An explanation of Mondrian's oeuvre by Michael Sciam

Piet Mondrian condensed into three paintings

The entire evolutionary process of Piet Mondrian’s oeuvre and its substantial meanings can be explained by examining three key works:

The Red Tree, Evening, 1908-10, Piet Mondrian
The Red Tree (Evening)
Pier and Ocean 5, 1915, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 5
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie

We shall examine these three works to demonstrate how from 1908 to 1943 the artist has been searching the most suitable forms and colors to express the same basic idea of a dynamic interaction between multiplicity and unity, that is to say, between the endless variety and mutability of the world around us and within ourselves on the one hand and the need to contemplate the intrinsic unity of all things on the other.

The Red Tree

The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10, Piet Mondrian
The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10, Oil on Canvas, cm. 70 x 99

The artist ascribed to the horizontal the value of everything that can be defined as the “natural” not only in the sense of natural landscape but also as anything that before our eyes and within ourselves in the course of our lives constantly changes, transforms, evolves. In the vertical the artist instead saw a symbol of the “spiritual” that is, of the all-human propensity to seek stability, constancy, unity.

The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10, Piet Mondrian
The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10

The multiplicity concentrated within the canvas then flows back to the right toward the ground line from which the trunk and the branches had formed. It is indeed a circular process. From a boundless multiplicity (the line of the ground) to a measured one (the branches) which then flows back to the virtually endless line of the ground.

Circularity seems to be reasserted by a circle that can be seen in the upper right section of the canvas. 

Pier and Ocean 5

About five years later we find the same idea of the manifold becoming one and then turning manifold again in a new work that although inspired by a landscape, is already in fact an abstract composition. The work belongs to a series of drawings, and gouaches inspired by a pier jutting out from the beach into the sea.

From the painter’s point of view the pier appears as a vertical (same as the architectural volumes of mills, lighthouses and church towers of the previous period) which interpenetrate the horizontal flow of the sea (analogous to the dominant horizontal space of the landscapes and seascapes of previous years):

The interaction between the upward vertical progression of a pier (recalling the tree trunk) and the horizontal expansion of the sea generates a whole variety of relationships between horizontals and verticals where something changes every instant (recalling the manifold set of branches of the tree): 

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

Some horizontal and vertical signs tend to relate by seeking balance between the opposite directions in the form of probable square proportions that finally reach a defined square. The variety of unstable signs find a more balanced and lasting situation in a square where the opposite directions assume the same value and the contrasting duality which animates the whole composition is transformed into an ideal unity

Same as the tree trunk, which unifies the set of capricious set of branches, the square unifies a variety of ever-changing orthogonal signs.

By reducing reality to a multitude of orthogonal signs, Mondrian performs an arbitrary operation with respect to everything we see. This enables him, however, to express the greatest possible variety on the canvas while at the same time maintaining something more constant. Every sign differs from the others but they all share the same intimate nature (the perpendicular relationship), just as every human being, every animal or tree is unique and unrepeatable but all express some fundamental characteristics  that make it  possible to discern an invisible overall design.

The sign of equivalence between opposites is born inside a square and thus suggests an inner space. The square therefore appears as a plastic symbol of the unifying consciousness of man dealing with the multifarious aspect of the world symbolized here by a multitude of different relationships between opposites drives. In the square the changing external space is captured for an instant in a more stable synthesis.

It is, however, obvious that the consciousness can only produce partial syntheses; it clearly cannot exhaust all the possible relations with the external world. 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.

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

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. These two signs tell us that unity is opening up to duality. 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 unity generated with the first square opens up again to manifold space with the second. The composition evokes the manifold and controversial space of life which attains measure and a harmonious condition in the space of consciousness (the square) before opening up again to the multifarious nature and unforeseeable events of life. 

Here too we therefore see the ideal circular process that we have observed in the figure of the tree: Through the unifying action of the trunk, the horizontal extension of the ground (a virtually endless and manifold space) is concentrated into the branches (a complex but finite space). The finite multiplicity expressed by the branches then flows back to the right toward the ground line from which the trunk and the branches had formed.

In a different form we see the same circular process in Pier and Ocean 5 where the horizontal flow of the sea is concentrated by the vertical pier into a synthesis (the square) that then opens higher up to the horizontal before flowing back toward manifold space. In both works multiplicity becomes unity and then unity turns back to multiplicity.

Broadway Boogie Woogie

We shall now examine the third work which, after thirty-five years from the figure of the tree, shows in a totally new way the same process from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity.

At first quick glance we see in Broadway Boogie Woogie a multitude of small gray, yellow, red, and blue fragments randomly moving along the lines:

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 127 x 127

The small fragments join up with others to generate some symmetrical configurations within the lines (Diagram A):

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

A horizontal correspondence between two vertical symmetries generates a small blue planes in the upper right corner (Diagram A) which is followed by other planes of different color and shape (Diagram B). The relationship between horizontal and vertical appears more stable and durable in the planes than in the initial fragments moving along the lines:

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

New planes are born, as shown by diagram C, that differ from the monochromatic ones observed in diagram B by presenting an inner space made of two colors:

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

Diagram D shows how the self-internalization of space continues with a further growth of planes both in extent and color consistency. The three primary colors concentrate now in the area of just two planes while to the right we see a single large plane in which the three primary colors interpenetrate to form a compact unity:

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

The manifold space made of yellow, red and blue fragments expanding on lines toward opposite directions which disrupted our visual field at the beginning of the process by keeping the eye in constant motion, attain now a unitary synthesis (Diagram E):

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

Space undergoes uninterrupted transformation from a condition of multiplicity to one of unity.

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

The controversial and virtually infinite space of the lines is transformed into a finite and lasting space with the unitary plane.

It would, however, be a mistake to see this as calm in the sense of a total absence of inner tension. The unitary plane should rather be seen as a temporary balanced synthesis which, like the square of Pier and Ocean 5 reopens to the manifold space around as we shall now see in diagram F.

Plane 2 is the same size as plane 1 but consists solely of red and gray rather than the three primary colors. Moreover the horizontal line running suddenly through the vertical plane tends visually to disrupt the previously attained balanced interpenetration of horizontal and vertical (1):

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram F

After the equivalence of the opposite directions and the synthesis of three primary colors attained in plane 1, the colors are again reduced in plane 2 and the external dynamism of the lines reappears to generate new opposition. After the degree of comparative calm, constancy, and unity achieved in plane 1, spatial movement thus seems to reappear in plane 2.

The indication provided by plane 2 finds further confirmation in plane 3, where blue, yellow, and red are juxtaposed but no longer interpenetrate as they did in plane 1. The juxtaposition produces the impression of three separate planes, whereas the interpenetration combines the three colors in a single structure of greater stability. Note how the yellow on the right of plane 3 already seeks to cross the perimeter of the plane and flow into the yellow of the surrounding lines. Plane 3 can therefore be seen as plane 1 in the process of dissolution:

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram F

Configuration 4 possibly represents the conclusion of the process of reopening the unitary synthesis in that it can be seen as a continuation of the disintegration of 3.
Space proceeds from a comparatively static and wholly internal condition (1) toward one of growing instability (2) that is gradually transformed into the more dynamic and variable external space of the lines (3, 4).

From expansion toward increasing concentration (Diagram E) and then from concentration back to expansion (Diagram F):

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

This is the way Broadway Boogie Woogie breathes. Through a dynamic process the one and the many (the unity invoked by the spiritual and the multiplicity presented by the natural) merge and transform into each other.

From the image of a tree, which expresses the relationship between multiplicity and unity metaphorically, toward an image that abstracts from the apparent forms of a pier extended toward the sea to a completely abstract image that, as such, acquires a universal significance that no longer applies only to a tree or a pier but to all possible things.

A circular process

The Red Tree (1908-10), Pier and Ocean 5 (1915) and Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) show a similar process from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity, that is to say, a circular process. Please note how in all the three paintings the horizontal opens up the concentration previously exercised by the vertical:

The horizontal (symbol of the natural) re-opens the synthesis generated by the unifying action of the vertical (the spiritual).

The tree of 1908-10 thus already reveals in wholly embryonic form the process from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity that took shape in 1915 (Pier and Ocean 5) and was expressed with the brightest colors in 1943 (Broadway Boogie Woogie).

“Life is a continued examination of the same thing in ever-greater depth”  (Mondrian)

A dynamic unity

The unity that Mondrian strove to express is a temporary synthesis generated momentarily by the subject in its changing relationships with the world. It is not something to be attained once and for all. Searching for equilibrium between the outer and inner realities does not mean attaining fixed points and immutable truths. The square of Pier and Ocean 5 and the unitary plane of Broadway Boogie Woogie are not static and all-inclusive unities but dynamic ones intrinsically linked to the manifold space in which they are born and toward which they return sometime later.

True reality

From the metaphorical figure of a tree (1910) to a concrete image showing a relationship between multiplicity and unity in the clearest way (1943). It is a process that lasted over thirty years, aimed at the construction of a plastic space through which to see reality in a new way. A Copernican revolution with respect to art, which until the end of nineteenth century focused on the semblances of the external world, that is, on the so-called figurative painting. The idea of the manifold becoming one and the one then turning manifold expresses a new conception of reality where every single thing is considered at the same time as one and manifold, finite and infinite.

Micro and macrocosm

What we call reality is only a part of true reality. Our senses do not grasp the microcosm that generates and is the substance of everything we see and touch. Everything, from minerals to plants, animals and human beings which we perceive as individual units are actually a multiplicity of parts each composed in turn of tissues, cells and atoms. Every single thing unveils a very complex and virtually infinite reality that we do not actually perceive.

“Yes, the one is one only in appearance: it is part of the whole and is at the same time a whole composed of parts… Each thing shows in smallness again the whole. The microcosm is equal in composition to the macrocosm, says the sage.” (Mondrian)

Painting certainly means taking into account the visible, but today it also means considering the visible as the emerging part of a truer and more complete reality. In accounting for both the apparent shapes and an invisible basic structure common to all things, painting regain a universal view of reality.

The above indicates the overcoming of the concept of nature as the only part that we are able to perceive and its extension to the microcosm, that is to say, the foundations of life. It seems to me rather naive to call painting that imitates semblances realistic and to brand as incomprehensible that which, by widening the gaze, suggests the part of reality not directly accessible to us as well.

“Art makes the invisible visible.” (Paul Klee)

Even the distinction between fullness and emptiness no longer makes sense since “emptiness” is just a different concentration of the same energy that generates “fullness.” How to simultaneously evoke external and inner worlds, visible and invisible, macrocosm and microcosm except in abstract form?

An abstract “landscape”

This common basic structure of all things becomes the “landscape” to paint. This “landscape” goes from the intimate common structure of things (microcosm) to the infinite richness of what we see around us which is the result of endless combinations of the same basic elements of that common structure.

To make just one example of what I mean by “landscape”, let us consider a composition Mondrian painted in 1919: It consists of basic elements such as same size rectangles which generate a regular and symmetrical layout in terms of form that is transformed by the alternation of the three primary colors into an asymmetric whole of highly variable appearance:

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919

Isn’t nature an infinite variation of entities born out of always new and different combinations of same basic elements?

That “landscape” does not merely evoke the variety and changeability of the apparent forms that we perceive in nature or urban spaces but suggest that every single thing which appears different from another consists of an intimate analogous structure common to all things. While photography and video tell us about the outer and mutable form of everyday things, painting reveals their intrinsic reality at a universal level.

“Art must express the universal” (Mondrian)

True abstract painting means translating the ever changing multiplicity of nature and human existence into the two real and concrete dimensions of the pictorial surface. Living in such a complex reality as we do today, abstracting is essential in order to tune in to the substance of things again.

Of course, to paint means first of all to give life to harmonious compositions of shapes and colors that take on a life of their own, and this happens when each part contributes to a dynamic whole that is never exhausted with itself; when everything is in its place and never in a certain and definitive way. It is not easy to explain when a painting becomes a work of art.

A broader spectrum of reality

The new concept of space invite us to consider reality starting from the infinite structure of microcosm and expanding toward an uncatchable macrocosm. By abstracting from appearances, that is, from a partial reality, painting can evoke in its own ways the visible and the invisible, that is, a truer reality.

“As for details, the painter no longer has to worry about them. There is photography to render a hundred times better and faster the multitude of details.” (Henri Matisse)

No longer dwelling on the outer fleeting appearance of things – for this we have today photography and video -, this kind of abstraction (not any type of abstract painting) suggests a broader spectrum of reality.

“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)

Straight lines

According to Blaise Pascal, our sense of reality is partial and generates in-between the whole and true reality which consists of an infinite microcosm and an infinite macrocosm. This is one of the reasons why in his Neoplastic compositions Mondrian use endless perpendicular lines suggesting infinite space expanding towards opposite directions:

Composition N. 12 with Blue, 1937-42, Piet Mondrian
Composition N. 12 with Blue, 1937-42
New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian
New York City, 1942

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

“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.” (Mondrian)

A lasting interpretation

If by reality we mean only the way things appear to us, we would have to conclude that in today’s world, where the appearance of things change so rapidly, reality has no lasting consistency which is, indeed, a recurrent impression now a days.

“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, must make us taste it eternal.” (Paul Cézanne)

Henri Matisse: “Beneath the succession of moments, which makes up the superficial existence of beings and things, cladding them in shifting 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.”

Cézanne and Matisse too, sought among the changing semblances of our reality a truer reality. Cézanne tried to express a more essential character by means of a cylinder, a cone and a sphere; Mondrian found a key to the eternal in the perpendicular axiom.

Abstraction, when it is not just a convenient shortcut, restores to painting a universal gaze. This is why it seems to me that this kind of abstraction is more tuned with today’s reality than the so-called realistic painting.