Born March 7, 1872, in Amersfoort, Netherlands; died of pneumonia February 1, 1944, in New York, NY; son of Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan (a schoolteacher and painter). Education: Attended Winter-swijk schools; studied drawing with his father, painting with uncle, Frits Mondriaan; completed teachers training in drawing; attended Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1892-94; attended evening drawing classes, 1894-97.
Painter. Exhibitions: Solo exhibitions: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands (retrospective), 1909, 1922; Rotterdam Kunststichting, 1924; Galerie Kuhl und Kuehn, Dresden, Germany, 1925; New York, NY (first American exhibition), 1926; Galerie Jeanne-Bucher, Paris, France, 1928; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1945, 1995; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1995. Permanent collections: Stedelijk Museum; Tate Gallery, London; Museum of Modern Art; and Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, among others.
Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plastic Equivalence, [Paris, France], 1920.
The New Art—The New Life: The Collected Writings, edited by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, Da Capo Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
Piet Mondrian, 1872-1944, edited by Angelica Zander Rudenstine and Yve-Alain Bois, Bullfinch Press (Boston, MA), 1995.
Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: An Essay in Trialogue Form/1919-1920, George Braziler (New York, NY), 1995.
Contributed articles to journals, including De Stijl and Abstraction, creation, art non-figuratif.
A pioneer of modernism, Dutch painter Piet Mondrian made his revolutionary leap into geometrical paintings at age forty, after already establishing himself as a naturalist and symbolist painter. Together with Wassily Kandinsky and Kazmir Malevich, Mondrian is, as Eric Gibson and Stephen Goode noted in Insight on the News, "credited with the invention of the single most important development in 20th-century art—abstraction—a subjective, self-contained artistic language that makes no concessions to visible reality." The same authors went on to note that Mondrian "was one of the most prolific and important theorists of modern art." The artist's fame rests on the two hundred and fifty paintings he produced between 1917 and 1944. Though this is not a large oeuvre in terms of output, each of the canvases—seemingly simple geometric designs of rectangles of blue, red, or yellow separated by white or black vertical and perpendicular lines—was meticulously worked and reworked to obtain just the right surface, color, and form.
Mondrian dubbed his style "neoplasticism," a rough translation of the Dutch movement he helped found, called "Nieuwe Beelding"—"new form" or "new image." Such a style resulted from a mystical belief in the harmony of straight lines and primary colors that underlie the visible world. This style also laid the artist open to easy reproduction. Jed Perl, writing in the New Republic, commented that Mondrian "used the spare language of an ascetic to shape his overflowing romantic notions." However, Perl further explained that the Dutch artist's work "has inspired generations of dumbed-down graphic design, and the stuff lulls people into believing that they know Mondrian better than they do." Similarly, a contributor for the Economist, reviewing a 1995 retrospective exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, observed that "among 20th-century path-breakers in art, Piet Mondrian suffers more than most from a false sense of familiarity. The work of this Dutch modernist is always in danger of vanishing behind its influence, and not just its influence on other painters." So ubiquitous had Mondrian's paintings become at the time of his death in 1944 that his asymmetrically arranged rectangles of blue, red, or yellow framed by black lines were as instantly "recognisable as a market brand," according to the Economist contributor. Such designs were thereafter used for everything from office building murals to shower curtain patterns.
This "supreme Platonist of modernism," as Robert Hughes described Mondrian in Time, believed that such basic patterns, "his grids, representing nothing but themselves and, as Plato said of his perfect solids, 'free from the itch of desire,' could demonstrate a universal order, an essence that underwrote the mere accidents of the world as it is." The irony of Mondrian's abstraction was, as Hughes also pointed out, that though the artist "may have wanted to transcend nature, … the Dutch landscape was in him like a DNA code." Hughes further explained that Mondrian "said there were not straight lines in nature, so that straight lines—the grid—were inherently more abstract than curves; and yet, as anyone can see in Holland, the flat horizons and punctuating verticals of mill and steeple must have affected him right from the start."
Mondrian's start was in the central Netherlands town of Amersfoort, where he was born on March 7, 1872. The second of five children, the artist's surname was originally spelled Mondriaan. Named after his father, the young boy was baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church and brought up in a strict religious atmosphere. His father was the head of the first Protestant primary school in Amersfoort and was an active member of the anti-revolutionary political party. Additionally, he was something of an artist, making lithographs of historical and biblical subjects. When Mondrian was eight years old the family moved to Winterswijk, where the elder Mondriaan became head of the Primary School for National Protestant Education. It was here, in his father's school, that Mondrian developed a love for drawing, aided by his father and also by his uncle, Frits Mondriaan, a professional landscape painter. Mondrian finished his formal schooling in 1886 and prepared to take an exam for a certificate to teach drawing in the primary school. In 1889 he earned this teacher's certificate, began teaching drawing in his father's school, and also began studying for a certificate to teach drawing and perspective in the secondary school.
By this time Mondrian had determined, against his father's wishes, to become a professional painter. In 1890 he exhibited two works at the Exhibition of Art by Living Masters in the Hague. Earning his secondary credential, he set off for Amsterdam and entrance to the National Academy of Art. He was age twenty when he entered the Academy; his years of study for teaching certificates exempted him from preparatory classes there. Two years later he added night classes in drawing to round out his artistic education. Frustrated with his studies and also short of cash, in 1895 he left the Academy for a time and worked as a freelance artist, painting mostly landscapes. He managed to earn his living by copying old masters, designing ex-libris, making bacteriological drawings, painting portraits, and giving drawing lessons.
For over a decade Mondrian continued to slowly make his way in the Amsterdam art scene. At this time he was hardly a revolutionary, but was influenced by the Hague school, Amsterdam impressionists, and symbolism. He was noted for his bucolic scenes of rural Holland with its windmills, churches, and wide, flat plains, and also painted flowers, often devoting an entire canvas to the finely detailed depiction of one blossom. Additionally, he joined several artistic societies in the city and exhibited with them regularly.
An exhibition of the works of Vincent Van Gogh in 1905 deeply influenced Mondrian, moving him away from symbolism to neo-impressionism. It is an indication of how cut off Mondrian was from modern art movements that into his thirties he was still unaware of the modernist revolution. Contact with Jan Toorop, a painter who was influenced by both Fauvism and art nouveau, nudged Mondrian away from the straight depiction of nature. He began spending summers along the Dutch coast, pushing his art in new directions. His The Red Tree from this time shows the influence of Fauvism on his work, as do dozens of other paintings and watercolors. Similarly, the 1908 Mill in Sunlight "explodes" with color, according to Hughes, the critic interpreting the work as an "orgiastic response to Van Gogh." Slowly his art was moving away from a careful representation of nature to a depiction of what Mondrian felt lay behind nature and above it.
Spiritual Awakening Leads to Abstraction
In 1908 Mondrian learned of the philosophies of Helena P. Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner, theosophy and anthroposophy, and in 1909 he joined the Theosophical Society. This involvement with theosophy in particular—a movement based on a mystical insight into the divine nature—convinced Mondrian that his art could express the spiritual as well as the actual. An intensely spiritual man who felt that he himself had been reincarnated, Mondrian found in theosophy something that could not be found in Protestantism: a search for the ultimate good, a look at the underlying geometrical realities of eternity. Theosophy's reconciliation of science and religion, of Darwin and God, appealed to Mondrian's critical mind. It is interesting to note that other pioneers of abstraction were equally attracted to what might be considered nontraditional belief systems. Writing in the New Criterion, Hilton Kramer noted that "so prevalent was a steadfast belief in the occult among the pioneers of abstract art—not only Mondrian but also Kandinsky, Malevich, and a good many of their disciples—that we have no alternative but to regard such doctrine as a basic component of their artistic vision." Equally important in Mondrian's own development was the inclusion of modernist techniques into his pictorial style, blending pointillism with a symbolist feel for color to transform his Dutch landscapes into something wholly new.
Mondrian first visited Paris in 1911 and, after seeing an exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso and other cubists, he knew he had finally found his home. Now almost forty, Mondrian began to discover his own style, as witnessed in the cubistinfluenced Still Life with Gingerpot of 1911. The following year he moved permanently to Paris and
imbibed the new art forms. His progress toward abstraction can be seen in a series of paintings of trees from 1912 to 1915. The tree motif itself became ever more simplified with branches becoming more and more altered and lattice like until finally they were actually a grid against a flat background rather than twisting, organic representations of actual branches.
In Paris as in Amsterdam, Mondrian avoided the nightlife and focused on his work. He made friends of fellow artists such as Ferdinand Leger and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, but spent more time in his studio at work than in the cafés discussing the art scene. As early as 1912 he ceased to give individual titles to his paintings, instead labeling them "compositions." He did this in order to allow the viewer to make his or her own judgment of the work without his interference.
In 1914 World War I caught him visiting in Holland, and he remained there for the remainder of the hostilities, working out the ideas of his new art. There he met fellow artist Theo Van Doesburg with whom he began the artistic journal De Stijl, which spread the word of Mondrian's new aesthetic: abstraction, exactness, the idea that less is more in art, architecture and design. De Stijl as an art movement became a powerful influence on twentieth-century design.
A Life in Art
Slowly between 1912 and 1917, Mondrian's paintings lost their physical referents. Even curved lines were banished from his oeuvre as were those on the diagonal. His paintings of a pier and the ocean from 1915 to 1917 demonstrate a complete abstraction of form using vertical and horizontal lines only with blocks of color organized to his own secret harmony. Soon even these colors were reduced to the primaries: red, yellow, and blue. Meanwhile he was also sharing his thoughts about the new artistic principles in the journal De Stijl. As Henkels noted, these theories consisted primarily of the idea that "the painting of the future must be the expression of universal cosmic order." This could best be represented by line and color alone.
By the end of the war, Mondrian had become a guru of modernity. Returning to Paris, he published Le Neo-plasticisme, a further elucidation of his theories. Indeed, he would continue to write about art for the remainder of his life. As Yve-Alain Bois noted in Artforum International, "Like many of his peers in the first generation of abstract artists, Mondrian felt compelled to write in order to justify his then extremely enigmatic pictorial practice. However, his texts only exceptionally deal directly with the specifics of his painting: the theory of neo-plasticism covers all aspects of human activity, painting being only one." He would also paint, and write, about jazz; its music and dancing became his one nonpainterly outlet. When the Charleston dance was banned in his native Holland, Mondrian vowed never to return.
By 1925 Mondrian had broken with De Stijl, primarily because of a single line. Van Doesburg began to give the diagonal line a principal role in his paintings and design; Mondrian could not tolerate this. For him, the horizontal and vertical were the lines that revealed universal light and harmony. The following year he exhibited in the United States for the first time, and his name also became better known throughout Europe. His paintings began to fetch ever higher prices and Mondrian—who always lived simply and never married—continued to spread the word of abstraction. His black grid became bolder, defined by what may be the most archetypal of all his paintings, Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue from 1930. Yet in abstraction, Mondrian also represented meaning. According to Perl, "there's nothing that Mondrian doesn't express between 1932 and 1944, whether it's serenity and delicacy, weight and speed, or mystery, anxiety, chaos. And he can at times include more than one of these qualities or emotions in the same ultra-pared-down painting."
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With the advent of the Nazis in Germany, Mondrian left Paris, moving first to London in 1938. Once the war started and London was hit by air raids in 1940, Mondrian again moved, this time to New York. There he discovered a pulsing, vital city, alive with jazz and full of young painters eager to follow in his footsteps. This new generation would soon launch the art movement known as abstract expressionism. In Manhattan Mondrian began to tone down the heavy black grid lines of his paintings, emphasizing more the rectangles of primary colors. His Broadway Boogie-Woogie, from 1942-43, "evokes illuminated buildings, traffic lights, and jazz," according to a contributor for the International Dictionary of Art and Artists. Completed when Mondrian was seventy years old, Broadway Boogie-Woogie proved to be his final painting. He died in New York in 1944. The following year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a large retrospective in honor of this artist who helped revolutionize art. He influenced an entire generation of new artists, not only the abstract expressionists, but those who went on to found movements such as color-field abstraction, minimal art, and op art. Art theorist, pioneer of modern art—Mondrian was all of these. But first and foremost, he was a painter. Mondrian, as Hughes noted, "remains an artist of extreme importance, not only because of the historic inventiveness of his pictures and the daring leaps of consciousness they embody, but because of their beauty as art."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Bax, Marty, Complete Mondrian, Lund Humphries (London, England), 2002.
Blotkamp, Carel, Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, Abrams (New York, NY), 1995.
Faerna, Jose Maria, Mondrian Cameo, Abrams (New York, NY), 1997.
Gay, Peter, Art and Act: On Causes in History—Manet, Gropius, Mondrian, Harper (New York, NY), 1976.
International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Jaffe, Hans Ludwig, Piet Mondrian, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1970.
Jaffe, Hans Ludwig, Masters of Art: Mondrian, Abrams (New York, NY), 1986.
Janssen, Hans, and others, Mondrian, 1892-1914: The Path to Abstraction, B. V. Waanders Uitgeverji (Zwolle, Netherlands), 2003.
Joosten, Joop M., Piet Mondrian, Abrams (New York, NY), 1996.
Seuphor, Michel, Piet Mondrian, Life and Work, Abrams (New York, NY), 1957.
Welsh, Robert P., Piet Mondrian's Early Career: The "Naturalistic" Periods, Garland (New York, NY), 1977.
Artforum International, summer, 1995, Yve-Alain Bois, review of Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: An Essay in Trialogue Form/1919-1920, p. B30; October, 1995, Mel Bochner and Robert Rosenblum, "Plastic Made Perfect," p. 84, Dona Lydia, "Ascetic Esthetic," p. 90, David Sylvester, "Son of Cezanne," p. 92.
Economist, June 10, 1995, "To the Bare Lines: Piet Mondrian," p. 81.
Insight on the News, July 3, 1995, Eric Gibson and Stephen Goode, "Mondrian Art," p. 32.
New Criterion, September, 1995, Hilton Kramer, "Mondrian and Mysticism." New Republic, July 31, 1995, Jed Perl, "Absolutely Mondrian," p. 27.
Newsweek, October 30, 1995, Peter Plagen, "When Less Was More," p. 76.
Telegraph, October 27, 2001, Richard Smith, "Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie."
Time, October 23, 1995, Robert Hughes, "Purifying Nature," p. 91.
Artchive, http://www.artchive.com/ (November 17, 2004), "Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)."
Artmuseums, http://www.artmuseums.harvard.edu/ (November 17, 2004), "Piet Mondrian."
Mondriaanhuis Foundation, http://www.mondriaanhuis.nl/eng/ (November 18, 2004).*
The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) created a geometrical abstract style known as neoplasticism, which had widespread influence on modern painting, architecture, and design.
Piet Mondrian was born on March 7, 1872, in Amersfoort. His father, a schoolteacher, wished Piet to become a teacher, and he earned his diploma for teaching. But in 1892 he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, where he studied for several years and was encouraged by artists of The Hague school, who continued the landscape tradition of Charles Daubigny and the Barbizon painters. Mondrian's early pictures are mostly of such subjects as meadows with farms and cows or windmills. Although a few of his works from about 1900 show some influence of Claude Monet and symbolism, he continued working in a very conservative tradition for a number of years.
Development of His Style
In 1908 Mondrian became deeply involved in the latest developments in art, and in the course of the next 10 years or so he developed with astonishing rapidity through a succession of styles. He began to use pure, glowing colors and expressive brushwork under the influence of pointillism and Fauvism in pictures which are almost like those of Vincent Van Gogh in their vivid colors and intensity of expression. Motifs such as church towers and windmills were painted in a blaze of color with staccato, pointillist brushstrokes. But Mondrian soon turned to a more monumental and simplified treatment in which the motif was depicted close up, in isolation, dominating the picture area symmetrically, and the pointillist brushstrokes were replaced by large unmodulated areas of color. Although these pictures were still usually based on some definite motif, they show an attempt to go beyond realism to a sort of symbolic superreality, an attitude which partly reflects Mondrian's growing preoccupation with theosophy. The works of this period include some very poetic landscapes of deserted dunes in Zeeland.
By the time Mondrian moved to Paris in 1912, he had already seen a few cubist pictures and had begun to be influenced by cubism. But at a time when Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were turning back to figuration, Mondrian decided to carry cubism through to what seemed to him its logical culmination of pure abstraction. Although he continued until as late as 1916 to make some reference to such subjects as trees and the facades of buildings, he gradually eliminated all traces of figuration. He quickly assimilated the cubist idiom of Braque and Picasso, working in grays or ochers and sometimes using an oval composition, but over the following years his compositions became more and more clarified, with a concentration on vertical and horizontal lines.
This development became particularly marked after Mondrian returned in 1914 to Holland, where, because of the outbreak of war, he remained until 1919, living mainly in the artists' colony at Laren. It can be seen, for instance, in various paintings and drawings of the sea in which the movement of waves is evoked by short horizontal and vertical lines (his so-called plus-and-minus compositions).
Contacts with the Dutch painters Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg at this time led to further developments in Mondrian's art. Van der Leck had begun to work exclusively with white and black and with flat planes of the three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow; Van Doesburg founded in 1917 the periodical De Stijl and the art movement of the same name. In 1917 Mondrian began to paint completely nonfigurative works composed of rectangles of different colors and sizes against a neutral white ground. At first these color rectangles (some upright, some horizontal) were situated at varying intervals in depth, with a certain amount of overlapping, but overlapping was soon avoided, and he began to bring the color areas more and more into the same plane, in a shallower picture space. In 1918 he introduced a grid of vertical and horizontal lines which divided the composition into a number of rectangles of different sizes, each painted a uniform color; in this way the color rectangles were integrated into an overall framework. (Although he had begun to work toward the use of the three primary colors and white and black, he still mixed his colors to some extent and tended to achieve a muted effect.)
Advent of Neoplasticism
Only after Mondrian's return to Paris in 1919 did this tendency reach its culmination in the style to which he gave the name neoplasticism. From 1922 on he worked exclusively with vertical and horizontal lines and with white, black, and the three primary colors—the strongest and purest possible contrasts. In all but a few of his last works, he divided his pictures asymmetrically by a grid of heavy black vertical and horizontal lines, with certain rectangles painted a uniform intense red, blue, or yellow and all the other areas left a brilliant white. But within these limitations he achieved a wide range of effects by varying the proportions, the choice and distribution of the colors, and so on. Although he painted some pictures on canvases of square format hung diagonally, he always kept the lines strictly vertical and horizontal and indeed resigned from de Stijl in 1925 because Van Doesburg had introduced diagonal lines.
Mondrian lived in Paris from 1919 to 1938 and in London from 1938 to 1940; then he settled in New York. Stimulated by the tempo and dynamism of New York City and by jazz, in his last works he used colored lines instead of black ones and even broke up the lines into a lively mosaic of different colors. He died in New York City on Feb. 1, 1944.
Mondrian's own writings were republished in an edition entitled Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937, and Other Essays, 1941-43 (1945). The most comprehensive work on Mondrian is Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian: Life and Work (1957). Another important study is Frank Elgar, Mondrian (trans. 1968). A brief introduction to Mondrian is L. J. F. Wijsenbeek, Piet Mondrian (trans. 1969). □