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NATURALISM 1893 - 1906

 


Mondrian painted some 350 works, nearly a third of his entire output, during his naturalistic phase. I say about 350 because there is of course no clean break between the naturalistic phase and the subsequent development toward Expressionism. Some of the works produced between 1907 and 1908 can in fact still be described as naturalistic while others are already characterized by a more accentuated use of color. The works selected illustrate the variety of subjects from which the young artist drew inspiration, making it possible in some cases to highlight aspects that were to become salient characteristics of his approach during the subsequent phase of development. The works produced between 1893 and 1907 were predominantly still lifes, portraits, and above all landscapes including drawings in pencil or charcoal, watercolors and works in oil on canvas.


In the still lifes the painter combines human artifacts (plates, vases, and bottles) with natural products (fruit, fish, and flowers), thus creating attractive contrasts and alternations between precise, sharply defined shapes and organic forms; harmonious alternations of lines, surfaces, and volumes that open and close on interacting to generate finely balanced compositions in terms both of form and of color.

 


 

       

The landscapes depict rural areas of the Netherlands, showing houses, churches, farms, and scenes of everyday life, woods and rows of trees, moored boats or windmills silhouetted against the horizon.



       

Mondrian often painted riverside landscapes, sometimes using the reflection of trees or houses in the water to accentuate his inner vision of the outer world.
In the third painting from left the arched profile of the trees is reflected in the river to create an oval form suggesting a sense of unity.

The artist describes the scene with a certain abundance of detail in some landscapes, while in others the hand seems to follow a quicker form of vision intent on capturing the whole without dwelling on the details.


Mondrian often painted also in the light of evening and by moonlight. Unlike sunlight, which accentuates colors by creating reflections and shadows that increase the manifold appearance of nature, the light emitted by the moon is faint and makes it possible to see the broad outline of the landscape. The details are reduced and the multiform natural appearance appears more condensed.

 

 

       

 

The human figures consist of a variety of characters. Some are portraits produced on commission and others prompted by the painter's own interests. The latter are mostly female figures, often presented in contemplative attitudes or together with one or more flowers. The female figure with one or more flowers is a subject connected with the theosophical theories that interested the artist in that period.

The human figures painted by Mondrian are not those of Renoir, Van Gogh or the Picasso of the blue and pink period; they are not people intent on performing actions of everyday life. What Mondrian sought in the human figure was not a particular and characteristic aspect of a certain person with his or her burden of transient emotions and situations but rather a truer and deeper sense of humanity. What interested him in a face were often the eyes, a link with the soul. He seems intent on capturing some secret, intimate reality in the outward appearance of a face.

 

 


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Mondrian was drawn to the simplicity of a flower while contemplating its complexity at the same time.

If we observe a meadow full of flowers from a certain distance, we see a homogeneous expanse of color stretching away out of sight. When the distance is reduced, that homogeneous expanse gradually breaks down into a variety of parts (the individual flowers), patches of color each of which reveals great complexity on closer examination. The whole (the field of flowers) becomes a part (the individual flower) and that part again reveals a whole (the complex structure of a flower).
As the artist was to write in 1919, "The one seems to us to be only one, but is in actual fact also a duality. Each thing again displays the whole on a small scale. The microcosm is equal as composition to the macrocosm, according to the wise. We therefore have only to consider everything in itself, the one as a complex. Conversely, every element of a complex is to be seen as a part of a whole. Then we will always see the relationship; then we can always know the one through the other."

While some flowers are painted at the peak of their lifecycle (1, 2, 6), others are depicted in the phase of their slow, inevitable withering (3, 4), a process that evokes the cycles of natural life.

The petals of the flower in 5 are rectilinear but all together form a circle; the rectilinear is contained in the circular. We see the boundless horizon of the sea as a straight line, whereas it is actually curved. Is what we see true reality?

 

Like Cézanne, Mondrian often went back to the same subject and painted it in different ways. We shall take as an example a series of still lifes that presents a common characteristic of interest:


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In the first painting we see some apples lying at random on a table. Each apple differs from the others in terms of position and appearance. In the other three paintings we see apples together with a large round plate positioned vertically in such a way as to present a circular shape acting as a background to the apples. In the two last paintings we see a vase in addition to the plate. The plate is now turned to the wall and its base appears as a circle of similar size to the apples.
This circle is located in the center of the composition, especially in the case of the last version. A relation is born between this perfect circle and the imperfect circles of the apples, as though the painter wished to show the changing appearance of natural forms (the apples) and a form of greater constancy and precision (the circle presented by the plate, a man-made, artificial object). The perfect circle placed in the center evokes an ideal model of the variable and multiform natural appearance.
The first painting is dated 1897, the second 1900, and the last two 1901. Mondrian did not, of course, think of the four works as they have just been explained when he produced them. He painted them one by one but, probably without realizing it, followed a thread that shows a relationship between the first and the last over the space of about three years.

 

The artist painted many landscapes, sometimes returning to subjects that evidently suggested something very precise to him.

 

 

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Around 1899 Mondrian paints only the trunks of some beech trees in a wood. 11 shows a recent photograph of analogous whareabouts which may have inspired the artist. Each trunk has its own particular appearance and, all together, they express the sense of the endless variety seen in nature (12).

13: The line of the ground seems intent on joining up with the trunks in the upper central area of the composition, where the vertical trunk and the predominantly horizontal line of the ground become the same thing. This composition gives the impression that the painter wanted first to express the contrast between the horizontal line of the ground and the vertical lines of the trunks and then to make the two opposite directions meet in a unitary synthesis. It is as though Mondrian wanted to concentrate in front of himself the boundless expanse of the natural landscape which he, especially in the Netherlands, saw as a predominantly horizontal extension.

While the varied and multiform appearance of nature is displayed with the tree trunks in Wood of Beech Trees (13), it is expressed in Apples, Ginger Pot and Vase on a Ledge (10) with apples, a suggestion of unitary synthesis can be seen in the central area of these paintings: the confluence of vertical and horizontal in Wood with Beech Trees, the precise circle of the plate in Apples, Ginger Pot snd Vase on a Ledge (10).

 

Other works where Mondrian deals with the theme of multiplicity and unity are those grouped under the theme of the Geinrust Farm.

 

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We see here four different versions of the same subject: a farm placed in the center of the composition and surrounded by a row of trees along a river.

In the first three versions the artist describes the scene with a certain abundance of detail, while in the fourth one the hand seems to follow a quicker form of vision intent on capturing the whole rather than lingering on its details.

The river is presented as a horizontal line that runs through the central area of the paintings and seems designed to express the boundless and ever-changing space of nature. While the river evokes the continuous and variable space of nature, the farm (a man-made addition to nature) suggests an element of stability.

The arched profile of the trees is reflected in the river to create an oval form suggesting a sense of totality. The oval suggests the desire to contain the flowing expansion of the river and consider nature in its wholeness. Mondrian: «I was struck by the vastness of nature and I tried to express expansion, tranquillity, unity».
The oval suggesting unity remains however open to the sides, that is to say to the boundless and ever-changing space of nature evoked by the river. Any human attempt to comprehend the infinite variety of nature at once (the oval form) would appear pretentious to the artist. During the cubist phase (1911-1915) Mondrian often made use again of an oval to contain the fragmentation of the cubist space.

In the fourth version a black segment, corresponding to the roof of the farmhouse, seems designed to halt and concentrate within itself the continuos flow of the river which extends boundlessly beyond the canvas. The black segment suggests a concentration of the river expanse, that is to say, a sort of synthesis of the infinite natural space. Note how the element suggesting a synthesis is placed in the center of the composition. Same as in Wood of Beech Trees (13) and Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge (10).

In the paintings of those years, both still lifes and landscapes, the artist saw nature on the one hand as multiplying its appearances and prompting the consciousness to contemplate an extended, multiform space, and on the other as always remaining the same. Mondrian's gaze settled on the variety of particular aspects without forgetting that all that variety is ultimately an indissoluble unity.


 

 

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We see here a view of the River Gein with a row of trees, one of which standing out from the others (once again in the center of the composition).
Between 1908 and 1912 Mondrian was to concentrate on the shape of a single tree.

 

 


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Another theme repeatedly addressed around 1900 is a landscape at the center of which we see a village church. It is the S. Jakob's Church in the village of Winterswjik where the artist's family has been living in. After three preliminary studies, Mondrian represents the scene from a particular viewpoint which allows him to express contrast between the chaotic web of the tree branches and the rectilinear and precise vertical silhouette of the church tower. The branches develop toward all possible directions contrasting one another, whereas the church tower in the center firmly and unequivocally points upward. I see here a metaphor of the contrast between the natural and the spiritual. It seems as if through the contrast between the natural landscape and the architectural skyline the artist wants to evidence on one hand the unpredictable course of nature and on the other the stability human beings need to carry on their life. Same as the branches, the hedgerow at the bottom, with some chickens behind, evoke the unceasing, uncatchable flowing energy of nature. In 1909, the artist was to paint 22 where a church facade and a tree merge together. The compenetration of the spiritual and the natural will be the leit motif of Mondrian's lifetime work.

 

 

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Another variation on the same theme is a landscape with a tree standing beside an irrigation ditch, of which Mondrian produced at least eight versions (four oil paintings, three drawings, and one watercolor). The trunk of the tree expresses a vertical line that displays a tendency to expand horizontally in its upper section, where the branches begin. The ditch instead appears as a vertical that tends to expand horizontally as it moves downward. The vertical trunk opens out horizontally from the bottom toward the top and the ditch does the same thing but in the opposite direction. The two tendencies meet in the central area of the composition to suggest the interpenetration of opposing elements. Here too we see the dawn of the dialectic of opposites that was to inform all of Mondrian's subsequent work.



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