An explanation of Mondrian's oeuvre by Michael Sciam

Additional reflections

Reflections on other aspects dealt with by Raffaello and Mondrian

Symmetry and asymmetry

In the two ancient frescoes a variety of human figures generates pieces of asymmetrical space within a composition that as a whole tends to a general symmetry:

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

In the modern painting we observe, on the contrary, an entirely asymmetrical composition within which short sequences of symmetrical space are generated:

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

The symmetries generated in Broadway Boogie Woogie are momentary tendencies towards a certain order that never come to govern the entire composition as in La Disputa del Sacramento and La Scuola di Atene. In modern painting the idea of symmetry is only a special case of a natural universe which is entirely asymmetric.

The symmetrical sequences of Broadway Boogie Woogie suggest the genesis of an ordered and measurable space within an infinite context (the virtually endless lines) and this evokes in plastic terms the human condition (finite and tending to a certain order) within the immeasurable and unordered context of the natural universe.

The unpredictable evolution of existence

The concept of symmetry evokes a central point around which things remain identical. Symmetry transforms the unpredictable variation and diversity inherent in every vital process into a constant repetition of similar elements. This helps human beings to maintain a certain control over the unforeseeable 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 asymmetry was subjected to symmetry, disorder to order, infinite to finite, 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 it is man today who has to take care of nature.

The spiritual generated by the natural

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 in parts and pieces from within through scientific observation and experimentation.

As mentioned, the symmetrical sequences that arise along the lines are a symbol of human thought (finite and measurable space) that emerges for short stretches from an asymmetrical natural universe (the infinite lines). If in Raffaello’s time a general symmetry of the whole composition tended to enclose nature once and for all, in Mondrian’s time human thought tends to capture only more or less extended sections of the natural totality (the symmetrical sequences along the lines).

The endless lines (suggesting the totality) become finite symmetrical sequences while the lines never stop continuing. This means that in our time human thought (the symmetrical sequences) is generated by nature (the endless lines) and then returns to it. What Mondrian called “the spiritual”, is generated by what Mondrian called “the natural”. These are one and the same “thing”.

The natural and the spiritual, unity and multiplicity appear to be opposites and irreconcilable if considered from a static point of view but reveal equivalence becoming parts of a same dynamic process if thought of in a dynamic way as we see in Broadway Boogie Woogie where opposites unite through a sequence that transforms one aspect into its opposite and vice versa. To give an example: black and white are opposites. Between black and white there is an infinite range of grays and if we could really contemplate every single infinitesimal degree of that range, white would progressively become black.

From this point of view, the idea of 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 the shortest possible 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.

Genesis of space-time

Our space-time as part of a universal space-time

Scientific 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 usual perception of space-time.

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.”

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.

“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

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 a universal space-time. We could therefore talk of an “elastic” space-time.

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 we are part of. 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”; a reality that we do not see but that is just as real and substantial component of everything we see. The so called “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 broader picture of reality except by abstracting from the limited part of reality which appears to us?

Leonardo da Vinci

“The senses are terrestrial, reason is beyond them when it contemplates” wrote 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.

“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)

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

It is all about proportions

Man’s questions about the essence and eventual purpose of nature and human existence on this planet also arise from our finite dimension compared to a universe which is infinite. Every religion, philosophy or scientific theory are sophisticated attempts to rebalance the disproportion between human being and the universe. 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.

Express 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.

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 European painting. A process that found its first, fundamental significate 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.”

Full and empty space

Reality, as it appears to us, induces us to see the space around us as “full” and “empty” space. We call empty space what is in 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 gray, yellow, red and blue progressively 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.

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

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, Diagram L

During the elaboration phase of the Neoplastic 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 is also interestingly reflected in Raffaello’s 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:

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

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 so called “void”) than the solid, full-bodied yellow, red and blue.

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

In Broadway Boogie Woogie some phases of transformation of space appear in gray precisely those in which the process of internalization of space begins (Daigram C – 1 and 2), which continues with 3 and then 4 and 5 and reaches the largest extension with 7:

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram C

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.

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