An explanation of Mondrian's oeuvre by Michael Sciam

Neoplasticism in relation to individual and social life

During examination of Mondrian’s Neoplastic space evolution process and particularly of Broadway Boogie Woogie, I have often spoken about changeable and permanent.

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

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors shows a multiplicity of equally sized rectangles. The wholly regular and constant layout in terms of form is transformed by the alternation of color into a whole of unpredictable appearance.

Our life unfolds through equally measured entities, such as for instance days made of twenty-four hours which, however, develop in always new ways. Moreover, In the course of time we seek to organize the unpredictable flow of daily life into more constant and expectable events.

Broadway Boogie Woogie

Broadway Boogie Woogie shows an unpredictable rhythm of small different squares which evolve into more orderly and constant rhythms through symmetrical sequences (Diagram A):

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

We humans feel the desire to reduce and control the change that life brings with it, striving to consolidate the flow of our actions and give them concrete shape in artifacts demonstrating that the flux of time has been transformed into something of a comparatively more permanent nature.

Works, ideas, children: elements able to give meaning and a sense of greater permanence to our passage through life. Can we not see a visual symbol of this in the chaotic multitude of small squares (Diagram A) that come to form more solid entities? (Diagram B)

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

The relationship between what changes and what maintains greater constancy regards not only individual but also social life.

Morality, laws, and institutions are tools that mankind uses in order to regulate and stabilize the unforeseeable flux of existence, to govern the relations between individuals and their interaction with the environment in which they live.

As Mondrian put it, “It is important to distinguish two types of equilibrium in art: 1) static equilibrium and 2) dynamic equilibrium. It is always natural for human beings to seek static equilibrium. This equilibrium is obviously necessary for existence in time. But vitality always destroys this equilibrium in constant temporal succession. Abstract art is a concrete expression of this vitality.”

At the same time the paintings shows that, after reaching a stable unity, the unitary plane opens up again to the unstable multiplicity of the small fragments (Diagram C – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4):

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

This means that every attempt to reach a stable condition is always jeopardized by the vitality of life.

The lines, which express the maximum degree of energy and do not stop continuing, represent vitality. The symmetries and planes, which express a measured space and are endowed with greater permanence, albeit not total immobility, represent the equilibrium required for existence in time. 

In this dialectic between what persists and what changes, crucial importance will attach to establishing rules, laws, and institutions capable of remaining open to the changes that existence brings with it and hence of performing their regulatory function without stifling vital demands any more than necessary. 

“Today we need to have the courage to take up the discourse on the essentials, the core values and the ends, in order to adapt behavior and structures to growth. This is the task to which our generation is called. We must fulfill it in social life, in ecclesial life, in religious life.”

When laws and institutions oppose the movement and transformations that life brings with it, all they do is generate greater unrest over time, which in turn generates greater resistance on the part of the institutions and so on in an exhausting vicious circle where it is ultimately life that prevails and not our “symmetrical” stubbornness. This is what human history teaches. This is what is shown by the geometry of Broadway Boogie Woogie, where space arrives at a certain degree of control and then opens up again to an unforeseeable becoming.