An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

The one and the many

An exhibition of International Modern Art opened in October 1911 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It featured twenty-eight works by Cézanne, some Cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso, and works by various other artists. Called upon to assist in organizing the exhibition, Mondrian was to be strongly influenced by the Cubist works.

By the end of 1911 Mondrian decided to move to Paris. While getting to grips with the new urban environment, the artist continued for some time to work on the tree motif. The tree acted as a guiding thread while naturalistic space was opened up to the new Cubist stimuli transforming the recognizable aspect of a tree into an abstract composition:

In the previous chapter we have interpreted the trunk of the tree as a unifying moment with respect to the manifold space expressed with the branches. The Cubist transformation of the tree puts an end to this: object and space interpenetrate and thus put an end to the unifying function of the trunk, which dissolves and tends to become one with the many branches.

While the tree trunk dissolves, Cubist space can be seen to concentrate toward the center with two semicircles (Fig. 1) or, in a still-life, toward a vase (Fig. 2) that appear designed to evoke a synthesis: 

Flowering Trees, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 1
Flowering Trees, 1912,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 60 x 85
Still Life with Ginger Pot 2, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 2
Still Life with Ginger Pot 2, 1912,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 91,5 x 120

In other works the artist uses an oval shape to unify the whole composition from outside (Fig. 3). The oval appears capable of endowing the fragmented Cubist compositions with synthesis and unity: 

Tableau N. 3, Composition in Oval, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 3
Tableau N. 3, 1913,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 78 x 94

While Mondrian was to adopt the oval in many canvases, this was not the sole means employed in his search for synthesis. He also chose in this phase to reduce the chromatic range in order to maintain greater compositional unity, at least in terms of color.

While using an oval and reducing the chromatic range, Mondrian worked at the same time to unify the complex tissue of signs. Still curved, oblique, horizontal, and vertical (Fig. 4)..

Tableau N. 1, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 4
Tableau N. 1, 1913,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 64 x 96

..the heterogeneous variety of signs gradually gives way to a more homogeneous alternation of horizontal and vertical lines in other canvases (Fig. 5). The formal structure of the compositions thus attains greater clarity:

Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 5
Composition II, 1913,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 88 x 115

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. We shall return on this.

The basic structure of the tree re-appears in the center of Composition II where a variety of horizontal and vertical dashes presents in clearer form the crowded space previously expressed with the branches:

Study of Trees 1, 1912,
Black Crayon on Paper,
cm. 66 x 89,1
Composition II, 1913,
Oil on Canvas,
cm. 88 x 115

The relationship between horizontal and vertical, which is suggested in a rather univocal and static way in Study of Trees 1 multiplies in 1913 and takes on ever changing combinations in Composition II. In the naturalistic rendering of a tree the point of observation is fixed and limited to the outer form of one specific tree. In the abstract composition the point of observation becomes dynamic to suggest many possible relationships between an observer and “a tree”. Through abstraction from the appearance of one particular tree Composition II holds for a far greater variety of things and situations although expressed by means of neutral forms.

By reducing reality to a multitude of orthogonal signs, Mondrian performs an arbitrary operation with respect to everything we see. This enables him, however, to express the greatest possible variety on the canvas while at the same time maintaining something more constant. Every sign differs from the others but they all share the same intimate nature (the perpendicular relationship), just as every human being, every animal or tree is unique and unrepeatable but all express some fundamental characteristics that make it possible to discern an invisible overall design.

“There is a common design to all things, plants, trees, animals, humans and it is with this design that we should be in consonance” (Henri Matisse)

The “landscape” on which the abstract vision is concentrated overlooks the peculiar aspect of each individual thing so as to focus on what the things have in common. As Mondrian was to put it, “Art must express the universal”

Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Composition II, 1913, Oil on Canvas, cm. 88 x 115

The linear strokes intersect, combine with one another, and separate once again in a constant alternation of the predominance of one direction or the other. One of these signs appears in the center, shifted slightly upward and contained inside a rectangular area. 

Unlike the situation observed for the other signs, the opposite directions appear to attain a more stable equilibrium in this central rectangle which pears as a sort of model in which a perfect equilibrium is attained, while all the other signs suggest situations that approach that ideal situation to differing degrees and thereby evoke, albeit in abstract terms, the ever-changing variety of the natural universe in all their becoming. That rectangle evokes a sense of stability and unity (the spiritual) in a space which multiplies and diversifies elsewhere (the mutability of nature and human existence). 

“To paint is not to slavishly copy the object, it is to grasp the harmony among numerous relationships and transfer them into a system of one’s own, developing them according to a new and original logic.” (Paul Cézanne)

The task of faithfully reproducing the fleeting appearance of things had been taken over in the meantime by photography and cinema. 

Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
Study of Trees 1, 1912
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Composition II, 1913

After the naturalistic and expressionistic phase in which the painter pursued the changing appearances of the world in one landscape after another, he now appears intent on finding an abstract landscape born out of the relationship between the changing appearances of external reality and the demand for synthesis and greater duration expressed by the world within. 

I was struck by the vastness of nature and I tried to express expansion, tranquillity, unity”. (Mondrian)

A tendency toward unity is the product of consciousness (Mondrian would say the spiritual) confronting with a manifold and ever-changing nature which means at the same time the outer and the inner human nature. How to express reality as a dynamic interaction between the outer and the inner nature except by abstracting from the mere appearances of the outer world?

Religions invoke a supreme unity; philosophies elaborate ideas that try to make sense of the controversial human existence; scientists work to translate the complexities of natural phenomena into synthetic formulas. The relationship between the many and the one constitutes a recurrent issue in our life.

Opening up the consciousness to contemplation of the immense variety of the world while at the same time generating a synthesis capable of holding the multiplication imparted by external reality together as much as possible; opening up to the world without getting lost.

All this having been said, Composition II is a painting and therefore subject to the criteria we usually adopt when contemplating a work of art. It is only by seeing this work in original (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands) that you can appreciate all its beauty, which I am quite incapable of describing in words. Every point of the composition pulsates with energy and everything appears to be connected, just as when we observe a natural landscape and see every patch of green melding and mingling with its neighbor in a succession of light and dark, of boldly defined and more subdued features. The abstract painting is like a concentrate of natural vitality distilled into spiritual energy.

Nature and life still remain the primary source of inspiration for abstract art. The ten thousand different lines and colors that we see around us prove on closer examination to be a single “line”, because in nature everything appears different, manifold, infinite, and is at the same time one. The immensity of earthly nature is one bluish-white spot in the infinite space of the macrocosm and the apparent simplicity of a flower is a small universe.

Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge, 1901, Watercolor on Paper,
cm. 37 x 55
Composition II, 1913,
Oil on Canvas,
cm. 88 x 115

In the still-life we see a vase and a plate whose base forms a circle of similar size to the apples; the circle is located in the center of the composition. Each apple differs from the others in terms of position and appearance. A relation is born between the perfect and stable circle of the plate and the imperfect and different circles of the apples, as though the painter wished to show the changing appearance of natural forms (the apples) and a form of greater constancy and precision (the circle presented by the plate, a man-made, artificial object). A visual metaphor of the relationship between the natural and the spiritual.

In the 1901 still-life a perfect circle (the bottom of the plate) is placed in the center above a variety of imperfect circles (the apples). In the 1913 abstract composition a central rectangle appears as a sort of model in which a perfect equilibrium is attained, while all the other signs suggest situations that approach that ideal situation to differing degrees. With a gap of twelve years between them and differing completely in form, the two paintings say the same thing: physical reality multiplies its appearances (the apples in 1901 and the various orthogonal signs in 1913) while the consciousness strives to draw everything back toward an ideal model of greater synthesis (the perfect circle of the plate in 1901 and the central rectangle with the best possible balance of opposites in 1913). 

The expression of all this in the naturalistic or figurative painting is veiled by the contingent appearance of a certain vase, that particular plate and those apples. It is precisely through abstraction from the appearance of those few objects that Composition II holds for a far greater variety of things and situations. No longer dwelling on details, the abstract painting suggests a possible broader spectrum of reality. The “few objects” of the realistic painting can be dealt with today much more effectively by photography whereas the relationship between multiplicity and unity, natural and spiritual, outer and inner worlds is conveyed by the abstract composition in a clear and universal form.

Everything changed in Mondrian’s painting between 1901 and 1913, or rather there was a change in the plastic means serving to give clear shape to a vision of the world that can already be glimpsed implicitly in some early works of the naturalistic phase. The same vision we shall unveil in the late abstract compositions.

What we have seen so far is confirmed by new works Mondrian produces in 1914.

The artist went to visit his family in the Netherlands in the summer of 1914 and was prevented from returning to Paris by the war, which broke out during his stay. Deprived of the brushes, paints, and canvases left in his studio in Paris, Mondrian began a series of drawings, and gouaches inspired by the sea and by a pier jutting out from the beach into the sea. The latter are therefore also called Pier and Ocean.

The artist probably saw the pier structure as a solid element, the symbol of permanence, interpenetrating with the dynamic flow of the sea. Permanence is invoked by the spiritual with respect to the manifold aspect of nature and changeable course of life.

The pier develops from the bottom-center of the composition (like the trunk of the tree) and same as the trunk with respect to the branches, the vertical tends to concentrate the horizontal expansion of nature (the sea). With respect to the tree, however, the Cubist subject of the pier immersed in the sea reveals more dynamic interaction between unitary element (the pier) and manifold element (the sea) than between the mutually static trunk and branches.

Pier and Ocean 2, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 2, 1914,
Charcoal, Ink and Gouache on Paper,
cm. 50 x 62,6
Pier and Ocean 3, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 3, 1914,
Charcoal on Paper,
cm. 50,5 x 63
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914,
Charcoal on Paper,
cm. 50,2 x 62,8

On examining the above three composition in sequential order, we can see a rendering of the extended horizontal line of the sea concentrating toward the center into a vaguely quadrangular area (Pier and Ocean 3) which is then transformed into a group of more or less defined squares in the upper-central zone of Pier and Ocean 4.

Pier and Ocean 4, 1914 with Diagram

The opposing segments, which at the bottom tend to disperse individually, gradually unite upward sketching out semblances of square proportions that finally take decisive shape in the central square where the opposite directions for a moment are equivalent. The horizontal extension of the sea (the natural) and the motion of concentration exerted by the vertical of the pier (the human artifice or as Mondrian says the spiritual) find a synthesis in the square. The continuous predominance of one aspect over the opposite finds a moment of pause when the opposites are equivalent. When this happens the duality that governs the composition is annulled and unity for an instant prevails. The square thus appears as an element that ideally unites the entire composition.
At the same time, the composition reads inversely with the one (the central square) opening up to the multiple through the faint, approximate squares around the central one which flow back into the manifold set of unbalanced relationships between horizontals and verticals. The manifold tends to the one and then the one reopens to the manifold.

Study of Trees 1, 1912,
with Diagram
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
Composition II, 1913,
with Diagram
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914, Piet Mondrian
Pier and Ocean 4, 1914,
with Diagram

Same as the vertical trunk of a tree unifies the multifarious horizontal expansion of the branches a rectangle (1913) and now a square form (1914) unify an endless variety of relationships between horizontals and verticals. The unifying function metaphorically assigned to the tree trunk gave way over a span of three years to a unity of space in itself.