An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Our reality and true reality

We usually see the boundless horizon of the sea as a straight line, whereas it is actually curved. Is what we see true reality?

The square proportion generated in Pier and Ocean 4 was to inform the subsequent compositions:

Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 1
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914,
with Diagram
Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 2
Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917, with Diagram
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 3
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, with Diagram

A drawn square (Fig. 1) opens up to a variety of colors, size and proportions; the variety tends to reduce and become more homogeneous around a white central square field (Fig. 2). Is white suggesting an ideal synthesis of the colors? The idea gains ground when we consider that around the central white square field the colors – magenta and yellow express constancy whereas in other parts of the composition the same colors disorderly change.
The central white square field (Fig. 1) becomes later a white central rectangle surrounded by yellow, red and blue equal rectangles. The painter appears intent on gathering together the three colors in this area and therefore reassert the function of white as an ideal synthesis of all the colors.

Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Charcoal on Paper, cm. 50,2 x 62,8
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Oil on Canvas, cm. 86 x 106 with Diagram

In Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors the linear segments of the previous works become continuous straight lines giving the composition a more dynamic appearance. The painting is divided into rectangles of the same size with the same proportions as the canvas. This gives birth to a wholly regular and constant layout in terms of form that is transformed by the alternation of color into a whole of variable appearance.

We see a plurality of planes colored yellow, red (a light red verging on pink), and light blue mixed with other planes of gray and white. At least three different shades of gray can be seen. The straight lines are a darker gray that becomes almost black in some sections.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian, Diagram A
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, Diagram A

On observing the multitude of colored rectangles, we note that two, three, and even four rectangles of the same color gather in some areas to form larger units. We see a larger rectangle of a yellow color, one of blue, and three of red. 

The composition is a succession of sequences made up of small rectangles of different colors that finds a moment of comparative rest in the larger rectangles. The ephemeral progression of new events (the small rectangles) is transformed in the larger units into a space of relatively greater duration. Note how the opposition between vertical and horizontal lines manifests itself with greater clarity and balance in a homogeneous field of color like that of the larger rectangles. The perpendicular opposition instead proves less stable when the colors change around the point of intersection between vertical and horizontal. What appears in synthetic and unitary form in the larger rectangle is unbalanced elsewhere. It is color that highlights the most balanced syntheses of the two opposite directions in this composition. If in Composition II the balance between opposites depended only on form (horizontal and vertical), five years later it depends on color as well. 

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian, Diagram A
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, Diagram A

Having identified a larger unit, the eye spontaneously seeks others and is obliged in this search to address many other situations involving the absence of one or two basic units needed to form a homogeneous rectangle, the others being of a different color. In seeking larger rectangles of a single color we contemplate the virtually infinite variation of entities born out of different combinations of same elements. Isn’t nature an infinite variation of entities born out of different combinations of same elements?

The heterogeneous appearance generated by the quick succession of small rectangles becomes more homogeneous in the larger rectangles; from the ethereal and random to greater constancy and stability before returning to the haphazard succession of different things and moments; from a frenzied variety recalling the external world to homogeneous partial syntheses brought by mental contemplation that then open up again to a hectic multiplicity.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Oil on Canvas, cm. 86 x 106

In addition to the five larger rectangles expressed in the three primary colors, the checkerboard presents one in white that also contains black lines forming a sign of equivalence. This is the only white rectangle of larger size present on the canvas. Its position is perfectly central with respect to the sides of the canvas and slightly raised. The white rectangle appears to be generated through a progressive purification of the colors that takes place along the vertical axis running through the center of the canvas. The vertical field can be seen as a dynamic upward progression leading to the white rectangle:

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Diagram C
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, Diagram C

Mondrian: “The unchangeable (the spiritual) is expressed in the composition by means of straight line or planes of non-color (black, white, and gray), while the changeable (the natural) is expressed by means of planes of color and rhythm.”

The painter still distinguishes in this phase between color (yellow, red, blue) and non-color (white, black, gray) seeing the first as a plastic symbol of the natural and the second as symbolizing the spiritual. Just as the artist chose out of all the possible relations of form the fundamental one expressing the utmost contrast (horizontal-vertical), in terms of color his eye preferred the primary colors yellow, red, and blue because they seemed to him the best able to transform the painted surface into a living and exuberant reality. 

In the checkerboard Mondrian uses the three primary colors to express contrast and diversity, and white, black, and gray to produce an equally broad range of variation that appears, however, more homogeneous than the contrasting variation generated with the primary colors. On observing the range of grays, we note that the darkest shade appears to be as dark as the blue, just as the lightest shade of gray appears to be equivalent to yellow. It is as though the range of the three primary colors had been transposed into a parallel range of grays that intrinsically appear more unified than yellow with respect to red or red with respect to blue precisely because they are different shades of the same “color”. The artist appears to be seeking a common denominator in terms of color.  

If yellow, red, and blue symbolize the contrasting and vivid diversity of the real world, with grays and whites the painter brings into play an equally wide but more homogeneous variation. One might say that the three primary colors translate into a parallel range of grays (light gray equivalent to yellow, medium gray to red, and dark gray to blue) which, precisely because they are different tones of the same “color,” appear more unified than yellow with respect to red or red with respect to blue. On the one hand, the composition blossoms in a conspicuous and discordant plurality (yellow, red, blue), symbol of the manifold and changing appearance of the world, and – on the other hand – reconnects in synthesis through the most homogeneous variation of the grays between the two opposite values of black and white, which in a central rectangle express themselves as a unit. Through the colors of the spirit (black and white) the multiple aspects of the world (yellow, red and blue) find an ideal synthesis.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors constitutes Mondrian’s first exhaustive formulation of what was to become the Neoplastic vocabulary underpinning all the subsequent work. From now on, Mondrian’s painting was to be a complex and dynamic set of relations between lines, segments, and planes (of color and “non-color”); between infinite space (lines) that becomes finite space (segments and planes) and then re-expands to the infinite.
A process Mondrian used to define as “subjectivization of the objective and objectivization of the subjective”.


In the previous chapter we said that Mondrian regarded Cubist space not as the interpenetration of objects in motion (as it was for other Cubist and Futurist painters) but rather as the representation of a common, intimate structure of things. I shall now endeavor to explain this.

Everything, from minerals to plants, animals and human beings which we perceive as individual (not divisible) units are actually a multiplicity of parts each composed in turn of tissues, cells and atoms. A reality we do not perceive.

Mondrian: “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.”

As Blaise Pascal said, our sense of reality generates in-between the whole reality which consists of an infinite microcosm and an infinite macrocosm.
By the way, this is another reason why in his Neoplastic compositions Mondrian will use endless perpendicular lines which express opposite infinite space:

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.”

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.

“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)

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.

“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)

What we usually call reality is only a for us visible and tangible part of reality, not the whole and true reality. If by reality we mean only the way things appear to us, we should conclude that in a world where the appearance of things change so rapidly, reality has no longer a lasting consistency; which is unfortunately so often the case today.

“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)

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. (Henri Matisse)

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.

The new concept of space invite us to consider reality starting from the infinite structure of microcosm and expanding toward an uncatchable macrocosm. How to express with one image the visible and invisible parts of reality if not in abstract terms. No longer dwelling on the outer fleeting appearance of things, this kind of abstraction suggests a broader spectrum of reality.

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors has the function to express the idea of a manifold space suggesting at once the multiplicity we see around us and perceive within as well as the invisible infinite space of the whole and true reality existing at the level of the microcosm and the macrocosm; the abstract composition evokes at once the outer appearance of things and their inner structure which, at the end, are one and the same thing. How to express the visible and invisible world, the outer and the inner space if not in abstract form?

“Art should unveil the invisible” (Paul Klee)


Recapitulating what we have examined so far:

Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
1912
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
1913
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
1914
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
1919

A tree in 1912, and three abstract compositions painted respectively in 1913, 1914 and 1919 show the same basic concept of a rich and multiple space which at the same time evokes synthesis and unity or, viceversa, a central unity which opens up to multiplicity.

The relationship between horizontal and vertical, which is expressed in a rather univocal and static way in 1912, diversifies through form (1913 – 1914) and color (1919). This evolution shows how the painter wishes to express a rich and diversified space while expressing at the same time the tendency toward a synthesis. Evoke one image of the one and the many.

We shall see in the next chapter how Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors will become Composition B and how the latter will give birth to Composition with Yellow, Red, Black. Blue and Gray:

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919 with Diagram
Composition B, 1920, Mondrian with Diagram
Composition B, 1920 with Diagram
Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue and Gray, 1920, Piet Mondrian, with Diagram
Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue and Gray, 1920 with Diagram