Mondrian, Piet (1872–1944)

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MONDRIAN, PIET (1872–1944)


Abstract painter and modernist.

The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was one of the great pioneers of abstract painting and an important figure in the advancement of modernism in the twentieth century. Generations of modern painters, architects, and designers were profoundly influenced by his distinctive geometric style of "neoplasticism." Mondrian's neoplastic paintings, composed of straight lines and rectangular planes of red, yellow, blue, white, black, and gray, were meant to render a new plasticity or space through abstract principles and primary colors. In his compositions, he pursued a balance and harmony intended to extend into the space of the built environment and stand as a model for the harmonious relationships he envisioned among people in a utopian future. Mondrian published his ideas in various avant-garde magazines, beginning in 1917 in De Stijl (The style), the journal of the eponymous group he cofounded that year with Theo van Doesburg and other painters and architects. The artists in this loose collective initially shared a vision of a better world through the integration and dissolution of the different arts in a complete, harmonious, and colored environment. Mondrian would always hold onto these ideas, though, like several of his peers before him, he left the group in 1925 over disagreements with its leader, Van Doesburg.

Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan was born in 1872 into a Reformed Protestant milieu. At age nineteen, he obtained a certificate to teach drawing and enrolled in classes at the State Academy of Fine Arts with the intent of becoming an artist. His earlier work up to 1908, which makes up the vast majority of his oeuvre, consists of rather traditional figurative paintings. Because international modernist movements were absorbed relatively late and in quick succession in Holland, Mondrian first experienced the influence of the postimpressionist painters Vincent van Gogh, Jan Toorop, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne, and the cubism of Pablo Picasso between 1908 and 1911, resulting in a bolder technique, a brighter palette, and an increasingly systematic approach in his work. He changed his name to Mondrian when he lived in Paris between 1912 and 1914, assimilating the cubist vocabulary that would propel him toward complete abstraction in 1917. In Composition in Line of 1917, as in his later work, the emphasis is on the dynamic and purely relational interplay between verticals and horizontals. Through such ephemeral relations, Mondrian reinterpreted nature's spherical forms in terms of a dynamic play of interior and exterior forces, seeing deeper analogies with oppositions between energy and matter, and space and time, which recent science had also explained in relational terms. Mondrian's worldview was shaped by G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854–1922), the Dutch popularizer of the German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, and by Mathieu Schoenmaekers (1875–1944), a former Catholic priest and theosophist who invented the mystical theory of neoplasticism to explain the universe in terms of elementary cosmic forces.

Mondrian developed his own version of neoplasticism in painting during World War I while he was stranded in neutral Holland from 1914 to 1919, a time of restless searching and encounters with future De Stijl collaborators. He also returned to earlier motifs, such as ocean scenes and especially architecture. With its vertical-horizontal and interior-exterior oppositions, architecture became both motif and model for neoplastic painting, based on the elements they shared: the plane and rectangular relationships. When Mondrian returned to Paris in 1919 and arrived at his mature style, he also began to transform his studios into models of harmony by tacking rectangular colored pasteboards onto walls and furniture along neoplastic principles. The post-war Parisian avant-garde had mostly lost interest in abstraction, a "return to order" that demoralized Mondrian and almost made him give up painting. International recognition grew slowly, but by the early 1930s several avant-garde groups and journals devoted to abstraction included Mondrian in their exhibitions and publications (e.g., the movements Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création). By 1932 he had begun to multiply the lines in his compositions, creating a greater visual dynamism and compensating for the common misinterpretation of his "classic" compositions as static. In 1937 two of Mondrian's paintings were included in the Nazis' Degenerate Art exhibition. Fearing the threat of fascism, Mondrian moved to London in 1938, but the occupation of Holland, the fall of Paris, and the explosion of a V1 bomb in his street in 1940 made him flee to New York, where his reputation had preceded him. The septuagenarian artist celebrated the rhythms and sounds of the metropolis by reinvigorating his style with such late masterpieces as Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie, which remained unfinished at the time of his death.

See alsoDe Stijl; Degenerate Art Exhibit; Modernism; Painting, Avant-Garde.


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——. "Mondrian and the Theory of Architecture." Assemblage no. 4 (October 1987): 102–130.

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Mondrian: From Figuration to Abstraction. Tokyo, 1987. Published in conjunction with the exhibition in Tokyo, Miyagi, Shiga, Fukuoka, and The Hague.

Piet Mondrian, 1872–1944: Centennial Exhibition. New York, 1971. Published in conjunction with the exhibition at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum.

Seuphor, Michel. Piet Mondrian, Life and Work. New York, 1957.

Welsh, Robert P., and J. M. Joosten, eds. Two Mondrian Sketchbooks 1912–1914. Amsterdam, 1969.

Marek Wieczorek