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A VISUAL INTRODUCTION

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1 - Evening Sjy with Luminous Cloud Streaks, c. 1907
Oil on Cardboard, cm. 64 x 76,5

2 - Lighthouse at Westkapelle in Orange, Pink,
Purple and Blue,1910, Oil on Canvas, cm. 75 x 135

3 - Study of Trees, 1912, Black Crayon on Paper, cm. 68,1 x 89,1

 

The rural scenes of the naturalistic period are gradually stripped of trees, houses and any other sign of human presence (1), and seem designed to emphasize the endless space of nature. The painter's attention also focused at the same time on individual objects like a windmill, a lighthouse (2) or a church tower.
While horizontal extension predominates in the landscapes and vertical development in the archiutectural volumes, the two opposing directions interpenetrate in the figure of a single tree (3).

What the artist sees in the figure of a tree is a synthesis between the canvases in which the horizontal extension of the natural landscape (equivalent to the branches) predominates and those that represent a vertical architectural volume equivalent to the trunk.
Space is now based on a relationship between horizontal and vertical, which become plastic symbols respectively of boundless natural extension (the dunes) and motion toward the concentration in synthesis brought about by consciousness (the buildings).

Mondrian was in search of space based on a relationship between opposing entities because he felt in his heart the contrast between nature (1) and artifice (2), between matter and spirit. It is out of contrast and opposition that life is born and develops. The entire existence of individuals is marked by the search for equilibrium and synthesis between contradictory drives that the artist identified in the two-dimensional space of the painting with horizontal and vertical.


 

3 - Study of Trees, 1912, Black Crayon on Paper,
cm. 68,1 x 89,1

4 - Composition N. II, 1913, Oil on Canvas, cm. 88 x 115

5 - Checkerboard Composition with Light Colours, 1919, Oil on Canvas, cm. 86 x 106

     

The subsequent abstract compositions of horizontal and vertical lines are already present in the figure of a tree, albeit in a form still veiled by appearances.

The structure of a tree re-appears in the center of 4 where a variety of signs consisting of small horizontal and vertical dashes express a dynamic and complex space. Every sign is unique by virtue of the different type of relationship established in each case between the two opposing directions. Every sign appears different, just as the thousands of entities populating the real space of the world are different from one another. Every sign differs from the others but they all share the same intimate nature (the perpendicular relationship), just as every human being, every tree, and every natural event is unique and unrepeatable but all express some fundamental characteristics that make it possible to discern an invisible overall design. "Art must express the universal" (Mondrian). The task of faithfully reproducing the fleeting appearance of things has been taken over in the meantime by photography. 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.

In the naturalistic rendering of a tree the point of observation is fixed and limited to the outer form of a single object; in the abstract composition the point of observation is mobile and contemplates a reality that succeeds in evoking something constant (the best possible equilibrium between opposites in the central rectangle) despite its continuous change in appearance (all other signs). The 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 and thereby express the multiplicity of nature and the changing existential situations in all their becoming. The central rectangle evokes a sense of stability and unity in a space which multiplies and diversifies all around.

The small horizontal and vertical dashes (4) become six years later uninterrupted perpendicular lines which give birth to a measured set of colored planes (5).
The central rectangle of 4 appears now in the center of a fully colored composition that express the beauty of the world in abstract form, reminding us that the infinite variety of nature is born out of ever-changing combinations of same elements.


 

5 - Checkerboard Composition with Light Colours,
1919, Oil on Canvas, cm. 86 x 106

6 - Composition with Yellow, Red, Black,Blue and Gray,
1920, Oil on Canvas, cm. 51,5 x 61

7 - Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921, Oil on Canvas, cm. 59,5 x 59,5

 

Just as Mondrian chose out of all the possible relations of form the fundamental one expressing the utmost contrast (horizontal-vertical), in terms of color his eye preferred the primary colors yellow, red, and blue because they seemed to him the freshest and the best able to transform the painted surface into a living and exuberant reality. As he observed, "The appearance of nature is far more powerful and aesthetic than any imitation of it. If we wish to represent nature completely, we are obliged to seek another form of plastic expression. And it is precisely out of love for nature and reality that we avoid its natural appearance."

A composition expressed as a chromatic variation of the same measurements (5) gives way to a space where there is change even in the size and shape of each individual colored plane (6). Multiplicity is now expressed both through color and form.

The central rectangle of 4 and 5 becomes a square proportion in the center of 6.

6 presents a set of straight lines that generate a dynamic space in a state of unstable equilibrium between heterogeneous entities (areas of different sizes and colors) and an opposing tendency to concentrate and unify that variety in an ideal synthesis of opposite values (the white square field in which the black lines attain equivalent proportions). While one direction prevails over its opposite elsewhere, the two directions are equivalent in the square. In other words, though different, they acquire the same value, duality disappears and all of the multiple space generated by the continuous predominance of one direction over the opposite one is transformed into a unitary synthesis. The juxtaposition that produces open and unstable situations elsewhere is transformed into interpenetration that generates harmony.

Every Neoplastic composition expresses this dialectic between the changing aspects of life and the human need to stabilize them and find something of greater constancy and duration. A square form keeps space constant while differences in proportion and color change it. We are constantly stimulated by the unforeseeable flow of existence in everyday life and open up to innovation on the one hand while seeking to maintain the integrity of our established equilibriums on the other.

The unifying space of consciousness, which Mondrian evokes with a rectangle (4 and 5) and a square (6), opens up to color and multiplies (7), that is to say, opens up to the plastic symbols of the multiplicity of the world and the changing aspects of life. The square expressed with a white field (6) appears once in a larger form in red (7 - A) and once in a smaller form in black (7 - B); to the right of the large red square and to the right of the smaller black square below, we can see a whitish square field crossed by a vertical segment (7 - D) and a grayish square field crossed by a horizontal segment (7 - C). This too is a way of evoking a sense of variation (the ten thousand different shapes of the nature around us) while keeping the space comparatively constant (the unity invoked by the nature within us i.e. the spiritual).


 

       
       

The square module was to inform nearly all the works produced by Mondrian after 1920. The square form is a constant feature but in a state of continuous evolution.
The square is always different in appearance but always the same, just as the waves of the sea are always new and different but always made of water.

Nature and life still remain the primary source of inspiration for abstract art. The beauty of a flower is certainly a model to be examined and from which to learn. I am thinking of certain watercolors by Paul Klee, the enchanting fragrance of the natural colors, and the incredible wealth of forms that the world offers to our gaze. The ten thousand different lines that we see around us prove on closer examination to be a single interminable line, because in nature everything is different, manifold, infinite, and at the same time one. Everything is one just as every individual thing is a complex set of parts. Modern technology reveals that the apparent simplicity of a leaf is a small universe and that the immensity of earthly nature is a bluish-white spot in the infinite space of the macrocosm. The immensity of earthly nature is as simple as a leaf, which is as complex as the entire planet. Multiplicity becomes unity and unity multiplicity.

To give a concrete example, a flower looks like a small patch of yellow when seen from a distance of thirty yards but then grows larger and reveals an increasing number of parts as we draw closer before finally displaying an enormous degree of complexity when we observe its microscopic structure. If the process is reversed, the flower loses its complexity and reverts to a simple patch of yellow. What is the "true" nature and reality of the flower? It depends on the positional relationship established in each case with the object observed. How can we paint a reality that changes so quickly today in accordance with the changing positional relationship we establish with things? Does it still make sense to paint a flower from a single viewpoint and claim that this is reality? In their detailed explanation of Mondrian's work, the pages that follow will also seek to provide some answers to these questions.


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