An explanation of Mondrian's oeuvre by Michael Sciam

The author of these studies

Michael Sciam The Author of These Studies
Michael Sciam

I remember how I used to go to the Museum of Modern Art during the first few years of my stay in New York (1980-85) and stand for ages in front of that canvas without actually understanding much. I had studied modern art and Mondrian at university. I intuitively felt that there was a great deal in that painting but could see nothing at all of what I was later to discover over the years.

In a way that I could not explain, my eye already glimpsed the content that reflection then brought to light over the following ten years. I moved to Berlin in 1985. For those of us in the western sector, Berlin was an ideal place to live, to think, and above all to create. I began to study Broadway Boogie Woogie in order to clarify some things to myself. Having started almost as a game, I discovered an entire world in that painting in the space of a few years. I followed my heart along this path far more than my head, which has instead served to express everything felt by the heart in the clearest possible terms.

This work is the fruit not only of an intellectual process but also of an existential pathway stretching for nearly twenty years. While I regard Broadway Boogie Woogie as one of the most important works of the twentieth century, my own way of painting is different. The last works of Henri Matisse are equally important for me, as are the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi and the promising work of some as yet unknown artists. I attach less importance to all the self-styled artists, creative wheeler-dealers, and multinationals of culture nowadays buzzing around art. Paul Cézanne used to say that “art is a religion and its purpose is to elevate thought”.

A great deal has been written about Mondrian but not enough as yet about his paintings. The content is in fact seldom allowed to flow directly from the images, which should in my view constitute the primary source of every analysis that addresses painting. Mondrian wrote about the new art but never believed that it was possible to write a theory of art, as Kandinsky and Klee attempted to do. Art is first and foremost something you do, after which you can talk about it and try to explain it.

It is paintings rather than theories that constitute the true source for those who really want to understand. As a painter, I therefore placed words at the service of images in explaining Mondrian’s work. This has revealed itself as an organic structure in which one canvas cannot be separated from another without losing sight of the deeper meaning of the whole. It is an evolutionary process spread over forty years during which the Dutch artist gave concrete shape to his vision of reality. That vision is encapsulated in Broadway Boogie Woogie, his last work, completed in 1943. It really is a most fascinating trajectory.

Examination of Mondrian’s work reveals an evolutionary process that completely transformed the way of painting in the space of fifty years. One of the aims of these studies is to explain the reasons for this evolution by showing how to read and interpret abstract painting in relation to everyday life and the universal themes of the human condition. I have only touched upon the existential aspects because my purpose here is not to develop issues of a general character but to show the connections between these and Neoplastic painting.

In a world where the parts have grown superabundantly, where the firm points of reference and age-old certainties have been lost, the capacity for abstraction becomes indispensable in rediscovering a certain essence of things. A particular way of understanding art can contribute today toward recasting the vision of greater breadth that has been lacking on the frenzied and fragmentary cultural scene over the last few decades.

I have described and interpreted the Neoplastic compositions, which constitute the secret sap of Mondrian’s thought, through painstaking examination of everything there is to be seen. The analysis may appear minute (“mechanical” or “technical” to some) because a certain form of art criticism has accustomed us to romantic digressions on themes of a general character rather than addressing the most concrete and essential elements of a painting, namely its forms and colors.

I prefer to arrive at the general questions by starting from the particular and not the other way round. I must say that it is every bit as difficult to explain visual processes in words as it is to give a verbal description of a piece of music. I hope that the necessary degree of detail in certain passages does not unduly inhibit the overall view that remains one of the aims of my work.

Readers will therefore have to be patient and go through the details of the analysis first before being able to take a broader look at aspects of a more general character. It was not easy to calibrate the explanation because the work is intended primarily for scholars and experts specializing in Mondrian. At the same time, as an artist, I felt the desire to disclose the meaning of the Dutch painter’s work to a more general public, as I have done in seminars held over the last few years.

The great challenge today is to succeed in explaining the substance of things in simple terms without reducing everything to the superficial level. There is currently great reluctance to ask those taking an interest in art to make any effort to understand. Fear of losing an audience leads to digression and entertainment rather than explanation and the stimulation of capacities.

I have deliberately overlooked the biographical aspects regarding Piet Mondrian in this work, as other scholars have already addressed these expertly at great length.”

Michael Sciam