For any of us that grew up in the 1960’s we will all recognize Mondrian’s modern abstract
expressionism, his work showing black straight lines and blocks of red, yellow and blue.
Piet Mondrian was born in Amersfoort, Netherlands on March 7, 1872. He was born into a strict protestant family and his father was a teacher who instructed drawing. Under guidance from his father and uncle Fritz Mondrian, a painter, he learned to draw at a young age. Piet later attended the Academy of Fine arts in Amsterdam. Afterword he taught as a primary school teacher and continued to paint. At this time he was a figurative painter, painting beautiful landscapes of his Dutch surroundings.
Piet Mondrian is considered to be one of the pioneers of Abstract art. He was part of the De Stijl movement along with Abstract Expressionism. Over his life he painted in the styles of Post Impressionism, Pointillism and Fauvism. When he lived in Paris he experimented with Cubism.
His still life painting “Ginger Pot 2” (1912) is an excellent example of Cubism.
Ginger Pot 2 (1912)
Mondrian is said to be a major influence in a number of art styles like, Colour Field, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism. He has influenced design, architecture and fashion. When most people now think of Modern art they think of a Mondrian paintings like “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942) or “Composition C” (1935).
Composition C (1935)
Mondrian was utopian in his ideas and art, looking for universal values and aesthetics. He said in 1914
“Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposite to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have not value for man.”
Using pure colours Mondrian developed his minimalism style with a pallet of three colours, red, yellow and blue. The three primary values, black, white and gray and only two directions vertical and horizontal.
In 1911 to 1914 Mondrian lived in Paris. Here he was influenced by Cubism, especially the work of Picasso and Braque. Piet painted in a cubist style until 1917. In 1914 Mondrian returned to the Netherlands and due to World War I he remained the until 1918. Here he met painters Bart van der Lech and Theo van Doesburg. Piet was greatly influence by van der Lech and his ideas about abstraction. Mondrian wrote, "My technique which was more or less Cubist, and therefore more or less pictorial, came under the influence of his precise method." With Van Doesburg, Mondrian founded Di Stijl (The Style) movement. In a journal of the Di Stijl Group, in where he first published essays defining his theory, which he called neoplasticism.
Mondrian began to publish his ideas "De Nieuwe Beelding in de schilderkunst" ("The New Plastic in Painting"). He wrote twelve articles during 1917 and 1918, this being his first major attempt at expressing his artistic theory in writing. 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 colour 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.”
Over the next twenty years he perfected his style of Abstract Expressionism, where he simply focused on his, now iconic, horizontal and vertical black lines formed of rectangles and squares filled with primary colours.
In 1918 to 1938 Piet was immersed in the post WW I Paris culture. He embraced pure abstraction and produced grid like paintings which he became well known for. By 1920 Piet began reducing the the colours and using more white instead. Sometimes turning the canvas on a 45 degree angel to get a diamond shape. In 1926 the diamond shaped composition “Painting I” was the first piece of art of Mondrians’ to be in an American exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray arrived at Mandarins’ Paris studio, where they found “Painting I”. Katherine Dreier said that “Holland has produced three great painters, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Mondrian.”
In 1930 the black lines became more dominate in his paintings, making double lines and using less colour and more white. 1934 -1935 three of Mondrians’ paintings were exhibited in the UK, at Oxford, London and Liverpool as part of the Abstract and Concrete Exhibition.
1938 is when Mondrian left Paris when the threat of war arose. He went to London to settle, but then changed his mind and sailed to New York. This is where he made his home until his death in February 1, 1944. Piet fell ill with pneumonia he was 71 years old. His time in New York had been very successful. He continued to work, becoming more abstract, with more lines and smaller squares then replacing black altogether with the bright primary colours of red, blue and yellow and using small squares and rectangles placed in a line or row, going vertical and horizontal. The painting “Victory Boogie Woogie” (1943-1944) is the best example of this. After he died it was discovered that Piet completed this painting in one session and it was found he had also used tape on this painting. Was this addition of tape another development in the abstraction that he so loved? We will never know.
Victory Boogie Woogie (1943-44)
Piet Mondrian was another artist that changed the world’s idea of art. Without his contribution to the art world, were would art be now and would someone else have come up with his ideas? Like all new discoveries and developments we see, we will never know if the results would be different if the discovery was by another person.
I love his work and as a kid I would copy his painting of grids, squares and rectangles, loving every moment.
Keep well, Diana
France A History of Art, by Bradley Smith
The Story of Painting, By H.W. Janson and Dora Jane Janson.