Piet Mondrian

From New World Encyclopedia

Piet Mondrian, 1924

Pieter Cornelis (Piet) Mondriaan, after 1912 Mondrian, (pronounced: Pete Mon-dree-on, pit 'mɔndɹiɔn) (March 7, 1872 – February 1, 1944) Born in Amersfoort, Netherlands, he was a Dutch painter who came to New York City. He was an important contributor to the De Stijl art movement and group, which was founded by Theo van Doesburg. Next to Van Doesburg, the group's principal members were the painters Mondrian and Bart van der Leck, and the architects Gerrit Rietveld and J. J. P. Oud. The artistic philosophy that formed a basis for the group's work is known as neoplasticism — the new plastic art or sometimes called "plasticism" (or Nieuwe Beelding in Dutch). Proponents of De Stijl sought to express a new utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order. They advocated pure abstraction and universality by a reduction to the essentials of form and color — they simplified visual compositions to the vertical and horizontal directions, and used only primary colors along with black and white.

Despite being well-known, often-parodied and even trivialized, Mondrian's paintings exhibit a complexity that belies their apparent simplicity. He is best known for his non-representational paintings that he called compositions, consisting of rectangular forms of red, yellow, blue or black, separated by thick, black rectilinear lines. They are the result of a stylistic evolution that occurred over the course of nearly 30 years and continued beyond that point to the end of his life.

The Netherlands 1872–1912

He began his career as a teacher in primary education, but while teaching he also practiced painting. Most of his work from this period is naturalistic or impressionistic, consisting largely of landscapes. These pastoral images of his native Holland depict windmills, fields, and rivers, initially in the Dutch Impressionist manner of The Hague School and then in a variety of styles and techniques documenting his search for a personal voice. These paintings are most definitely representational, and illustrate the influence that various artistic movements had on Mondrian, including pointillism and the vivid colors of fauvism.

On display in The Hague's Gemeentemuseum are a number of paintings from this period, including such post-impressionist works as The Red Mill and Trees in Moonlight. Another painting, Avond (Evening) (1908), a scene of haystacks in a field at dusk, even augurs future developments by using a palette consisting almost entirely of red, yellow and blue. Although it is in no sense abstract, "Avond" is the earliest of Mondrian's works to emphasize the primary colors.

The earliest paintings that show an inkling of the abstraction to come are a series of canvases from 1905 to 1908, which depict dim scenes of indistinct trees and houses with reflections in still water that make them appear almost like Rorschach ink blots. Although the end result begins to emphasize form over content, these paintings are still firmly rooted in nature, and it is only the knowledge of Mondrian's later achievements that leads one to search for the roots of his future abstraction in these works.

Mondrian's art was always intimately related to his spiritual and philosophical studies. In 1908, he became interested in the theosophical movement launched by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late nineteenth century. Blavatsky believed that it was possible to attain a knowledge of nature more profound than that provided by empirical means, and much of Mondrian's work for the rest of his life was inspired by his search for that spiritual knowledge.

Mondrian and his later work were deeply influenced by the 1911 Moderne Kunstkring exhibition of Cubism in Amsterdam. His search for simplification is shown in two versions of stilleven met gemberpot (still life with ginger pot). The 1911 version [1] is Cubist, in the 1912 version [2]it is reduced to a round shape with triangles and rectangles.

He painted a fake tulip white because he banned the color green from his house.

Paris 1912–1914

In 1912, Mondrian moved to Paris and changed his name (dropping an 'a' from Mondriaan) to emphasize his departure from life in the artistic backwater of Holland. From this point on, he signed his work as "Mondrian." While in Paris, the influence of the Cubism of Picasso and Braque appeared almost immediately in Mondrian's work. Paintings such as The Sea (1912) and his various studies of trees from that year still contain a measure of representation but they are increasingly dominated by the geometric shapes and interlocking planes commonly found in Cubism. However, while Mondrian was eager to absorb the Cubist influence into his work, it seems clear that he saw Cubism as a step along the way, rather than an end point.

Netherlands 1914–1919

Unlike the Cubists, Mondrian was still attempting to reconcile his painting with his spiritual pursuits, and in 1913, he began to fuse his art and his theosophical studies into a theory that signaled his final break from representational painting. World War I began while Mondrian was visiting home in 1914, and he was forced to remain in the Netherlands for the duration of the conflict. During this period, Mondrian stayed at the Laren artist's colony, there meeting Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg, both artists undergoing their own personal journeys toward abstraction at the time. Van der Leck's use of only primary colors in his art greatly influenced Mondrian. With Van Doesburg, Mondrian created the journal De Stijl ("The Style"), in which he published his first essays defining his theory, for which he adopted the term neoplasticism.

Mondrian published De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst (“The New Plastic in Painting”) in 12 installments during 1917 and 1918. This was his first major attempt to express his artistic theory in writing. However, Mondrian's best and most often-quoted expression of this theory comes from a letter he wrote to H. P. Bremmer in 1914:

I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…

I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.

Paris 1919–1938

When the war ended in 1919, Mondrian returned to France, where he would remain until 1938. Immersed in the crucible of artistic innovation that was post-war Paris, he flourished in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that enabled him to courageously embrace an art of pure abstraction for the rest of his life. Mondrian began producing grid-based paintings in late 1919, and in 1920, the style for which he came to be renowned began to appear.

In the early paintings of this style, such as Composition A (1920) and Composition B (1920), the lines delineating the rectangular forms are relatively thin, and they are gray, not black. The lines also tend to fade as they approach the edge of the painting, rather than stopping abruptly. The forms themselves, smaller and more numerous than in later paintings, are filled with primary colors, black, or gray, and nearly all of them are colored; only a few are left white.

Beginning late 1920 and 1921, Mondrian's paintings arrive at what are their definitive and mature form. Thick black lines now separate the forms, which are larger and fewer in number, and more of them are left white than was previously the case. This was not the culmination of his artistic evolution, however. Although the refinements became more subtle, Mondrian's work continued to evolve during his years in Paris.

In the 1921 paintings, many of the black lines (but not all of them) stop short at a seemingly arbitrary distance from the edge of the canvas, although the divisions between the rectangular forms remain intact. Here too, the rectangular forms are still mostly colored. As the years passed and Mondrian's work evolved further, he began extending all of the lines to the edges of the canvas, and he also began to use fewer and fewer colored forms, favoring white instead.

These tendencies are particularly obvious in the lozenge works that Mondrian began producing with regularity in the mid-1920s. The lozenge paintings are square canvases tilted 45 degrees, so that they hang in a diamond shape. Typical of these is Schilderij No. 1 Lozenge With Two Lines and Blue (1926), also known as Composition With Blue and Composition in White and Blue. One of the most minimal of Mondrian's canvases, this painting consists only of two black perpendicular lines and a small triangular form, colored blue. The lines extend all the way to the edges of the canvas, almost giving the impression that the painting is a fragment of a larger work.

Although one is hampered by the glass protecting the painting, and by the toll that age and handling have obviously taken on the canvas, a close examination of this painting begins to reveal something of the artist's method. Mondrian's paintings are not composed of perfectly flat planes of color, as one might expect. Brush strokes are evident throughout, although they are subtle, and the artist appears to have used different techniques for the various elements.

The black lines are the flattest elements, with the least amount of depth. The colored forms have the most obvious brush strokes, all running in one direction. Most interesting, however, are the white forms, which clearly have been painted in layers, using brush strokes running in different directions. This generates a greater sense of depth in the white forms, as though they are overwhelming the lines and the colors, which indeed they were, as Mondrian's paintings of this period came to be increasingly dominated by white space.

Schilderij No. 1 can be said to represent the most extreme extent of Mondrian's minimalism. As the years progressed, lines began to take precedence over forms in his painting. In the 1930s, he began to use thinner lines and double lines more frequently, punctuated with a few small colored forms, if any at all. Double lines particularly excited Mondrian, for he believed they offered his paintings a new dynamism which he was eager to explore.

London and New York 1938–1944

In September 1938, Mondrian left Paris in the face of advancing fascism, moving to London. After the Netherlands were invaded and Paris fell in 1940, he left London for New York City, where he would remain until his death. Some of Mondrian's later works are difficult to place in the context of his artistic development, because there were quite a few canvases that he began in Paris or London, which he only completed months or years later in New York. However, the finished works from this later period demonstrate an unprecedented business, with more lines than any of his work since the 1920s, placed in an overlapping manner that is almost cartographical in appearance. He spent many long hours painting on his own till his hands blistered and he sometimes cried or made himself sick.

Mondrian produced Lozenge Composition With Four Yellow Lines (1933), a simple painting that introduced what for him was a shocking innovation: thick, colored lines instead of black ones. After that one painting, this practice remained dormant in Mondrian's work until he arrived in New York, at which time he began to embrace it with abandon. In some examples of this new direction, such as Composition (1938) / Place de la Concorde (1943), he appears to have taken unfinished black-line paintings from Paris and completed them in New York by adding short perpendicular lines of different colors, running between the longer black lines, or from a black line to the edge of the canvas. The newly-colored areas are thick, almost bridging the gap between lines and forms, and it is startling to see color in a Mondrian painting that is unbounded by black. Other works mix long lines of red amidst the familiar black lines, creating a new sense of depth by the addition of a colored layer on top of the black one.

The new canvases that Mondrian began in New York are even more startling, and indicate the beginning of a new idiom that was unfortunately cut short by the artist's death. New York City (1942) is a complex lattice of red, blue, and yellow lines, occasionally interlacing to create a greater sense of depth than ever before. An unfinished 1941 version of this work uses strips of painted paper tape, which the artist could rearrange at will to experiment with different designs.

His painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43) at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City was highly influential in the school of abstract geometric painting. The piece is made up of a number of shimmering squares of bright color that leap from the canvas, then appear to shimmer, drawing the viewer into those neon lights. In this painting and the unfinished "Victory Boogie Woogie" (1942-1944), Mondrian replaced former solid lines with lines created from small adjoining rectangles of color, created in part by using small pieces of paper tape in various colors. Larger unbounded rectangles of color punctuate the design, some with smaller concentric rectangles inside them. While Mondrian's works of the 1920s and 1930s tend to have an almost scientific austerity about them, these are bright, lively paintings, reflecting the upbeat music that inspired them and the city in which they were made.

On a postcard to art historian James Johnson Sweeney, who was planning a retrospective exhibition of the artist's works at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Mondrian wrote:

"Only now [in 1943], I become conscious that my work in black, white, and little color planes has been merely 'drawing' in oil color. In drawing, the lines are the principal means of expression; in painting, the color planes. In painting, however, the lines are absorbed by the color planes; but the limitation of the planes show themselves as lines and conserve their great value."

In these final works, the forms have indeed usurped the role of the lines, opening another new door for Mondrian's development as an abstractionist. The "Boogie-Woogie" paintings were clearly more of a revolutionary change than an evolutionary one, representing the most profound development in Mondrian's work since his abandonment of representational art in 1913. Unfortunately, we were to have only a glimpse of this new innovation.

The apparent simplicity of Mondrian's best-known works is deceptive. Study of Mondrian's neoplastic compositions makes it clear that they are utterly original. The effects that he generated are not easily reproduced. They were the culmination of a decades-long conceptual journey and experimentation with many different styles and movements. His oft-emulated reductionist style continues to inspire the art, fashion, advertising and design worlds. Although he was a fine artist, rather than a commercial artist, Mondrian is considered the father of advertising design, due to the widespread and continued adoption of his grid style as a basic structure of graphic-design layout.

The Wall Works: New York 1943-1944

When 47-year-old Piet Mondrian left this artistically conservative native Holland for unfettered Paris for the second and last time in 1919, he set about at once to make his studio a nurturing environment for paintings he had in mind that would increasingly express the principles of Neo-Plasticism about which he had been writing for two years. To hide the studio’s structural flaws quickly and inexpensively, he tacked up large rectangular placards, each in a single color or neutral hue. Smaller colored paper squares and rectangles, composed together, accented the walls. Then came an intense period of painting. Afterwards he addressed the walls, repositioning the colored cutouts, adding to their number, altering the dynamics of color and space, producing new tensions and equilibrium. Before long, he had established a creative schedule in which a period of painting took turns with a period of experimentally regrouping the smaller papers on the walls, a process that directly fed the next period of painting. It was a pattern he followed for the rest of his life, through wartime moves from Paris to London’s Hampstead in 1938 and 1940, across the Atlantic to Manhattan.

In his early painting years in Holland, Mondrian’s palette included Nature’s greens, browns, purples, oranges, lavenders and pinks; his forms included houses and boats and windmills as well as nature’s trees, rivers, skies, flowers, clouds and oceans. By 1920 in Paris, all the flowing curves had given way to architecture’s unbending verticals and horizontals, and composite colors had vanished too, restricting his palette to primary red, blue and yellow, and counterbalancing black, gray and white—austere in some ways, but also liberating.

At age 71, in the fall of 1943, Mondrian moved in to his second and final New York studio at 15 East Fifty–Ninth Street, and set about again to create the environment he had learned over the years was most congenial to his modest way of life and most stimulating to his art. He painted the high walls the same off-white he used on his easel and on the seats, tables and storage cases he designed and fashioned meticulously from discarded orange and apple crates. He glossed the top of a white metal stool in the same brilliant primary red he applied to the cardboard sheath he made for the radio-phonograph that spilled forth his beloved jazz from well-traveled records, Visitors to this last studio seldom saw more than one or two new canvases but found, often to their astonishment, that eight large compositions of colored bits of paper he had tacked and re-tacked to the walls in ever-changing relationships constituted together an environment that, paradoxically and simultaneously, was both kinetic and serene, stimulating and restful. It was the best space, Mondrian said, that he had ever inhabited. Tragically, he was there for only a few months: he died of pneumonia on February 1, 1944. He was interred in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

After his death, Mondrian’s friend and sponsor in New York, artist Harry Holtzman, and another painter friend, Fritz Glarner, carefully documented the studio on film and in still photographs before opening it to the public for a six-week exhibition. Before dismantling the studio, Holtzman (who was also Mondrian’s heir) traced the wall compositions precisely, prepared exact portable facsimiles of the space each had occupied, and affixed to each the original surviving cut-out components. These portable Mondrian compositions have become known as The Wall Works. They have been exhibited twice since Mondrian’s death at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (1983), (1995-1996), once in Soho at The Carpenter - Hochman Gallery (1984), once each at Galerie Tokoro in Tokyo, Japan (1993), once at the XXII Biennial of Sao Paulo, Brazil (1994), The University of Michigan (1995), and the first time to be shown in Europe, at the Akademie Der Kunste (Academy of The Arts) Berlin, Germany (February 22-April 22, 2007).

Influence on music

Along with Klee and Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian was one of the greatest inspirations to the early pointillistic musical aesthetic serialist composer Pierre Boulez. [3]

Major works

  • (1908) Molen Mill (Mill in Sunlight)[4]
  • (1908) Avond (Evening); Red Tree
  • (1908) Chrysanthemum [5]
  • (1908) Evening, Red Tree
  • (1908) Windmill by the Water
  • (1909) Landscape
  • (1909–1910) The Red Tree
  • (1910) Amaryllis
  • (1910-1911) Evolution
  • (1910-1911) The Red Mill
  • (1911) Gray Tree
  • (1911) Horizontal Tree
  • (1911) Still Life with Ginger Pot I (cubist)[6]
  • (1912) Still Life with Ginger Pot II (simplified)[7]
  • (1912) Apple Tree in Bloom
  • (1912-1913) Trees
  • (1912-1914) Scaffoldings
  • (1913) Composition No. II; Composition in Line and Color
  • (1915) Ocean 5
  • (1917) Composition III with Color Planes
  • (1918) Composition with Color Planes and Gray Lines 1
  • (1918) Composition with Gray and Light Brown
  • (1919) Composition with Grid VII
  • (1919) Composition: Checkerboard, Dark Colors
  • (1920) Composition A: Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Blue
  • (1920) Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Blue [8]
  • (1921) Tableau I
  • (1921) Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray
  • (1921) Composition with Large Blue Plane, Red, Black, Yellow, and Gray
  • (1921) Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue
  • (1922) Composition with Blue, Yellow, Black, and Red
  • (1922) Composition #2
  • (1925) Lozenge Composition with Red, Black, Blue, and Yellow
  • (1925) Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black [9]
  • (1927) Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue
  • (1929) Fox Trot; Lozenge Composition with Three Black Lines
  • (1930) Composition with Yellow Patch
  • (1930) Composition with Yellow
  • (1932) Composition with Blue and Yellow
  • (1935–1942) Composition No. III Blanc-Jaune
  • (1935–1942) Rhythm of Straight Lines[10]
  • (1935–1942) Rhythm of Black Lines (painting)
  • (1936) Composition blanc, rouge et jaune or Composition in White, Black and Red
  • (1936) Vertical Composition with Blue and White
  • (1937–1942) Abstraction
  • (1939–1942) Composition No. 8
  • (1939–1942) Painting #9
  • (1939–1942) Composition No. 10
  • (1942) New York City I
  • (1942–1943) Broadway Boogie-Woogie[11]
  • (1943) Place de la Concorde
  • (1943–1944) Victory Boogie-Woogie[12]

Memorial service

On February 3, 1944 a memorial attended by nearly 200, was held for Mondrian, at the Universal Chapel on Lexington Avenue and Fifty–Second St. in New York City. In attendance were:

  • Émigré artists: Alexander Archipenko, Herbert Bayer, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Jean Hélion, Frederick Kiesler, Moise Kisling, Fernand Léger, Matta, László Moholy-Nagy, Amédée Ozenfant, Hans Richter, and Kurt Seiligman.
  • American artists: Peter Blume, Ilya Bolotowsky, Alexander Calder, Burgoune Diller, Suzy Frelinghuysen, Fritz Glarner, Carl Holty, Harry Holtzman, Ibram Lassaw, George L.K. Morris, Robert Motherwell, Charles Shaw, Charmion Von Wiegand, and Abraham Walkowitz.
  • Notable others: Valentine Dudendsing, Katherine Dreier, Albert Gallatin, Sigfried Giedion, Clement Greenberg, Peggy Guggenheim, Sam Kootz, Julien Lévy, Henry McBride, Karl Nierendorf, Dwight MacDonald, Hilla Rebay, Meyer Schapiro, James Johnson Sweeny, and James Thrall Soby.


  1. Still Life with Ginger Pot I.
  2. Still Life with Ginger Pot II.
  3. Peter F. Stacy, Boulez and the Modern Concept, (Scholar Press, 1987)
  4. [1] Molen Mill Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  5. [2] Chrysanthemum. Retrieved August 17, 2007
  6. [3] Still Life with Ginger Pot I. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  7. [4] Still Life with Ginger Pot II. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  8. [5]Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Blue. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  9. [6] Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  10. [7] Rhythm of Straignt Lines. Retrieved August 17, 2007. Rhythm of Straight Lines.
  11. [8] Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  12. Victory Boogie-Woogie.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Faerna, José María. Mondrian: Great Modern Masters, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1997. ISBN 9780810946873
  • Mondrian, Piet. Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, eds. The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, New York: Da Capo Press, 1993. ISBN 9780306805080
  • Schapiro, Meyer. Mondrian: On the Humanity of Abstract Painting, New York: George Braziller, 1995. ISBN 9780807613702
  • Joosten, Joop J. and Robert P. Welsh. Piet Mondrian: Catalogue Raisonné, New York: Wittenborn Art Books, 1998. ISBN 9780815009887
  • Bax, Marty. Complete Mondrian, Lund Humphries Publishers, 2002. ISBN 9780853318033

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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