in the art of European painting. This process found its first, fundamental conclusion in the work of Piet Mondrian, who wrote: “Art must look not at the appearance of nature but at what nature really is” – and then added: “What is the particular value of abstract art that distinguishes it from the art of the past and from naturalistic art? That it is a direct, stronger and purer expression of life. What do we mean by life? Not already the repetition of changing events but life itself, that is, the vital energy present in all of us.”

Symmetrical and asymmetrical

La Disputa del Sacramento, Raffaello Sanzio, 1508
La Disputa del Sacramento
La Scuola di Atene, 1508-10, Raffaello Sanzio
La Scuola di Atene
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Oil on Canvas, cm. 127 x 127
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram A

Order and disorder

The symmetries generated in Broadway Boogie Woogie are momentary tendencies towards a certain order that never come to govern the entire composition as in Raffaello’s La Disputa and La Scuola. In modern painting the idea of symmetry is only a special case of an asymmetrical universe.
The symmetrical sequences of Broadway Boogie Woogie signal the genesis of an ordered and measurable space; a finite dimension in an infinite context (the lines that never stop continuing..) and this evokes in plastic terms the genesis of the human dimension (the finite and the search for order) in the immeasurable and unordered context of nature.

The unpredictable evolution of existence

The idea of symmetry evokes a center around which things remain identical. Symmetry transforms the variation and diversity inherent in every vital process into an absolute identity and this helps the human being to maintain a certain control over the unpredictable evolution of existence. The idea of symmetry has long been applied in the arts and architecture, especially when man’s position in the natural context was more precarious than it is today.
Both Raffaello and Mondrian were well aware that nature and human existence are a combination of infinite and finite, disorder and order, asymmetrical and symmetrical. However, in the sixteenth century the infinite was subjected to the finite, disorder to order, nature to man and this, as we said, just to increase through culture a weaker position of the human being in the natural context. In the meantime, the situation has changed to the point that today it is man who has to take care of nature.

The spiritual as a mode of being of nature

Asymmetry prevails in Broadway Boogie Woogie because modern thought no longer claims to embrace and enclose the natural universe as a whole, but rather to understand it briefly from within through scientific observation and experimentation. The short symmetrical sequences that develop in Broadway Boogie Woogie make measurable, that is, finite and therefore comprehensible, an infinite space such as that which is manifested by the straight lines; straight lines that for Mondrian are a plastic symbol of the infinite extension of nature. The symmetrical sequences that arise along the lines are a symbol of thought (finite and measurable space) that emerges for short stretches from nature (the infinite lines). If in Raffaello’s time thought tended to enclose nature once and for all, in Mondrian’s time thought is generated by nature and returns to it. Thought, the spiritual, would therefore be a mode of being of natural energy.

“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)

Full and empty space

Reality, as it appears to us, induces us to see the things around us as full space and “empty” space. We call empty space what is between visible and tangible things. In reality this is not so. Everything is full and the “void” appears to us as such only because it is formed by energy-matter with a different density from what appears to us as full.

The colors of Broadway Boogie Woogie are white, gray, yellow, red and blue. In this progression we proceed from the lightest (white) to the darkest (blue). White suggests invisible, “empty” space while the lines and the yellow, red and blue planes evoke “full” space. White evokes an ethereal space while yellow, red and especially blue express a solid space. Gray appears as a first hint that from emptiness (white) proceeds towards fullness. Emptiness (white) acquires consistency (gray) and consolidates into full and clearly visible forms (yellow, red and blue). From the ethereal to the more solid; from the indistinct to the definite; from the invisible to the visible. The most solid and clearly visible area of space is the plane where yellow, red and blue reach unity. The white space to the right of the unified plane has the same proportions as the plane itself. In that way the painting tells us that fullness is equivalent to emptiness, the visible has the same importance as what is for us invisible:

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

During the elaboration phase of the Neo-Plastic language Mondrian considered white, grey and black as colors symbolizing the spiritual while yellow, red and blue were a plastic symbol of the more lively and contrasting variety of colors present in the real and concrete world.

The use of gray

Mondrian’s use of gray in Broadway Boogie Woogie, mentioned earlier, is also interestingly reflected in Raffaello’s La Disputa del Sacramento:

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

The passage from the real earthly scene to the metaphysical one that develops in the sky takes place through a semicircle of white-grey clouds in which we can glimpse figures of angels that, compared to the well-defined figures of the earthly characters, appear almost as incorporeal entities interconnected among themselves. From the central circle with the dove of the Holy Spirit, the space expands towards the sides, first with the four more defined angels showing the Gospels and then with the more ethereal angels at the base of the figures of saints and prophets. What is an angel if not a metaphor for spiritual energy? Through the angels mixed with clouds, the Holy Spirit (solid and well defined in the center) radiates into those wise and holy men.

Here too, therefore, the color white and gray express something ethereal and indistinct, while yellow, red and blue tones express the garments of the earthly characters, that is, something more tangible and concrete. White plays a similar role to gray even higher up, just below the golden canopy, where a trail of clouds can be seen in which incomplete silhouettes of waving angels can be glimpsed, while on the right and left are two groups of three angels each.

Ethereal and solid

In both the ancient fresco and the modern painting white and gray express a more ethereal matter (the “void”) than the solid, full-bodied yellow, red and blue.

In Broadway Boogie Woogie some phases of transformation of space appear in gray:

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

Some phases of transformation appear in gray, precisely those in which the process of internalization of space begins (1 and 2), which continues with 3 and then 4 and 5 and reaches the largest extension with 7.
With 8 the gray color again signals a process of metamorphosis.
The phases of transformation from the outside to the inside (from 1 to 7) and then from the inside to the outside (8) are gray because gray is the color closest to white where everything appears indistinct.

Both painters seem to attribute to gray a function of lymph flowing between the more solid parts of the matter or, to put it better, white and gray express energy in a fluid state while yellow, red and blue express the same energy that has become matter.

Genesis of space-time

Our sense of space-time is a particular case of a universal space-time

This makes visible in plastic terms the birth and progressive consolidation of space-time as we experience it. Present science thought made us aware that our sense of space-time is only a particular case of a universal space-time (micro and macrocosm) that does not respond to our usual coordinates. Before and after that interval of space-time that we call reality, the true and more complete reality no longer responds to our common perception of space-time. The notion of space-time that we experience in a completely spontaneous way (to the point that we cannot imagine anything different) is, in truth, only a part of a more extended and alien universal space-time. Particle physics is investigating this extension and not infrequently is faced with events that cannot be described by our current way of thinking.

Mondrian: “Time is real for us. Beyond time is the true reality, but not our reality. By means of our reality we have to come to the true reality. Hidden more or less by our reality, the true reality is always present. Progress is unveiling of the true reality.”

“That which is outside of time and space is not unreal. If at first it is only an intuitive concept, it becomes real as our intuition becomes purer and stronger. The new plastic is an intuition that has become plastically determined.” (Mondrian)

An elastic space-time

An instant of eternity

It should not seem exaggerated to speak of eternity in front of a blue, red and yellow rectangle. In Broadway Boogie Woogie everything is measured and acquires meaning according to the reciprocal relationships between the parts: the largest plane, in which the three primary colors come together, evokes something more integral, stable and lasting than the individual small squares, red or yellow or blue. Eternal does not necessarily mean of infinite duration; sometimes you can taste the eternal even in the moment. An instant of eternity; quite different from everything that is born and dies with the instant itself.

The simultaneous coexistence of the three primary colors interpenetrated in a harmonious and balanced structure (the unitary plane) evokes the entire painting in synthesis, just as certain sensations of fullness make us feel in unison with the entire world.

Our reality and true reality

Here we see another fundamental difference between the two ancient frescoes and the modern painting. In the two sixteenth-century works, man and his sense of space-time is the measure of everything; the twentieth-century work, on the other hand, shows the absence of space-time (the infinite lines) from which our space-time is generated (squares / symmetries / planes) which then returns towards the absence of our space-time (the infinite lines, that is, towards the universal space-time of the micro and the macro. “Through our reality the true reality is revealed”. (Mondrian)

The “supernatural” is still nature

This clearly shows the overcoming of the concept of nature as the only part of phenomena that we perceive (realistic or figurative painting) and its extension to the infinite variety of phenomena that make up the microcosm and macrocosm. As long as man considered himself the measure of creation, reality had necessarily to coincide with what he is given to see. For a long time and even today we believe that what appears to our senses is all reality and the rest we have defined metaphysical, beyond, supernatural. Ascertained through the experimental sciences that what we see is only a part of reality, the beyond becomes a “here and now” that we do not see but that is just as real and substantial component of everything we can see. The “supernatural” is beyond that part of nature that we can perceive but it is still nature. There is nothing surreal in all this but only a healthy and more current expansion of our idea of reality. How could painting express this reality if not by abstracting?

“Art must look not at the appearance of nature but at what nature really is. If we wish to fully represent nature, we are forced to look for another plastic expression. And it is precisely out of love for nature and reality that we avoid its natural appearance” (Mondrian)

Leonardo da Vinci

“The senses are terrestrial, reason is beyond them when it contemplates” (Leonardo da Vinci) In this affirmation I see an implicit reference to a vision intuited by reason that goes beyond the most immediate perception of the senses but that is no less real for this. Leonardo said that “painting is innate to the visible” adding, however, in another note that “painting is a mental activity”: it follows that the painter must take into account not only what he sees, that is, what appears to the senses, but also what, according to reason and intuition, nature really is.

Having said that, it is still a question of painting, that is, of beauty, harmony, equilibrium, pleasure of the eye and the mind.

Man’s questions about the essence and purpose of the world also arise from our finite dimension compared to an infinite universe. Every religion, philosophy or scientific theory are sophisticated attempts to rebalance that disproportion. In the final analysis it is a question of proportions and what, if not the art of painting, can deal with proportions?

In the past, painting dared to engage with the universal. I believe that once the anomalous wave of certain “contemporary art”, which has been abusing our patience in the recent past, has passed, art will be able to resume its journey towards new, more serene and convincing horizons.