An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Neoplasticism condensed in three works

Recapitulating an whole lifetime

The overall evolution and substantial meaning of Piet Mondrian’s oeuvre can be condensed in three fundamental paintings:

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

We shall examine the three works to demonstrate how from 1908 to 1943 the artist has been searching the most suitable forms and colors to express a very same basic idea, that is the relationship between the many and the one; a new way to visualize reality.

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

Through the unifying action of the trunk (the vertical was for Mondrian a symbol of the spiritual) the boundless horizontal line of nature (the horizontal was a symbol of the natural) appears as one (the set of branches) which then flows back toward the line of the ground. The one, resulting from the concentrating action of the vertical trunk (the spiritual), reopens to the horizontal extended space of nature. It is a circular process. 

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

Pier and Ocean 5

This work belongs to a series of drawings, and gouaches inspired by a pier jutting out from the beach into the sea. From the painter point of view the pier appears as a vertical which interpenetrate the horizontal flow of the sea.

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

The 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 is a plastic symbol of the unifying consciousness of man dealing with the multifarious aspect of the world symbolized now by the variety of ever-changing orthogonal signs.

A second square can be seen above the square that we have identified as a unitary synthesis:

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. The two small horizontal segments form two crosses with the two vertical sides of the square. These two signs tell us that unity is opening up to duality.

The unitary synthesis achieved in the lower square 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 proportion) 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: the horizontal flow of the sea is concentrated by the vertical pier into a synthesis (the square) that opens higher up to the horizontal before flowing back toward manifold space. 

Broadway Boogie Woogie

In Broadway Boogie Woogie we see 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

..which join up with others to generate some symmetrical configurations (Diagram A)

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

symmetrical configurations that give then birth to planes (Diagram B) where the relationship between horizontal and vertical appears more stable and durable 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 those observed in diagram B by presenting an inner space marked with a different color:

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 and the three primary colors concentrate in the area of just two planes while to the right one plane finally unites yellow, red and blue:

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

Recapitulating what we have seen so far: A multitude of small gray, yellow, red, and blue fragments become monochromatic planes which transform into two-colored planes that then become a single plane constituting a synthesis of the three primary colors. Space undergoes uninterrupted transformation from a condition of multiplicity to one of unity, from the many to the one. From what Mondrian called the natural to the spiritual.

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 synthesis which, like the square of Pier and Ocean 5 reopens to the manifold space around as we shall see in diagram F:

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

Plane 11 is the same size as plane 10 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 (10).

After the equivalence of the opposite directions and the synthesis of three primary colors attained in plane 10, the colors are again reduced in plane 11 and the external dynamism of the lines reappears to generate new opposition. After the degree of comparative calm, constancy, and unity achieved in plane 10, spatial movement thus seems to reappear in plane 11.

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

The indication provided by plane 11 finds further confirmation in plane 12, where blue, yellow, and red are juxtaposed but no longer interpenetrate as they did in plane 10. 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 12 already seeks to cross the perimeter of the plane and flow into the yellow of the surrounding lines. Plane 12 can therefore be seen as plane 10 in the process of dissolution. 

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

Configuration 13 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 12. Space proceeds from a comparatively static and wholly internal condition (10) toward one of growing instability (11) that is gradually transformed into the more dynamic and variable external space of the lines (12, 13).

From expansion toward increasing concentration (yellow, red and blue fragments dispersed along the opposite lines gradually transform into a synthesis) and then from concentration back to expansion: this is the way Broadway Boogie Woogie breathes. Through a dynamic process the one and the many (the spiritual and the natural) merge and transform into each other.

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 a circular process. In all the three paintings the horizontal opens up the concentration exercised by the vertical. The horizontal (symbol of the natural) re-opens the synthesis generated by the unifying action of the vertical (the spiritual).

Dynamic unities

The unity that Mondrian strove to express is a temporary synthesis generated momentarily by the subject’s inner world in its changing relationship with the outer world. It is not something to be attained once and for all. Establishing equilibrium between the manifold, ever-changing appearance of nature and the synthesis invoked by the consciousness 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 potentially static and all-inclusive unities but dynamic unities intrinsically linked to the manifold space in which they are born and toward which they return a moment later.

As mentioned, the syntheses generated in Pier and Ocean 5 and in Broadway Boogie Woogie are a plastic symbol of the controversial space of real life which attains measure and a harmonious condition for a moment in the space of consciousness before opening up again to nature and life. 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.

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)