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1899 - 1944 oSUMMARY I

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I shall now retrace the development of Piet Mondrian's work as a whole and present an overview of the various periods examined so far. I refer in this summary to only some of the more significant works out of all those actually produced by Mondrian. The real scale of his output should therefore be kept clearly in mind.

The early stages are characterized by a way of painting reality as it appears to us, in all its immediacy and detail. Faced with the vastness and variety of nature, the artist very soon began to ask himself the questions that every human being asks. What is this infinite space of different things? What are we with respect to all this? As a painter, Mondrian obtained his answers through the eye and its discovery of correspondences between certain outer forms and some traces of an inner path.

The Dutch master painted about 280 landscapes between 1893 and 1905. The eye settles on the surface of things, whose constant change multiplies the appearances of the world, an infinite reality that is, however, perceived as an indissoluble unity by the mind.

 

1 - Wood with Beech Trees, c. 1899

2 - Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge, 1901

3 - Stammer Mill with Streaked Sky, 1906


In addressing the natural landscape, as in 1, the artist displays a variety of different tree trunks while seeking at the same time to express a synthesis with an upward convergence of the line of the horizon that tends to concentrate and unify the manifold aspect of a wood.

In the restricted space of a still life (2), which is certainly not as extensive and multiform as a landscape, the painter again sees a relationship between multiplication (the variety of imperfect circles expressed with the apples) and synthesis (the perfect circle of the plate). Once again the theme of the one and the many, the natural (the apples) and the human, i.e. the spiritual (the perfect circle suggested by the plate), manifests itself metaphorically.

In 3 we see a horizontal section (the sky) suggesting boundless space juxtaposed with the self-contained vertical shape of a windmill.
The two sails of the windmill encapsulate and reproduce the contrast between the white stretch of sky and the windmill itself, the horizontal constituting a concentration of the former and the vertical a concentration of the upright shape of the building and its reflection in the water. The composition manifests the need to express a space expanding horizontally in pursuit of the boundless extension of the natural landscape and, at the same time, evoke a striving of the same space for concentration in accordance with the needs of its own inner world.

The artist endeavors to capture something more lasting and essential in the ever-changing relationship with the vastness and manifold aspect of nature.

 

3 - Stammer Mill with Streaked Sky, 1906

4 - Mill at Domburg, 1909-09

5 - Evevning Sky with Luminous Cloud Streaks, 1907

     

3 can be seen as a premise of the dialectic between dunes and the architectures that Mondrian was to develop three years later.

Space is now based on a relationship between horizontal and vertical, which become plastic symbols respectively of boundless natural extension and motion toward the concentration in synthesis brought about by consciousness. What is reality if not a constant interaction between the inner and the outer worlds?

 

 

6 - Lighthouse at Westkapelle in Orange, 1909

7 - Seascape, 1909

8 - Study of Trees, 1912

 

The naturalistic tree was transformed into the Cubist tree between 1911 and 1912 and became an abstract space over a period of three years.

 

 

8 - Study of Trees, 1912,

9 - Composition 7, 1913

10 - Composition II, 1913

The relationship between the dunes (7) and the buildings (6) or between the horizontal expansion of the branches and the vertical concentration of the trunk developed from the static form of a single tree (8) interpenetrate (9) to generate a multitude of small signs that are nearly always orthogonal (10). Some of these have greater extension and thus express a greater sense of spatial continuity. They correspond to the median axes of the canvas, and especially the horizontal. The viewer thus has the impression of seeing a trace of the two central perpendicular axes, i.e. of the basic structure of the naturalistic tree.

10: The linear strokes intersect, combine with one another, and separate once again in a constant alternation of the predominance of one direction or the other.
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 and every tree is unique and unrepeatable but all express some fundamental characteristics that make it possible to discern an invisible overall design. 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; concentrate on the inner reality of things which is veiled by their outer appearance.
The task of faithfully reproducing the fleeting appearance of things has been taken over in the meantime by photography.

 

10 - Composition II, 1913

 

Every sign is different. One of these signs appears in the center inside a rectangular area. Unlike the situation observed for the other signs, the opposite directions attain a more stable equilibrium in this central rectangle. The rectangle is similar in its proportions to the canvas.
As pointed out, it is still possible in this painting to glimpse a faint trace of the two median axes running through the entire composition. A relationship is thus established between the canvas and the rectangle of analogous proportions placed in the center. The rectangle seems to concentrate the two median axes within itself so as to express a synthesis of the composition as a whole. 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 evoke in abstract form the endless variety of the real world.

By reducing the ever-changing appearance of the world to a multitude of orthogonal signs, the artist unquestionably performs an arbitrary operation with respect to everything we see in the most immediate reality. This enables him, however, to express the greatest possible variety on the canvas while at the same time maintaining something more constant (the perpendicular relationship).

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 despite its continuous change in appearance. While space is multiplied in a thousand different forms suggesting the manifold aspect of the world, a common denominator now underpins all the dynamic and multiform appearance of physical reality, and this satisfies the human mind. Expressing the broadest diversity through variations of one and the same thing (the perpendicular relationship) means in fact finding the one in the many. Mondrian's Cubist space thus builds a bridge between the multifarious universe and the unifying consciousness; between the natural and the spiritual.

The transition from naturalist or figurative painting to abstract caused bewilderment and many still find it difficult today to grasp the real meaning and sense of such a radical change. It is quite difficult to have them realize that what counts in painting is the physical consistency of the painted surface, the colors and the mutual relations established through the rhythm of the composition as a whole. This can only be fully realized by viewing the original works. Be it an image created by following the clearly recognizable shape of a tree or an abstract composition, what makes the difference between good and bad painting, between just any image and a work of art, is the quality, intensity, and mutual arrangement of the colors and forms; in short, the quality and the relationship of the parts with the whole.

Music is a form of abstract art to which we have long been accustomed. It is for this reason that when we listen to a piece of music, we are not immediately concerned about understanding the work and having its meaning explained, as some are when faced with an abstract painting. On listening repeatedly to a piece of music, we get in tune with the work, whether we like it or not. Understanding takes time. The same should be done with painting.


 

2 - Apples, Ginger Pot and Plate on a Ledge, 1901

3 - Stammer Mill with Streaked Sky, 1906-07

10 - Composition II, 1913

 

Everything changed in Mondrian's painting between 1901 and 1913, or rather there was a change in the plastic means serving to give clear shape to a vision of the world that can already be glimpsed implicitly in some works of the naturalistic phase:

In 2 a perfect circle (the bottom of the plate) can be seen in the center above a variety of imperfect circles (the apples). In 10 a 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.
With a gap of twelve years between them and differing completely in form, the two paintings say the same thing: physical reality multiplies its appearances (the apples in 1901 and the various orthogonal signs in 1913) while the consciousness strives to draw everything back toward an ideal model of greater synthesis (the perfect circle of the plate in 1901 and the central rectangle with the best possible balance of opposites in 1913). The expression of all this in the naturalistic or figurative painting is veiled by the contingent appearance of a certain vase, that particular plate and those apples. It is precisely through abstraction from the particular appearance of those few objects that 10 holds for a far greater variety of forms and situations. No longer dwelling on details, the abstract painting presents an ideal broader spectrum of reality.
As mentioned, the "few objects" of the realistic or figurative vision can be now dealt with by photography at best.

Another interesting comparison can be drawn between 3 and 10. Both paintings present a space generating a synthesis of itself in the central area of the composition.

This shows how abstraction clarifies the vision Mondrian has been dealing with since the beginning of his activity: Express a space showing at the same time variation and constancy, complexity and unity, infinite and measured dimension, the outer and inner reality in their continuos interaction.

 

10 constitutes a progress if compared with the first Cubist canvases. The progress consists in a synthesis (the rectangle in the center) which generates from inside the composition. Mondrian did have in mind an internal compositional unity since the naturalistic phase.

10 constitutes a progress which, however, lacks of the bright and contrasting colors (yellow, magenta, blue..) which had to give way to tonal variations of ocher, brown and gray during the first Cubist phase. With this aim in view the artist works at new compositions.

 

The painter went back to the Netherlands in the summer of 1914 and was prevented from returning to Paris by the war, which broke out during his stay. Deprived of the brushes, paints, and canvases left in Paris, Mondrian began a series of drawings, the subjects of which was a pier jutting out from the beach into the ocean.

 

8 - Study of Trees, 1912,

10 - Composition II, 1913

11 - Pier and Ocean 5, 1915

The synthesis we see in Pier and Ocean 5 is now a dynamic balanced compenentration of opposites and no longer the static unity exemplified by the trunk of a tree or the rather congested synthesis of horizontal and vertical achieved in 10.

The unity that Mondrian strove to express is a temporary synthesis generated momentarily by the subject in its changing relationship with the world, not something to be attained once and for all. Establishing equilibrium between the manifold appearance of nature and the synthesis invoked by the consciousness does not mean attaining fixed points and immutable truths. The square of Pier and Ocean 5 is not a potentially static and all-inclusive unity like the oval but a dynamic unity intrinsically linked to the manifold space in which it is born and toward which it returns a moment later.

Every single thing can be considered as unitary or multiple depending on the positional relationship established in each case with the object observed.
To give a concrete example, a tree looks like a small patch of green when seen from a great distance 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. From this point of view every single leaf becomes a small universe. The initial green spot (we perceived as one) has become very complexed (multiple). The initial finite reality (the green spot) appears now infinite.
If the process is reversed, the tree loses its complexity and reverts to a simple patch of green. Depending on the positional relationship established in each case with the object observed, every single thing becomes multiple and then the multiple concentrates again in a unity. What is the "true" nature and reality of a tree? Does it still make sense to paint a tree from a single viewpoint (8) and claim that this is reality?

Every single landascape and all the landacapes of the world constitute an endless multiplicity which can be considered as a unity if we think of our planet as an interconnected wholeness. The infinite variety of physical reality, expressed in abstract terms by the constant imbalance between horizontals and verticals (11) may find a temporary synthesis under the unifying action of the spirit (the balanced relationship between opposites inside a square) which then must always necessarily open up again to the endless aspects of physical reality (the upper square opens up to a horizontal predominance, that is to say, a symbol of the natural manifold space).
This is what science constantly does. This is what every human being does when, based upon the experience, he changes his ideas of reality. Manifold and fragmentary external space is ideally united in inner space and then inner space opens up to physical reality. In this respact abstraction is a more dynamic and comprehensive way of looking at reality.

 

Pier and Ocean 5, 1915

 

Examination of Pier and Ocean 5 reveals that other areas of the composition suggest potential squares, which do not, however, attain the balance of the one in the center. Unlike the central square, they appear unable to hold the dynamic external space and transform it into a more constant and permanent internal equilibrium.
The incomplete attempts to internalize external reality evoke the moments in life when something escapes us and we cannot make the rationale of becoming our own. The central square instead expresses one of those rare moments in which we understand (internalize) the fact that everything is connected and that each thing depends on its opposite. And this holds both for the subject's relationship with the object (the external world) and for the subject's relationship with itself: finding equilibrium between the contradictory drives within oneself, e.g. between the uncontrollable urges of the instinctual life (the horizontal) and the action of controlling and guiding the instincts performed by the mind or spirit (the vertical).

The sign of equivalence between opposites urges us to attribute one and the same value to the part of us that is closer to nature and the part that is more typically human; to understand that one thing depends on the other in a dynamic vision. Duality disappears and everything appears to be in a state of harmony because there is harmony within. Contemplating that synthesis, reveling in the instant of an eternal joy that seems to unite us with the whole, then opening up again to see things separate and clash with one another in the multifarious disintegrative rhythms of everyday life (the multiplicity of imbalanced relationships between horizontals and verticals).

How can painting simultaneously express the inner and outer worlds if not in an abstract form?

The dialectic between a fully achieved balance of opposites (the central square in Pier and Ocean 5) and a variety of open, unstable relationships between horizontals and verticals that we see all around that square will characterize Mondrian's subsequent oeuvre from 1920 up to 1942.

 

 

11 - Pier and Ocean 5, 1915

12 - Composition, 1916

13 - Composition with Color Planes 2, 1917

 

In 11 an external curvilinear sense of unity is visually translated into a unity which generates from a relationship between opposites.
Mondrian wrote: "the compact curved line, which does not express any plastic relationship, has been replaced by straight lines in their mutual perpendicular position which expresses the purest form of relationship". The square, which comes out of multiplicity and then goes back to it, represents in a more suitable form the idea of unity considered as a dynamic relationship between subject and object, consciousness and nature.

The immensity of nature, felt as an uncatchable totality (the oval) is translated into a finite and relative unity (the square) which now partakes of the manifold space inside which it is born and toward which it returns. Unity is not a metaphysical matter given once and forever. From that moment on, all of Mondrian's plastic space was to rest on this idea of unity (the square) as the subjective symbol of an assumed objective unity (the oval).

On examining 11, 12 and 13 in a sequence we see how the oval dissolves and a white squared field form emerges from inside the composition.

The unifying space of consciousness facing the multiplicity of the world, which Mondrian evokes in a square (11), opens up to color (12) and multiplies in the form of rectangles of different shapes, sizes, and hues (13) that generate the variety previously expressed through small black dashes. The variable aspect of the physical world, now appeared in the form of yellow, pink or blue rectangles, some larger and some smaller, some horizontal and some vertical. Everything was in a state of constant change. The white square field in the center of 13 did not, however, emerge with the evidence the painter had wished for and each colored square or rectangle seemed to freely move around on its own. Once again Mondrian perceived a lack of unity.

 

14 - Composition with Color Planes and Gray Lines 1, 1918

15 - Lozenge Composition with Colors, 1919

16 - Lozenge Composition with Colors, 1919

 

"Feeling the lack of unity, I grouped the rectangles together: the space became white, black, and gray; the form became red, blue or yellow. Joining the rectangles was equivalent to continuing the verticals and horizontals of the previous period over the entire composition." (Mondrian)

The painter joined up the rectangles (14), but this did not make up for the lack of cohesion. He therefore abandoned color once again to concentrate on formal layout and produced compositions where the variety of rectangles reflected the expansion or contraction of a constant module (15 and 16).

The rectangles are different but now change on the basis of a common parameter (15 and 16). Everything changes but something underlying remains.

While the heterogeneous variety of the linear relations attained synthesis with a square in Pier and Ocean 5, now that the linear relations have become colored planes, we are faced with a variety of squares, some yellow, some pink, and some blue. The square is no longer a unitary synthesis of the entire composition in these works (as it is in Pier and Ocean 5) but only the part expressed in that particular color. An authentic unitary synthesis of the composition would need to be attained in these canvases also between the different colors.16 shows three squares evoking a larger unit of the different colors.

From space that is completely drawn (11) to space that is entirely painted (12, 13, 14), which undergoes a new reorganization of formal structure (15) and then opens up again to color (16).

 

16 - Lozenge Composition with Colors, 1919

17 - Checkerboard Composition with LIght Colors, 1919

18 - Composition B, 1920

With 16 the formal structure acquires order and clarity. This order is accentuated with the wholly regular schema of 17, where the variable aspect of the composition is expressed exclusively through color. The idea of joining up the colors into larger units (16) finds different solutions in 17 and 18.


 

17 - Checkerboard Composition with LIght Colors, 1919

 

On observing the multitude of colored rectangles, we note that two, three, four rectangles of the same color gather in some areas to form larger units. The composition as a whole is not, however, so strictly governed by the process of aggregation and growth, as it is in 15 and 16. This process now manifests itself sporadically.

Having identified a larger unit, the eye spontaneously seeks others and in this search addresses many other situations involving the absence of one or two basic units needed to form a homogeneous rectangle, the others being of a different color. In seeking larger rectangles of a single color we contemplate the virtually infinite variation of entities born out of different combinations of same elements. Isn't nature an infinite variation of entities born out of different combinations of same elements?

Note how the opposition between vertical and horizontal lines manifests itself with greater clarity and balance in a homogeneous field of color like that of the larger rectangles. The perpendicular opposition instead proves less stable when the colors change around the point of intersection between vertical and horizontal. lines. What appears in synthetic and unitary form in the larger rectangle is unbalanced elsewhere. Other than in Pier and Ocean 5, where the synthesis of horizontal and vertical is expressed through form only, it is color now that highlights the most balanced syntheses of the opposites directions; once in yellow, once in blue and three times in red.

In addition to the five larger rectangles expressed in the three primary colors, Checkerboard with Light Colors presents one in white that also contains black lines forming a sign of equivalence. This is the only white rectangle of larger size present on the canvas. Its position is perfectly central with respect to the sides of the canvas and slightly raised. This recalls the central rectangle of Composition II and the square in Pier and Ocean 5.
Like the square of Pier and Ocean 5, the white rectangle expresses a unitary synthesis of the composition. It is in that point that the entire composition attains a synthesis and equilibrium of opposite values in terms not only of form (horizontal and vertical), as we see in Pier and Ocean 5 and in the other yellow, red or blue, larger rectangles of Checkerboard with Light Colors, but also in terms of color (black and white). I shall endeavor to explain.

The painter still distinguishes in this phase between color (yellow, red and blue) and non-color (white, black, and gray) seeing the first as a plastic symbol of the natural and the second as symbolizing the spiritual. He uses the three primary colors here to express contrast and diversity, and white, black, and gray to produce an equally broad range of variation that appears, however, more homogeneous than the contrasting variation generated with the primary colors. The artist appears to be seeking a common denominator in terms of color. The colors and “non-colors” of Checkerboard with Light Colors are therefore to be seen as a whole that, on the one hand, blossoms in a showy and discordant variety of colors (the three primary colors) symbolizing the variety of the world and, on the other, is recombined in synthesis through the most homogeneous variation of grays between the two opposite values of white and black, which attain unitary expression in the central rectangle.
The variety of nature (yellow, red and blue) finds a temporary synthesis under the unifying action of the spirit (gray, black and white).

 

11 - Pier and Ocean 5, 1915

17 - Checkerboard with Light Colors, 1919

18 - Composition B, 1920

Nevertheless, as we have seen with 11 the artist's true intention is to open up the unity (the perfect equilibrium between horizontal and vertical within a square) to the multiplicity of imbalanced relationships between opposites which take place all around, that is to say, open up the unity to manifold space. The square opens up because any synthesis worthy of the name must take shape visibly in all the parts it wishes to represent. The difference is that manifold space is now expressed through colors. Mondrian arrived at a compromise in 17, where the three primary colors are ideally united in a black and white rectangle through a varied range of grays. Immediately afterward, however, he endeavored to open up the unitary synthesis to all the colors in a more concrete way (18).

While the regular layout of 18 becomes asymmetric, gray, yellow, red, and blue give life to a large square form in the center of composition (18).
The large square becomes evident if we consider those planes, different both in color and in size, which are based on a same parameter: we note two contiguous yellow planes of rectangular proportions verging on squares. The same shape reappears lower down once in red and once in light gray. On the right, a large blue area proves to be the sum of the initial module repeated twice vertically. Lower down we have three rectangles - one yellow, one black, and one dark gray - presenting proportions that are half the initial module. Though different both in color and in size, each of these planes is an expansion or contraction, either vertical or horizontal, of a pre-established unit of measurement. The planes outside the large square assume instead anomalous proportions that are no longer related to the module. The space of the large square field displays a certain degree of constancy whereas everything changes around it. Once again Pier and Ocean 5 comes to mind.

With a large square visibly structured and colored within (18), Mondrian seeks here to present a unitary synthesis open to multiplicity, almost as though intent on effecting interpenetration between the white unity of 17 and the three rectangles - one yellow, one red, and one blue - in its immediate vicinity.
The white synthesis (17) opens up to colors (18), thus leading, however, to a predominance of the manifold aspect (the large square field is in fact barely perceptible) and the renewed absence of the particular moment in which the composition is supposed to manifest a more evident unity as seen in 11 and 17.

 

11

1915

13

1917

17

1919

18

1920

On observing the sequence we can visualize a drawn square (11) that multiplies, opening up to different colors which gather around a white central square field (13).
The square field becomes a white rectangular evoking a synthesis of yellow, red and blue (17).
The white rectangle then opens up to those colors within a large square form (18).
The drawn square (11) becomes a colored one (18) in a bid to express both unity and multiplicity at the same time.
Unity and multiplicity are for Mondrian one and the same thing observed from different viewpoints. Recall the example of a tree seen from close and far distance.

Note how the synthesis always generates in the center of the composition and how this happens in some previous compositions.

 

 

   

 

11 - Pier and Ocean 5, 1915

 

17 - Checkerboard with Light Colors, 1919

 

The small linear segments of the Cubist compositions (11) have become continuous lines in the meantime (17) and this brings along a substantial innovation:

Previously expressed within the metaphorical closed form of an oval (11), the totality of space opens up and is transformed over a span of four years into a sense of totality expressed through the continuity of straight lines (17). Mondrian appears to use these lines, which he describes as continuing uninterruptedly, in order to connect the space of the canvas with an ideal totality (the oval) which has expanded in the meantime beyond the canvas and now coincides with the space of reality, of which the work of art constitutes a part; a part that aspires to stand for the whole.

As Maurizio Calvesi points out, the canvas is "an ideal center in which the spatial event is determined in its wholeness and totality no less than in its dynamic continuity. Mondrian wrote in 1920 that the straight lines intersect and touch one another tangentially but continue uninterruptedly. The result radiates out in fact from the painting to the infinite, but the canvas exhausts the intuition of the whole within itself."

The immensity of nature, previously expressed in a metaphorical way with the oval becomes the real space of life while a synthesis (the central white rectangle) reminds us from inside the canvas that the immensity of nature (the oval) which in our daily life appears to us as an uncathable infinte multiplicity of different things is indeed an indissoluble unity. The infinite extension of the real world, is now expressed through the continuity of the lines, which is why Mondrian was to abolish the use of any frame around his canvases in the subsequent works. The frame interrupts the ideal continuity envisaged between the work of art and real life.


 

17 - Checkerboard Composition with LIght Colors, 1919

18 - Composition B, 1920

19 - Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue and Gray, 1920

As mentioned, the black and white synthesis (17) opens up to colors (18), thus leading, however, to a predominance of the manifold aspect and the renewed absence of the particular moment in which the composition is supposed to manifest unity.

19: the composition is therefore divided up again into a variable set of measures, proportions, and colors that attain an instant of synthesis in a large white square field. We can thus see how 19 marked the return of a clearly visible unitary synthesis of space after the barely identifiable large square seen in 18.
In short, with 19 the artist returns here to the conception of unity expressed in 17, i.e. a unity of the two opposite values, black lines generating a white field, but with the substantial difference that, with respect to 17, the composition has become wholly asymmetric and the sense of variation is no longer expressed solely through color but also through form. The composition now develops freely and is no longer subject to any pre-established module as we see in 17 and partially in 18. The layout of 19 was to become the model for nearly all the canvases painted by Mondrian between 1921 and 1927.

 

 

Pier and Ocean 5 - 1915

Composition with Color Planes 2 - 1917

Checkerboard with Light Colors - 1919

Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue and Gray - 1920

The four diagams above show the transition from the Cubist phase to Neoplasticism.

 

 

 

17

18

19

20

Observe the sequence: All the variety of 17 is gradually reduced over a span of nearly three years until all that is left on the canvas is what could be interpreted as a part of 17 on which the painter seems determined to concentrate. This part includes the white unity and three planes, each in a primary color and each now differing from the others in size and shape (19, 20). There is a choral sense of variation in 17 with a large number of equal shapes varying in appearance only through color whereas the new canvases (19, 20) present a smaller number of parts that vary both in form and in color to make every point in the space unique and unrepeatable.
There is a decrease in the number of parts but an increase in their reciprocal diversity. The sense of multiplicity expressed in primarily quantitative terms now gives way to a sense of multiplicity expressed through difference in quality.

20: Note the large white square field and the small black square at the bottom-left corner. We contemplate two squares representing opposite values in terms of color whereas yellow, red and blue are intermediate values between those opposites being yellow the lightest value, close to white, and blue the darkest one, nearing black.

 

 

21 - Comp. with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921

22 - Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red and Gray, 1922

23 - Composition with Yellow, Blue and Blue-White, 1922

 

With 19 the artist returns to a concept of an equivalence of opposites, i.e. a unity, expressed by black and white only, but then he re-opens the square field to variations both of color and form (21) to re-assert again the presence of a single large white square (22) and re-open once more to variations of the square module (23).

In 21, to the right of the large red square and to the right of the smaller black square below, we can see a slightly more horizontally developed whitish square field crossed by a vertical segment and a slightly more vertically developed grayish square field crossed by a horizontal segment. This too is a way of evoking a sense of variation while keeping the space comparatively constant, with the same configuration (a square parameter) changing position, proportions, and colors. This is a way of evoking a tendency towards unity among a multiplicity of different entities.

Space alternates between compositions where unity is expressed by a single large square which is placed in a state of dynamic equilibrium by asymmetric fields of color (22) and compositions where the square module multiplies into areas verging on squares which constantly change in appearance (21 and 23).

 

 

24 - Lozenge with Four Lines and Gray, 1926

25 - Composition 1 with Yellow and Light Gray, 1930

26 - Composition with Yellow, 1930

 

This dialectic between one closed square and a variety of open and not fully achieved square fields will guide the whole European Neoplastic phase.
I should remind that this dialectic originates from Pier and Ocean 5.

24: each line forming the square field presents a different thickness; this means that the squared unity shows a certain degree of multiplicity withing itself.

25 shows a variety of square fields which open up on different, alternative sides while changing in barely perceptible measure, proportions and color.

26 concentrates again on a single closed square which developes out of the dynamic continuity of two opposite lines which cross the center of the composition.
The three large areas that remain open seem designed to express possible variants of the closed square. Those areas appear in fact as vertical and horizontal rectangles only if seen in relation to the sides of the canvas. In actual fact, we do not know how each area develops beyond the boundaries of the painting. These planes therefore express a variable and indeterminate space in relation to the definite square, in which the opposite values attain equivalence.

This marked the beginning of a long and a laborious process of gradually bringing together subjective unity (a definite square proportion) and objective unity which is now partially suggested by a variety of different measures, proportions and colors around and/or within the square; a necessarily limited degree of multiplicity which is ideally expanded towards the infinite variety of the real world by the continuity of the lines. The infinite variety or totality formerly expressed with an oval.

The whole of the European Neoplastic phase (1919-39) was to be a slow and gradual opening up of unitary space (the square) to manifold space (the colored horizontal and vertical planes and the endless lines); a process of interpenetration between unity and multiplicity; a process which was underway since Pier and Ocean 5 of 1915.

In the detailed explanation I have grouped most of the works which form part of this process under four compositional typologies named layout I, II, III and IV.

 

 

Layout N. 1

1 - 1922

2 - 1922

 

 

3 - 1922

4 - 1922

5 - 1922

 

Layout N. I presents a large square form occupying most of the composition. Developed around the square are areas of variable size, each of which in a primary color. The colored shapes are arranged in such a way as to create asymmetry and "decenter" the square.

 

 

 

Layout N. II

1 - 1926

2 - 1927

3 - 1928

 

Layout N. II generates around 1927 when the large square field of Layout N. 1 opens up toward left (1), then with the two horizontal lines combining with the vertical sides of the canvas to form a new square field which is open on both sides (2 and 3). A vertical line runs through this new square field. Indications of infinite space (the lines) appear inside the finite space (the square); the dynamic and ever-changing element (the line) penetrates the constant element (the square).

 

 

 

Layout N. III

1 - 1930

2 - 1931

 

3 - 1932

4 - 1932 5 - 1932


The peremptory presence of the large square, which occupied the center of the composition in the N. I layout), gives way first to a vertical line (the N. II layout) and then to two perpendicular lines (the N. III layout) which cross the center of the composition. Where there was once a finite space (the large square of Layout I), we now see a space that continues uninterruptedly through opposite lines. This makes the center of the canvas more dynamic. As we have seen, the central area of the canvas always played a crucial role in Mondrian's compositions as to what unity was concerned.


 

 

Layout N. IV

1 - 1929

2 - 1929

3 - 1929

4 - 1930

5 - 1930

 

Like N. III layout the N. IV layout develops out of the tendency to open and decenter the large square of Layout N. I and make way for smaller additional squares. The large square and the smallest appear to contend for the space.

It should be pointed out that the schemata I use here for explanatory purposes (the four layouts) are to be understood as interpretive models that can clearly be applied to Mondrian's work but in no way exhaust it. They must be seen in an open and flexible way. In actual fact, the work proceeds as a single corpus and we can therefore find combinations and overlappings of the various layouts that constitute different solutions to a single need, namely to make the equivalence of opposites dynamic.
Mondrian made sketches and used them as a basis for the compositions he wished to produce. These sketches were, however, like variations on a single inner design that took different forms on emerging at his fingertips.

 

A further variation on the theme of the painter's drive for a dynamic transformation of the equivalence of opposites - or another type of layout, if you prefer - is to be found in the lozenge compositions Mondrian produced between 1921 and 1933.


 

1 - 1925

2 - 1925

3 - 1926

4 - 1926

5 - 1930

6 - 1933

 

The choice of the lozenge format gives greater breadth to the composition. It makes it possible to use lines of various lengths. New relations of tension are established between the orthogonal planes and the diagonal sides of the painting. The four corners of the lozenge generate a centrifugal energy and seem to expand the plane of the canvas along its two median axes. The lozenge therefore already seems in itself a way to make the equivalence of opposites, i.e. the square, more dynamic.

Unlike what happens in the rectangular canvases, the painter tends to concentrate solely on the large square form in the lozenge compositions. These present a gradual reduction of elements to the point where a probable square could coincide with the infinite expansion of the lines (4). From this point of view the lozenge compositions constitute the moment of greatest correspondence between the one and the many.

In this phase Mondrian is like a composer who gradually reduces the orchestra to a solo instrument, an almost imperceptible sound that can still be varied in an effort to express the whole. It is relations that count in Neoplastic space rather than things in themselves. In a white field crossed by three black lines, the thickness of a line can also serve in a space moving toward ever-greater synthesis to calibrate the weights and influence the overall economy of the composition.

5 and 6: on observing these squares and contemplating the differing thickness of the lines, we are faced with an idea of unitary synthesis undergoing transformation from one side to the other. We see a square that opens up to variation and appears comparatively manifold in itself. We perceive a changing unity that tends to become rather than to be. It endures but changes at the same time. We are confronted with a dynamic equivalence of opposites.


 

29 - Composition C with Gray and Red, 1932

30 - Composition B with Double Line, Yellow and Gray, 1932

31 - Lozenge with Four Yellow Lines, 1933

 

30 is the first Neoplastic work with two horizontal lines running very close to one another in place of the single horizontal to be seen in all the previous compositions of the same type (29). The thickness of the two horizontal lines is half that of the vertical. It is almost as though the two thin black horizontals served to mark out a white line opposing the black no longer solely at the level of form (horizontal or vertical) but also in terms of color (black or white). Black seems ready to open up to white here.
The small plane on the right is gray, which is an intermediate value between black and white. The yellow plane on the left counterbalances the gray. The following year yellow was to become the intermediate value between black lines drawn on a white background Mondrian had been using up until then (31).

 

31 - Lozenge with Four Yellow Lines, 1933

 

 

In 31 we encounter a square that is open, dynamic, asymmetric and intrinsecally defined by colored lines only. The increase in the thickness of the lines can be seen as the vertical incorporating a slight horizontal expansion or conversely as the horizontal growing thicker in response to barely perceptible vertical pressure. For a fraction of a second, the space of the lines is simultaneously vertical and horizontal. From this point of view the lines can be almost considered here as planes.

As mentioned, yellow is an intermediate value between black and white, sufficiently dark to be differentiated from white but, at the same time, not so radically opposite as black. The opposite values now seem communicate and achieve unitary expression in terms both of form and of color, with horizontal and vertical simultaneously present for an instant in every line and the synthesis of black and white in an intermediate color, which yellow appears to constitute in this case.

We talk about a square although the lines never meet inside the canvas in this lozenge of 1933, the only Neoplastic work in which this happens. In point of fact each horizontal line could well continue on its own towards infinite space without being really concerned to merge with the opposite lines as to give birth to a square proportion.
We talk about a unity which could eventually exist beyond our field of vision. Does this ring any bell? The visible sections of the lines generate a unity (the square proportion) which is in fact our subjective idea of an invisible objective totality suggested by the endless continuity of the lines.

The artist felt for a moment that he had achieved his objective with a square undergoing transformation while remaining relatively stable. This composition goes to the heart of the problem: to express a dynamic equivalence of opposites; to show a relatively manifold space in unitary form; to open up unity, i.e. the postulate of consciousness, to the infinite natural universe and unforseeable existence in time but without losing sight of it. The one and the many appear to us as antithetical realities but in actual fact they are one and the same thing. This is what Mondrian probably meant when he wrote that "through our reality true reality is unvelied".

 

 

     

1920

 

1921

 

1930

 

1932

1924-25

1925

1930

1933

 

In the rectangular canvases on which the painter worked at the same time as the lozenges, a stable white square moves off-center, opens up to colors, multiplies changing in size and proportions, but never attains expression with such a degree both of articulation and of synthesis as in this Lozenge with Four Yellow Lines of 1933.

In the rectangular canvases the synthesis expressed by the square opens up in the direction of multiplicity; in the second, the square absorbs multiplicity (different thickness of the lines) while remaining substantially one.

As we said, Mondrian uses lines that continue uninterruptedly to "keep in touch" with the totality of space, previously represented by the oval, and concentrates, above all in the lozenge compositions, on a unity seeking to express the whole by itself. This is taken to the extreme synthesis of just two black lines striving to evoke an "infinite square form".
For an instant, subjective unity (the finite space of the square) becomes objective unity, i.e. the infinite totality of real space. With reference to Pier and Ocean 5, we can say that between 1925 and 1933 the square becomes the oval.

Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow Lines achieves the goal of showing a comparatively multiple space in synthesis. The synthesis seems, however, too absolute and all of the manifold aspect of the world appears to be sacrificed.

As Seuphor puts it, "Sometimes he thinks he has found it. So he stops, observes the work, and says: It's done.
But the clock of his life keeps on ticking and is already driving him forward. He soon realizes that nothing is done and everything has to start all over again."

 
 

1931

If we compare Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow Lines with the previous works and in particular with those produced up to 1920, it appears immediately obvious that in the span of a decade, the rather crowded space of the Pier and Ocean 5 or the Checkerboard with Light Colors appears to have been completely absorbed by the square, which was used between 1922 and 1933 in an attempt to reformulate in conceptual synthesis a space that is in reality far more structured and complex.

With colored lines changing also in thickness, the square unit of Lozenge with Four Yellow Lines alludes to multiplicity without, however, showing it in all of its far greater breadth. The painter was soon to realize that these type of compositions did not convey all of the variety perceived by the eye in nature or urban space. While this lozenge of 1933 can therefore be regarded as a point of arrival the work also represents a new point of departure.

 

 

30 - Composition B with Double Line,
Yellow and Gray, 1932

32 - Composition in Black and White
with Double Lines, 1934

33 - Composition with Yellow, 1934

34 - Composition 12 with Blue,
1937-42

 

Observation of the four works 30, 32, 33, 34 in sequential order reveals a gradual increase in the number of lines, which divide the space of the canvas into a growing number of parts. The tendency observed during the 1920s toward a space of ever-greater rarefaction and synthesis gradually gave way to the opposite tendency, whereby an increasing level of articulation and complexity was progressively reintroduced into the canvases as from 1933.

We move from a definite square placed in a state of dynamic equilibrium by asymmetrical colored planes (30) to one placed in tension by the prolongation of its sides (32) and finally a "square" in a state of becoming that has undergone total interpenetration with the lines and is expressed as a continuing variation on itself (34).

 

The space expands and contracts under the pressure of the two contending directions, which attain equivalence and a more stable equilibrium for an instant before opening up again to the more or less marked predominance of one or the other. Equivalences of opposite values are born and dissolve, are lost and found again in forms that are always new, without ever being fully attained.

The idea of the square, i.e. an equivalence of opposites, seems to be expressed here too more as a process than a state. The solid and definite square of the 1920s now appears to undergo dilution on contact with the lines.

34 - Composition 12 with Blue, 1937-42

34 - Diagram

34: We move from an area of extremely variable space (the central field), where equivalence appears in a state of becoming, to a lower field to the right where a more stable synthesis of opposite values is high-lighted by blue. The accent of color seems designed to draw attention to a square, which appears as a sort of model of which the planes observed in the central area constitute a variation.

 

           

 

If we consider for a moment the compositions that Mondrian produced between 1922 and 1932 involving variations on the theme of the square, we seem to see all these different squares and rectangular proportions brought together for a moment in Composition N. 12 with Blue (34).

 

It appears to be a short step from Composition 12 with Blue (34) to New York City (35).

In actual fact, however, the process of spatial multiplication was not completed so quickly. It was a laborious undertaking that took seven years of patient effort and a far larger number of works. Mondrian produced no fewer than sixty-five canvases between 1932 and 1942, some of which were reworked in New York City after 1942.
We have examined these works in the section Neoplasticism 2 under four groups showing how Mondrian adopted several solutions leading ultimately to the same result.

The result was finally achieved in 1942-43 with New York City (35) Broadway Boogie Woogie (36) and Victory Boogie Woogie (37).

 

35 - New York City, 1942

36 - Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43

37 - Victory Boogie Woogie, 1942-44 Unfinished

The previous uniformly black lines were transformed around 1940-41 into lines of color. The blossoming of colored lines constitutes a further development in the process of multiplication of parts that began around 1932 with Composition B with Double Line, Yellow and Grey.

35: We see here no fewer than 23 lines, 15 of which are yellow, 4 red, and 4 blue. The lines expand and contract the space of the canvas, which is maintained in a state of unstable equilibrium between the two opposing directions. There is an alternating predominance of horizontal and vertical together with different combinations of colors in the different areas. Horizontal and vertical sometimes attain equivalence and assume proportions of comparatively greater stability, that is to say, square forms.

 

New York City, 1942

Diagram A

Diagram B

Diagram A highlights a series of square forms numbered from 1 to 7, some of which interpenetrate. Each square differs from the others also in relation to the position assumed within it by lines of the same color. Squares 1 and 2 are similar in terms of form but differ as regards their respective distribution of colors. The same holds for 3 and 4. Squares 1, 2, and 7 are formed by six or eight lines of different colors and appear to be less sharply defined. Mondrian seems to have been intent above all in square 2 on combining the three colors so as to express a synthesis of yellow, red, and blue. The equivalence dissolves toward the right and the square becomes a rectangle. The unitary synthesis marked out with the three primary colors is lost if only one color is taken into consideration. Other squares are formed of only two colors (5 and 6). In 6 a completely yellow horizontal rectangle attains equivalence with a red line; the same thing happens in 5 with blue.

In 1 a field formed by four yellow lines has the proportions of a horizontal rectangle. The rectangle attains an equivalence of vertical and horizontal if seen in relation to the blue line above or without this but in relation to the red line below. If the yellow rectangle is instead observed in relation to both the blue line and the red, the slightly horizontal initial proportions become slightly vertical. We thus see a dynamic square that oscillates between a slight horizontal predominance (all yellow) and a slight vertical predominance (yellow, red, and blue).

Diagram B shows part of a vertical red line and part of an horizontal blue line which tend to concentrate a yellow rectangle into a square form made of the three primary colors (8). Each color needs the other one to reach balance and unity seen in the square proportion. With 9 we glimpse at a yellow horizontal rectangle which becomes for a monent a square form made of the three primary colors before being pulled away toward the left by an imposing red vertical line. The different visual weight of the colors has an influence on the immediacy with which the relationships are perceived.

The eye travels along the lines, stops, singles out a certain configuration, and lingers on it, but all around the space is set in motion again with the alternating predominance of the different colors and directions.

Square forms generate and dissolve in a variety of combinations between yellow, red and blue lines in New York City. The permanent black and white square unit of the 1920's has now become dynamic and multiple; a dynamic equivalence of opposites as Mondrian used to say; a concept the painter had in mind since Pier and Ocean 5 which now finds an eloquent solution not only in terms of form as we have seen in Composition N. 12 with Blue but also in terms of color.

 

1 - 1920

2 - 1921

3 - 1932

4 - 1933

5 - 1942

Observe 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 as a single sequence. In 1920 the colored planes had the function of decentralizing and dynamizing a space dominated by a single large white square formed by black lines. The square absorbed color over a span of 20 years (2, 3, 4) and multiplied all over the surface of the canvas in 1942, changing in terms of position, proportions, and relations between the different colors. The single black and white unity of 1920 has undergone interpenetration with manifold space and is now wholly imbued with color and dynamism.

Previously reserved exclusively for planes (1, 2, 3), color was first faintly (4) and then consistently (5) applied to line, at which point Mondrian found himself grappling with compositions in never-ending development. In New York City (5) the dynamic aspect seems to overwhelm the measured aspect previously expressed with planes; infinite space prevails over finite and multiplicity over unity. The eye scarcely has time to identify a more stable relationship before finding itself immersed in the dynamic and continuous flux of lines. Even the segments that had always been present in the previous Neoplastic compositions disappear in 5, which lacks a finite and more durable component to counterbalance the dynamic movement of the lines and thus suggest a certain degree of spatial permanence.

While the need felt after the extreme synthesis reached in 1933 (4) had been to open up the unitary synthesis to multiplicity, it was now necessary to re-establish a greater degree of synthesis and constancy in a space that had undergone considerable multiplication in the meantime and continued uninterruptedly with the lines alone.

This was the starting point for Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie.

 

35 - New York City, 1942

36 - Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43 - Diagram

37 - Victory Boogie Woogie, 1942-44 Unfinished

As explained in the detailed examination, the yellow, red, and blue space of virtually infinite expansion (35) progressively concentrates in a finite dimension of those colors in Broadway Boogie Woogie (36 - Diagram). Victory Boogie Woogie shows rectilinear sequences which are made up of a tighter rhythm of small rectangles and squares, so closely arranged as to reduce the sense of linear continuity to the absolute minimum. The space that continues uninterruptedly in New York City becomes a space of more solid permanence and duration in Broadway Boogie Woogie and even more so in Victory Boogie Woogie where the lines as such almost disappear. An equilibrium between expansion towards manifold infinite space (the natural) and concentration towards finite syntheses (the spiritual) is thus re-established.

 

The concentration of endless lines (35) into a measured plane (36) takes place gradually. I shall now briefly recapitulate this process which is explained in detail here.

 

New York City

New York City Diagram

Broadway Boogie Woogie

The points where lines of different color intersect in New York City are no longer marked by a single homogeneous plane, as happened with the black lines, but instead by the predominance of one color over the other. The colors seem to be on three different planes, with yellow, red, and blue appearing respectively on the first, second, and third. This superimposition creates an equally unexpected and unwelcome three-dimensional effect with which Mondrian could hardly be satisfied, since one of his aims had always been precisely the elimination of any perspective-based illusion of supposed and nonexistent third dimensions in order to express reality in the two real dimensions of painting. The problem arising as from this moment was to bring the three different planes of the yellow, red, and blue back onto a single plane.

The predominance of yellow over red or red over blue is resolved by ensuring that each line allows the perpendicular section covered over to reappear shortly after (see New York City diagram above). A single plane is re-established and the three colors are brought together while preserving their specific qualities: sections of yellow, red, and blue begin to interpenetrate within every line in the shape of small squares and rectangles. This is the ideal genesis of Broadway Boogie Woogie.

 

BBW Diagram A

BBW Diagram B

BBW Diagram C

BBW Diagram D

BBW Diagram E

BBW Diagram F

As seen in the detailed examination, the small squares give rise to symmetries (Diagram B) which generate monochromatic planes (Diagram C); these are transformed into a certain number of two-colored planes (Diagram D) that then become a single plane constituting a synthesis of the three primary colors (Diagram E). The space of Broadway Boogie Woogie undergoes uninterrupted transformation from a condition of multiplicity to one of unity, from the many (Diagram A) to the one (Diagram E).

Beneath the yellow, red and blue synthesis diagram F shows a second plane which presents the same size as the plane above but consists solely of red and gray rather than the three primary colors. The inner space of the plane presents a gray quadrangle and two gray segments, one of which is part of a horizontal line running through the plane. After the synthesis of the primary colors (Diagram E), the colors are again reduced in this red / gray plane and the external dynamism of the lines tends to disrupt the previously attained synthesis which then opens up to external space and flows back toward the more dynamic and variable space of the lines (Diagram F).

The geometry of Broadway Boogie Woogie can therefore be summarized as a dynamic sequence that moves from a multiplicity of lines to the unitary synthesis of a plane and then expands from the unity of a plane toward a multiplicity of lines. From expansion toward increasing concentration and then from concentration back to expansion: this is the way Broadway Boogie Woogie breathes. It is an idea expressed by the painter as early as 1915 in Pier and Ocean 5 with a sign of equivalence enclosed in a square that then opens up again to manifold space above. It is the horizontal which opens up the unity both in 1915 and 1943.
If the horizontal is a plastic symbol of the natural and the vertical of the spiritual, both images tell us that every synthesis generated by thought (the spiritual) is necessarily partial and temporary, and must therefore open up again to the multiform and ever-changing aspect of physical reality and life (the natural).

 

The process observed in Broadway Boogie Woogie, from multiplicity to unity and back to multiplicity, condenses all of Piet Mondrian's work within a single canvas.

His work as a whole is in fact summed up in a pathway that first transforms the manifold aspect of nature (1, 2, 3, 4) :

 

1 - 1893

2 - 1899

3 - 1901

4 - 1907-08

into abstract space (5, 6, 7, 8) :

 

5 - 1912

6 - 1913

7 - 1919

8 - 1920

and then concentrates progressively on unity (9, 10, 11, 12) :


9 - 1927

10 - 1930

11 - 1930

12 - 1933

before opening up again to multiplicity (13, 14, 15, 16) :

 

13 - 1934

14 - 1937-42

15 - 1942

16 - 1942-43

From the many (1 to 7) to the one (8 to 12) and from the one to the many (12 to 16), the pathway stretched over some forty years and can be found encapsulated in Broadway Boogie Woogie. This painting sums up an entire life and it is perhaps no coincidence that this was the last work completed by the artist.

The astounding consistency found in the Dutch master's artistic trajectory brings to mind certain wonderful processes of nature that human thought has to trace back to a precise concatenation of causes and effects, in other words to a designing mind. I do not know whether nature really is based on a "design", but if so then Mondrian, like all true artists, did nothing throughout his life other than act in spontaneous obedience to it. Processes of this nature can certainly not be thought out but only carried through, step by step, following your intuition. If your intuition reaches such depths and succeeds in seeing so far, the results acquire all the astonishing and organic coherence that, it should be recalled, is displayed only upon completion. It is easier for us today to see the entire work as a whole. It was certainly impossible for the painter to take full cognizance of everything he was creating when he let himself be guided by his eye in addressing the canvas with his brushes.

Piet Mondrian's work was the patient pursuit of an image capable by itself of expressing his feeling for life in clear and precise form. It makes no sense to isolate individual paintings from this context, which is a dynamic process with no break in continuity. It is necessary to see the space that slowly evolves from one painting to another: from the dunes, the buildings, and the trees all the way to Broadway Boogie Woogie. It will be necessary one day to hold a great exhibition displaying the work as a whole and explaining its more substantial meanings. We cannot go on showing Mondrian in separate fragments. The exhibitions held so far can be compared to a piece of music with the individual notes played in different places at different times. In the few cases where it has proved possible to gather a substantial and significant group of works together in a single exhibition, full advantage has not been taken of the opportunity to provide insight in this respect.

 

Victory Boogie Woogie is the last painting Mondrian has been working at. The canvas is the same size as the one used for Broadway Boogie Woogie but this time in the lozenge position. What characterizes the composition at first sight is a further increase in multiplicity.

 

Victory Boogie Woogie, 1942-44, Unfinished

 

 

Another difference with respect to Broadway Boogie Woogie consists in the almost complete absence of continuity in the lines, which are reduced to seven horizontal and two vertical rectilinear sequences. The lines appear continuous in Broadway Boogie Woogie because the space between the small squares is predominantly yellow. In Victory Boogie Woogie small planes are laid out in rectilinear sequences whose continuity disappears with changes in the color, size, and position. In Broadway Boogie Woogie the planes are generated by the lines and return to them; in Victory Boogie Woogie lines and planes become one and the same thing.

Mondrian wrote as follows in a note sent to J.J. Sweeney on May 24, 1943: "Only now I become conscious that my work in black, white and little color planes has been merely "drawing" in oil color. In drawing, the lines are the principal means of expression; in painting, the color planes".

in the European Neoplastic compositions the black lines performed the function of drawing and the fields of color the role of painting. Drawing (the lines) controlled painting (the colored planes) from the outside with no participation, and painting accentuated and varied the proportions pre-established by drawing. Drawing and painting, intellect and emotion, engaged in dialogue but kept their distance. Drawing (the black lines) became color in 1941; the drawing is born in paint and the painting is already drawn and when the colored lines became planes with Broadway and Victory Boogie Woogie, there was no longer any distinction between drawing and painting. Thought and emotion became one.

 

While the finite dimension of the planes appears to predominate now, their enormous number and variety tend to evoke an infinite space. The infinite space of the lines is now expressed through the finite space of the planes.
As from 1934, when the compositions gradually opened up once again to complexity and the lines blossomed into color, as a multitude of small squares, the sense of totality displayed in a virtual way only by the endless lines manifested itself in tangible and concrete form within Victory Boogie Woogie. It was as though in this last composition the lines had contracted to draw all of the variety previously ideally situated outside the painting back into the canvas.
The sense of multiplicity or totality previously expressed through the continuity of the lines now appears to be wholly concentrated inside the canvas.

The painter worked in the last few months of his life on compositions of colored rectangles freely juxtaposed on the walls of his studio. This can be interpreted as if the space of the canvas would open up to the space of reality. On the one hand, the objective totality of real world (the space of the lines) returned to the canvas (Victory Boogie Woogie); on the other, the subjective reality of art left the canvas and was transmitted to the world. Either way, the space of art became the space of life.

Victory Boogie Woogie is a sort of spiritual testament containing an exhortation addressed to the artists of the future: painting must be able to transform the discord of the real world into plastic harmonies serving as a model for the future developments of life; art must be able to change the world. Mondrian: "A day will come when we will be able to dispense with all the forms of art as we know them today: only then will beauty have reached maturity to become concrete reality."

Victory Boogie Woogie remains incomplete because every human action aimed at improving the world will necessarily be left unfinished. It is an open process that will never come to an end. This is why this work could not be completed; it is only the first step on an endless path toward a more balanced world. While the painting was not finished, it is to be hoped that it can serve to keep the human spirit awake and accompany it in its pursuit of justice and harmony. It was "aux hommes futures", to future mankind, that Mondrian dedicated an essay on the new plastic art.

 

* * * * *

 

While in no way detracting from the Dutch artist's best-known Neoplastic work, the compositions of black lines and small planes of color commonly understood as his painting, I think I can say that it constitutes no more than a phase along the way in his development of the space that finally came to light in the two last Boogies produced in New York. These are the images that Mondrian had on the tips of his fingers all through his career. The painter worked for an entire lifetime to express this type of space: as rich and manifold as possible in order to reflect the richness and multiplicity he saw in the natural universe but endowed at the same time with the degree of synthesis and unity required by his consciousness and indeed practically always by the human mind in general.
As the artist said with respect to the Pier and Ocean series in 1914-15, "I was struck by the vastness of nature and tried to express its extent, its calm, and its unity."

With the lines which ideally extend beyond the canvas Broadway Boogie Woogie shows a dynamic space of boundless extension that gradually comes to concentrate in a finite and more constant dimension (the unitary synthesis), but not to stop. Life never stops. The equilibrium between life and ideas is dynamic. The unitary synthesis opens up again to all the immense variation of multiplicity and then returns to synthesis. The end of the process coincides with a new beginning in a virtually infinite series of cycles from the many to the one and from the one to the many.

An image in which the end coincides with a new beginning suggests a circular process. An oval? An oval expressed in straight lines?
As early as 1906 and then later during the Cubist phase (1913-15) Mondrian expressed a sense for the totality of natural space with an oval which then became the continuity of straight lines connecting the space of the canvas with the real space of nature. The absolute (the oval form) becomes relative.
Nature too can appear rectilinear (e.g. the horizon of the sea) while proving round from another point of observation. Which is more real, our subjective vision or the objective reality lying beyond our immediate perception of things?
As mentioned, when the endless lines become a virtual infinite variety of planes (Broadway and Victory Boogie Woogie) the totality previously expressed beyond the canvas through the continuity of the lines re-enters the painting. This means that with the last two Boogies the absolute space of the oval re-enters the canvas.

 

Opening unity up to multiplicity without losing sight of it in the process was a goal that appeared crucial to the painter, and this can be understood because subjective unity (the square of Pier and Ocean 5) can only symbolize objective unity, i.e. multiplicity (the oval) by corresponding to it. It appears obvious, however, that this could not be attained simultaneously (as seen in Pier and Ocean 5 where square and oval remain separate entities) but only in a dynamic vision, that is to say, through a process gradually transforming one aspect into the other as seen in Broadway Boogie Woogie.
With the unitary plane that is born out of the endless lines and then returns to them, i.e. with the composition of Broadway Boogie Woogie, the square and oval of Pier and Ocean 5 become one and the same thing that appears sometimes in one form and sometimes in another.

Once again I am reminded of a tree or a flower; a simple patch of color that reveals a whole micro universe.

Multiplicity becomes unity and unity opens up to multiplicity. This is the core of the Neoplastic vision, a dynamic vision and truly new way of perceiving reality.
This is the fundamental idea Mondrian has been trying to express in ever clearer form since the begining of his activity.
Pier and Ocean 5
where a multiplicity of unbalanced small black lines reach equilibrium and unity in a square which then opens up and flows back to multiplicity constitutes the first exhaustive rendering of that fundamental idea. An idea expressed in the brightest colored form 27 years later with Broadway Boogie Woogie.

 

Closer examination shows that the idea of multiplicity being transformed into unity and then back originated even earlier than the Pier and Ocean 5 of 1915.

 

1 - The Red Tree (Evening), 1908-10

2 - Apple Tree in Blue, 1909

3 - Study of Trees, 1912


Observe three versions of the tree (1, 2, 3). The trunk is vertical while the space extends horizontally with the branches. This holds both for 3, where the lower branches are taut and form horizontal lines perfectly orthogonal to the trunk, and for 2 and 1, where the transition from trunk to branches is more gradual and, unlike 3, the branches tend to touch the line of the horizon on the right.

In 1 and 2 the line of the ground runs from one side of the painting to the other and therefore seems to correspond to the uninterrupted space expressed during the same period with dunes, i.e. a boundless horizontal expanse. The line of the ground presents a horizontal sequence of small vertical strokes.
Some of the vertical strokes cluster together and consolidate to form the trunk, from which the multiple branches project before joining up again with the line of the ground on the right. Close observation reveals that this is a circular process. The line of the ground converges in the trunk, the trunk generates the branches, and the branches then return to the original line.

Through the vertical (the trunk), a boundless space that cannot be wholly represented within the canvas (the line of the ground, i.e. the endless natural horizon) becomes a manifold space (the branches) that is expressed as a synthesis inside the painting before flowing back toward the multiple extension of the ground.
Mutatis mutandis
, we see the same thing in Pier and Ocean 5, where the horizontal of the sea is concentrated by the vertical (the pier) into a synthesis (the square) that opens higher up to the horizontal before flowing back toward manifold space; as in Broadway Boogie Woogie, where the virtually infinite space of the lines is concentrated into the unitary synthesis of a plane that then reverts to the infinite extension of the lines.

The objective totality (the uninterrupted continuity of the ground) is transformed through the unifying action of the trunk into a momentary subjective synthesis (the set of branches) that then flows back toward the objective totality out of which it was generated. The objective becomes subjective and then returns to the objective, just like the square of Pier and Ocean 5 and unity of Broadway Boogie Woogie, which express multiplicity in a synthesis and then open up again to multiplicity. The tree is a metaphor of the process that Mondrian described as the subjectivization of the objective, which guided the whole of his work.

The naturalistic tree thus already reveals in wholly embryonic form the process from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity that took shape in abstract - i.e. universal - form six years later (Pier and Ocean 5) and was expressed twenty-seven years later in the world's brightest colors (Broadway Boogie Woogie).
The idea of the tree already containing an implicit reference to a circular process seems to find confirmation in The Red Tree (B), where a circle can be seen in the upper right section, and also in Apple Tree, Pointillist Version, where the whole seems to suggest an oval outline.

 

* * * * *

 

Let us examine here other analogies between Broadway Boogie Woogie and earlier works.

 

Woods near Oele, 1908, Oil on Canvas, cm. 128 x 158

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43

Comparison of these two paintings brings interesting analogies to light. In the painting of 1908 we see a contrast between horizontal and vertical rectilinear thrusts that find an instant of synthesis in the circular form of the sun setting in the upper right section. The painting of 1943 also shows the contrast between opposing lines that find an instant of synthesis in the unitary plane in the upper right section. The sun and the unitary plane occupy the same position within the composition.

 

* * * * *

 

In Broadway Boogie Woogie the color yellow goes from a dynamic and external condition (lines) toward a greater degree of internalization and comparative rest inside the unitary plane. The innermost part of the unity is in fact a yellow area developing a slight horizontal predominance.
The Neoplastic lines (symbolizing a physical reality of infinite extension) concentrate in a plane that corresponds to the finiteness space of thought in man. The natural is concentrated in the spiritual; the spiritual (the vertical plane) reveals a natural soul (the yellow horizontal area).

 

Church at Domburg with Tree, 1909, Oil on Cardboard, cm. 36 x 36

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43

Mondrian painted Church at Domburg with Tree in 1909. Sketched out in quick strokes, the painting presents the façade of a church enclosing the shape of a tree, i.e. a symbol of the natural world inside a symbol of the spiritual. The painting of 1909 appears to act as a sort of memorandum for everything that developed over the next thirty years. In the unitary plane of Broadway Boogie Woogie, the vertical, which Mondrian identified with the spiritual, internalizes a horizontal (which the artist identified with the natural) in yellow, a color that stands for external space in Broadway Boogie Woogie. In 1909 the church internalized a tree.

 

* * * * *

 

Something similar is expressed in more structured form in another painting of a church façade Church Tower at Domburg, which the artist produced in 1911.

 

Church Tower at Domburg, 1911, Oil on Canvas, cm. 75 x 114

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43

The architectural volume of a bell tower rises from the bottom to the top of the canvas, changing as it does so from indigo (the ground) to shades of cobalt purple (the lower part of the building) and magenta hues (the middle and upper section) that contrast visibly with the colors of the sky. The latter is green scattered with touches of cerulean blue. Magenta and green express the maximum contrast between the closed volume of the building and the open space of the sky.

In the lower left section, the vertical volume of the building expands horizontally with an architectural offshoot that detaches itself from the tower and descends at an angle toward the ground. Analogously, a compact mass colored blue on the right seems designed to mediate between the vertical of the building and the horizontal of the ground. The lower part of the building presents two windows, one set in the lateral offshoot to the left and one in the center of the tower. The two windows are similar in size and color. Moving upward, we first see two smaller windows and then another pair of the same size as those we left at the bottom. The two windows are now closer to one another than those below. Both are now set inside the vertical body.

With respect to the two windows below, those above present a lighter color (a turquoise blue) seen as an intermediate value between the green and the blue of the sky. It is almost as though the external space of the sky were internalized in the vertical body of the bell tower, concentrated in those two windows. The natural (the sky) is internalized in the spiritual (the tower). Seen as separate and distant in the lower section, the pair of windows are closer higher up, as though brought together by the vertical development of the bell tower; the vertical concentrates and joins what the horizontal of the ground expands and distances (as in the dunes).

All this constitutes an embryo of Pier and Ocean 5, where an analogous development can be seen four years later in abstract form with a vertical (the pier) that interacts with a horizontal (the sea), to generate a synthesis (a square) in which the spiritual (vertical) concentrates the natural (the horizontal expanse of the sea).

Analogously to what can be seen in Pier and Ocean 5, a horizontal drive also acts in the upper section of Church Tower at Domburg to open up the synthesis generated by the vertical.
At the top of the bell tower we can in fact see another pair of narrower windows that appear to be covered by an architectural element. With respect to the pair of windows below, which are turquoise blue, those at the top appear somehow blank.
They are in fact a darker blue or indigo not dissimilar from what can be seen at the bottom, where the two windows are set at a distance. Some fragments of cerulean sky overlap with the upper edges of the building to express a horizontal predominance that seems intent on opening up the vertical shape of the bell tower, as though thus allowing the quantity of turquoise concentrated in the two central windows to flow back out.

 
 

Pier and Ocean 5 , 1915 - Diagram

On rereading this sequence from the bottom up, we see two vertical elements transposed into the horizontal (the two windows near the ground) that come together under the concentrating effect of the vertical body, which brings the external space of the sky inside the building, and then open up again to the pressure of the horizontal, allowing the space to flow back from the interior toward the exterior (the blank windows). First external space is internalized and then internal space is externalized. The natural becomes spiritual and then reverts to natural.

* * * * *

 

The tryptic Evolution shows a similar process of interiorization of the exterior and externalization of the interior.

 

 

Evolution, 1911, Oil on Canvas, Central Panel cm. 87,5 x 183 Side Panels cm. 85 x 178

 

Between 1900 and 1911 Mondrian produced a series of works that are normally described as symbolist.
These are mainly female figures in attitudes of contemplation or devotion with one or two flowers as symbols of purity and equilibrium.


 

1

2

3

The two flowers on the shoulders of the mature woman in 2 or the flower gazed upon by the child in 3 are thus supposed to symbolize a process of inner purification.

These are works that show Mondrian's sensitivity toward themes of a more universal nature and constitute a prelude to his later interest in the theosophical doctrine.
This was to inform works such as Evolution but constituted no more than a phase of transition toward the development of a wholly visual language.
As Seuphor says, "The development of Mondrian's religious thought can therefore be summarized as follows: Calvinism is superseded by theosophy, which is itself absorbed (after 1916) by the New Plasticism called upon to express everything wordlessly."

Mondrian often had conversations with his friend Albert van den Briel on themes of a spiritual character in this period. He read Edouard Schurè's book on the "Great Initiates", one of the few he was to keep with him all through his life, it being his habit to give books away after reading them so as to increase the circulation of good ideas. Schurè's initiates were those capable of perceiving the universal truths concealed behind the changing appearances of everyday life.

Evolution consists of three rectangular panels of vertical proportions juxtaposed to form a triptych. The central panel is slightly raised with respect to those on either side, which has been interpreted as a sign of its greater importance. The painting represents three fundamental stages in the spiritual evolution of a human being.
The figure seems to be a woman but is in actual fact devoid of any female characteristics and should more probably be seen as a symbol of the human being, i.e. both male and female.

 

 

 

As noted above, the subject of a female figure with two flowers had already figured in previous works. In this case, the flowers become geometric shapes that I shall, however, continue to call flowers. The critics have interpreted the painting as follows:

The work is to be read starting with the panel on the left and continuing with the one on the right before finishing off with the one in the middle.

The panel on the left represents the human condition in the stage of life that is still lived unconsciously, following the emotional urges of the moment rather than any clear inner vision. The face is in fact shown in a state of slumber. The red color of the two flowers evokes the sphere of the passions. The black triangles seen in the center of the two red flowers are pointing downward to indicate the earth.

The panel on the right represents the awakening of the spirit. The two flowers are lightened with yellow and the black triangles become white and point upward.
Finally, the figure with open eyes in the central panel represents the attainment of fully conscious life.

Reading from left to right and then returning to the center, we thus see the evolution of a human being from a condition in which life is lived "blindly", so to speak, to a condition of full self-awareness. I believe that while this interpretation is essentially correct, it does not wholly correspond to what is seen in the painting.


 

 

Evolution - Diagram A

While I agree that we should start from the panel on the left and interpret it as stated above, I see the second stage of the process, i.e. the phase of awakening, as represented by the central panel rather than the one on the right, which would instead represent the conclusion of the process of evolution.

If we observe the two stylized flowers on either side of the face in all three panels, we note that in the first panel they are red and irregular in shape with an upward-pointing apex in contrast to the clearly visible downward-pointing black triangle in the middle (diagram A).

In the central panel the two red flowers become white halos of a circular shape with two juxtaposed white triangles above them. These two triangles can be seen as originating from those in the previous panel, where the black triangle (pointing downward) predominates with respect to the red field that evokes an embryonic triangle pointing upwards. Although it is pointing upward, the latter remains emprisoned by the red. In the second panel the two triangles emerge from the "flower" and assume the same color, thus acquiring the same value in the eyes of the figure. A triangle pointing down alludes to matter while a triangle pointing up indicates spirit. There is an equivalence of matter and spirit, body and mind, the moment of enlightenment.

In the third panel, finally, the two triangles become yellow and interpenetrate to form a six-pointed star, thus indicating a synthesis and unity between upper and lower, the earth and the heavens, matter and spirit.

The progressive interpenetration of the triangles shows that the central panel is not the last stage but rather phase of transition in a process moving from a condition of duality (the first panel) toward the synthesis and unity of opposites (the third panel).
A small white triangle pointing upward can be seen inside the six-pointed star, just as two faint white triangles can be seen pointing upward in the round halos of the central panel. This is probably meant to express a predominance of the spiritual with respect to the natural, which is considered necessary for human life.


 

 

 

During the phase of enlightenment (the central panel), the yellow space around the head seems to converge toward the stomach of the figure as though to establish communication between the spiritual vision and the more humoral and visceral part. This panel represents attainment of the unity of mind and body.

The duality of spirit and matter is faintly perceived in the first panel, where the sharply defined black triangle points downward and an embryonic red triangle points upward somewhat less forcefully. It then appears with greater clarity and luminosity with the two white triangles openly juxtaposed in the second panel.
In the third panel it is finally resolved in a unitary synthesis (the yellow stars).

That the third panel expresses a synthesis of the first two can also be deduced from other details.

 

 

The two nipples and the navel are represented by triangular shapes that point downward in the first panel and upward in the second before combining in the third to form a rhombus, i.e. a geometric shape made up of two triangles (one pointing upward and the other downward) joined together.

While the eyes are again closed in the right-hand panel, the face is not tilted backward as strongly as in the first.
The expression of the face in the left-hand panel shows a lack of consciousness, whereas the face on the right seems to suggest a secret awareness acquired in the moment of enlightenment and then internalized. The fact that this is a process of internalization is also indicated by the yellow field in the central panel and its concentration in the two stars of the third panel, which make the awareness achieved visible.

The color of the body also changes. The blue in the left panel is warmer than in the central panel and even more so with respect to the one on the right, where the blue appears the coldest of all. While this is certainly related to the need to balance the red with a warmer shade of blue, I believe that it also stems from a desire to express a gradual movement of inner space toward the outside (the yellow and the cerulean blue of the central panel are in fact external space with respect to the figure) and, conversely, from the outside toward the inside with the yellow of the central panel concentrating in the two stars of the right panel, which, as noted above, represent inner life. There is an externalization of interiority from the left to the center (with the warmer blue moving from the body of the figure to the outside) and then an internalization of exteriority from the center to the right (with the outer yellow concentrated in two stars symbolizing interiority).

Externalization of the inner and internalization of the outer: this is essentially the process that every human being carries out during life.
Externalizing the inner means taking cognizance of oneself and becoming aware of one's unconscious or real nature. Internalizing the outer means learning from one's experience of the world. I am therefore inclined to read the process of evolution as the representation of the transition from a condition devoid of consciousness (left panel) to awareness (central panel), a mental vision (the eyes wide open) that is then introjected and assimilated in the right panel, where the vision thought becomes a vision felt, a vision of the spirit that sees everything with no more need to look.

No one lives in a permanent state of enlightenment. This cannot be so even for the most inspired mystics. There is the moment of clear vision and then abandonment to what has been understood, abandonment to a faith that no longer needs to see in order to believe.

I suppose that the purpose of the raised position of the central panel is to indicate a moment of particular spiritual intensity that Mondrian - but not only Mondrian - identifies with the vertical. The vertical thrust contrasts with the horizontal sequence of the three panels and therefore reinforces the reading from left to right.
The act of raising does not serve the central panel so much as the one on the right, where the figure is concentrated within itself. By opposing the horizontal sequence, the vertical thrust strengthens its last stage, namely the moment of concentration within oneself.

 

* * * * *

 

The process of interiorization of the exterior and externalization of the interior originated in1908 and became one of the leitmotiv of his entire oeuvre:

 

1908-10

 

1909

 

1911

 

1911

 

1915

From The Red Tree (Evening) (1908-10) to Church at Domburg with Tree (1909) to Church Tower at Domburg (1911), Evolution (1911), and then Pier and Ocean 5 (1915) all the way to Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), the same idea of external space that becomes internal and then flows back toward the outside is expressed with ever-increasing clarity.

This means that Broadway Boogie Woogie no longer speaks to us solely of a church, a human figure or a pier against the background of the sea but of all these things and others too. Abstracting from the particular and contingent aspect of things, Broadway Boogie Woogie evokes a universal vision of reality.

Tracing the relations between these works helps us to understand the need for the process of abstraction. This is what changes and what does not change in the transition from the naturalistic (figurative) vision to the abstract. The artist described life as continued examination of the same thing in ever-greater depth.

 

 

1942-43

 

* * * * *

 

The regular schemata used by Mondrian during the evolution of his work served to support the construction and definition of the new space that was slowly taking shape. Having taken the steps he felt necessary, the artist freed himself from the schemata just as a building is freed from the scaffolding that served to support it during the various phases of its construction.

 

1 - 1913

2 - 1915

3 - 1919

4 - 1920

The center of the composition, which had always been the key point for manifestation of the unitary synthesis (1, 2, 3, 4), lost its importance in Broadway Boogie Woogie.

 

 

1 - 1919

2 - 1919

3 - 1919

4 - 1920

The regular layouts and proportional modules used to curb the uncontrolled development of form (1, 2, 3, 4) dissolved along the way.

 

 

In the last two Boogies everything is in a state of becoming. One thing calls another and the first two become a third that gives birth to a process in which the only fixed elements are the orthogonal relationship and the five colors. All the rest is a free and unforeseeable development of forms differing from one another.

 

Broadway Boogie Woogie

Victory Boogie Woogie

Mondrian's pictorial evolution shows that, contrary to common belief, the artist had no intention whatsoever of forcing existing reality into rigid geometric schemata but rather of making his geometry as open and flexible as possible. In the last two works every form is born, grows and develops as every natural form does. As in natural space, nothing lasts forever; no entity is pre-established but becomes such in that particular situation, in that particular positional relationship with respect to the other forms undergoing reciprocal determination.

Every point of Broadway Boogie Woogie is unique and unforeseeable but, at the same time, part of a process that brings all of the elements together like a universal rhythm. A fluid space that gives concrete form to becoming more than being, to relations more than the individual things in themselves; a geometry that is anything but rigid, cold, or exclusively rational; a space that strikes me instead as very similar to life. Neoplastic geometry has very little in common with the rather antiseptic geometric approach of certain forms of concrete art in the second half of the 20th century. Mondrian strove throughout his career to adapt the potentially schematic and reductive forms of the human mind to the far broader variety and variability of existence so as to maintain equilibrium between thought and nature.

Neoplastic space is born out of a vision that takes into due consideration the non-rational aspects of life and is therefore capable of generating a geometry that we can describe as organic but that is nevertheless expressed in the clear and precise forms of rational thought. Neither aspect must ride roughshod over its opposite. This is typical of the artist's way of proceeding: attaining a certain degree of control and synthesis and then opening up again to variability while always seeking to maintain a certain balance between the two aspects.

Victory Boogie Woogie shows that the lines themselves - a crucial element of Neoplastic space for over twenty-five years - were no longer necessary.
It is difficult to imagine geometry more flexible than this, so free in its innermost spirit as to reformulate itself continuously. It is precisely this aspect that was misinterpreted by those who accused the painter of betraying the Neoplastic rules in his last period, those who described Broadway Boogie Woogie in terms of crazed geometries. These people have failed to understand the true nature of Piet Mondrian's visual thought. He has been criticized by some for his allegedly schematic approach and by others for abandoning rules and schemata. It often happens to truly free spirits to find themselves on the outside between one flock and another.

Mondrian chose his rules and schemata in complete freedom and followed them for just as long as he considered necessary. This is true freedom. In art, as in life, freedom is not the absence of rules, contrary to what some people believe. Freedom means being able to choose rules that are in any case necessary.

 

* * * * *

 

The distinction between color and non-color drawn by Mondrian in the early 1920s had also disappeared by 1943, when everything had become color.

As I have already pointed out, the transition from black to colored lines was certainly helped by the colored tape that Mondrian found available in New York City, even though it was not the tape that generated a change that had been ripening for years. Nevertheless, as often happens, the availability of a new technical resource influences the creative processes, making as yet untested solutions possible. Le Corbusier said that "technology extends the boundaries of poetry".
I can imagine the freedom with which the painter "traced" the colored lines on the white surface of the canvas, feeling free to move them at will and therefore to try out the entire composition repeatedly without being overly tied to any definitive solution. Once it had been decided that the whole worked, the tape would give way to oil paint, but a great deal could still change also in this phase.

Henri Matisse did the same thing with his paper cutouts, working on the composition by pinning up pieces of colored paper provisionally. The difference was that the French artist then glued the same pieces of paper directly onto the canvas. The precious hand-made Montgolfier paper he used is unfortunately no longer available.

 

* * * * *

 

There are deep and inexplicable reasons underlying our spontaneous reactions to colors. Certain chromatic relations resolved in a certain form acquire far greater value for us than would derive from their simple juxtaposition. In that added value - capable of transforming matter into sensation and feeling into a vision of the world - lies the art of a truly great painter. It cannot be explained why certain relations of form and color arouse a sense of harmony in us and why this harmony proves still more credible when it is challenged. In the twinkling of an eye, without knowing how or why, our mind can distinguish a plausible pattern of forms from others in which there are either too many things or something appears to be missing. On reflection, it is perhaps truer to say that we do not all possess these abilities and a great deal unquestionably depends also on cultural factors. The ability to see is not, however, necessarily linked to education. I know people endowed with innate talent in this respect.

Nature appears to us as an infinite sequence of colored surfaces and volumes. Cézanne said that "reading nature meant seeing it beneath the veil of interpretation through patches of color that follow one another in accordance with a harmonious law."

Even if it wished to do so, art could never duplicate the beauty of nature. It can, however, use its own means to create an equally true beauty.
Abstraction means abandoning the easy path of imitation and assuming the responsibility of recreating an image of the world with the real and concrete ingredients available to us as painters, i.e. with forms and colors that interact on a two-dimensional surface; just as a musician has a pentagram and seven notes that vibrate in the air and a poet has words.

As Apollinaire noted, "geometry is for the visual arts what grammar is for poetry."

Cézanne: "Everything in nature is modeled on the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder. We must learn to paint on these simple figures, and then we will be able to do whatever we want."

The perpendicular relationship and the three primary colors used by Mondrian are obvious abstractions of natural reality just like the sphere, cone, and cylinder mentioned by Cézanne. Yellow, red, and blue together with white and gray are a synthesis of the infinite number of colors present in nature. They nonetheless serve the Dutch painter in order to evoke the complexity of the world in the most living and contrasting forms but, at the same time, in the clearest and most concise way possible. The perpendicular relationship constitutes an initial axiom, as it were, a starting point from which to set space in motion and express the variability of appearances without losing sight of the essence.


* * * * *

 

Mondrian can seem rigorous, sometimes perhaps excessively so. It must, however, be borne in mind that his inner world was so rich and full of subtle shades that he perceived every single thing in relation to other things. Everything was constantly changing and some cornerstone must be established in a world of things in a state of becoming. As he said, "But what will give us a foothold in all these relations? In this variability of relations there is an immutable relationship; it expresses itself plastically through the orthogonal position, and this gives us plastically a foothold." Once the "foothold" has been found, it will be possible to vary all the rest. The orthogonal position is not the form of things as they appear to us at once but rather a "visual device" permitting infinite relations between things and us.

It is depressing to think of those who really thought that Mondrian saw reality in perpendicular terms.

In his pursuit of a new plastic art, the painter progressively identified the spiritual with the vertical and the natural with the horizontal in order to create a relational space in the two dimensions of the canvas between what he, like every human being, felt to be contrasting realities. This should not, however, be taken as an attribution of objective value. The vertical could function equally well as a symbol of the natural, in which case the horizontal would come to symbolize the spiritual.

Natural space is of course presented to the eye as a boundless horizontal expanse whereas the vertical aptly expresses the human desire to concentrate the variety of the physical world ideally, conceiving it as a whole. A vertical thrust expresses mankind's atavistic propensity to imagine the spiritual as an invisible reality extending toward the ethereal space of the heavens rather than remaining bound to the everyday matter spread out before our eyes. All this may have influenced the artist in his attribution of meaning, but not to any great extent. After all, Mondrian's aim was to express an equivalence of spirit and matter, interior and exterior.

Horizontal and vertical have no inherent value in Neoplastic space. They serve as visual metaphors of the duality present in the human mind, the symbol of natural forces that clash with one another to generate all the variety of the world. On thinking for a moment about our common experience of life, we realize that the preliminary choice of "straight" paths enables us to move more easily through the unpredictable twists and turns of existence. It is through "lines" that the designing mind, out of which science and technology are generated, expresses itself. This does not, however, alter the fact that lines are successfully used in Broadway Boogie Woogie to express a vision of greater breadth rising from the particular and the precise to the universal and the imponderable.

Humanistic thought and scientific thought will never be brought together unless we succeed in expressing the unpredictable and indeterminate aspect of nature and human existence with determinate means of expression. In no way does this mean reducing everything to the rational sphere. Mondrian’s work demonstrates that a clear and precise alphabet does not make it impossible to express the mysterious as long as one has a broader vision of things and the ability to place that alphabet at its service. We are reminded of Italo Calvino's remark about "expressing the indefinite with the definite and the inexact with the utmost precision."

The perpendicular lines of Neoplastic space are not designed to create a "cross" or what certain North American critics call a "grid". They should not be seen as the representation of an object but as the expression of a dynamic flow encompassing every possible object viewed from every possible position.
Mondrian: "Everything is expressed through relations. Color, size, and position exist only through opposition to a different color, size, and position. This is why I call the relationship the fundamental element. (...) Each thing becomes knowable only through another, as every form of wisdom teaches us."
An abstract painting is still viewed in naturalistic (figurative) terms; abstraction is regarded with great superficiality as one of the many possible styles or schools of modern art. The truest and deepest meaning of the process of abstraction that revolutionized the language of European painting during the first half of the 20th century has yet to be understood on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

We shall also have to wait some time in the Old World for people to stop seeing Neoplastic lines solely as rigid reticular structures and sterile geometric schemata. These schemata are in actual fact located in their own minds: when they are careful not to give way too much to emotion; when they endeavor to control the unpredictable flux of existence by meticulously planning every aspect of their lives. The inner lives of certain human beings are so controlled that when they turn to look at art, they prefer forms of visceral expression. They cannot bear to add one more straight line to all the ones already present in their heads. Art becomes an escape from themselves and from reality. I instead believe that art must tackle reality in all its aspects.

Neoplasticism urges us to consider the human being as a whole, simultaneously visceral and rational, in order to find equilibrium between the contradictory aspects of the life, between instinct and reason, nature and thought. I am afraid that time and a great deal of teaching will still be needed to make people understand the degree of mental openness and emotional transport that should actually be involved in the enjoyment of a Neoplastic composition.

The orthogonal lines and primary colors are an act of autonomy and freedom of thought with respect to nature, not an imposition. Though it might at first seem an arbitrary and restrictive choice with respect to the natural world, the Neoplastic language then strives to reformulate as exhaustively as possible the real and not merely apparent characteristics of natural space, or rather the characteristics of the relationship between thought and nature, finally treating the two aspects as essential components of a single and indissoluble process.


* * * * *

 

As we were saying, the abstract language enables the Dutch painter to represent the broadest range of variation without getting lost in the outward appearances of countless things that fragment the consciousness and prevent an overall vision. As Mondrian put it, "art should express the universal." Harassed as we are by the frenzied pace of life, we have lost the capacity to consider questions of greater breadth. We have reached the point of being ashamed to talk about universal issues.

Painting means first of all observing the world, breathing in all of its forms and colors, and transforming that infinite variety into the most concentrated forms of thought.
A realistic or, if you prefer, a figurative artist, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, said: "It is not real truth that I must represent in the painting but ideal truth. The conflict of these two forms of truth in the mind of the artist who produces the work ensures that it will remain incomplete. Artists who stick too close to reality in their pursuit of truth fail to achieve their objective. It is through the sacrifice of real truth that ideal truth is attained."

This has always been so, in the painting of the ancient Egyptians as in Byzantine, medieval, and Renaissance painting. Every work of art is the creation of a finite field of relations that seek to evoke the far more complex and elusive relations perceived in the space of real life.

When we observe a landscape, be it natural or urban, space continues uninterruptedly far beyond our visual field with a virtually infinite series of different shapes and colors. The observer's consciousness can only contemplate that infinite variety simultaneously by breaking it down into parts and reducing it to more unified wholes. With its initial perception and then with the construction of scientific theories, philosophical systems, and forms of artistic expression, human thought has always endeavored to break down into finite wholes and unitary structures what actually exists in natural physical space and life as a far richer and more complex variety of interconnected and simultaneous phenomena.

Without realizing it, we address relations between unity and multiplicity every day, e.g. every time we summarize something that strikes us as unduly complex. We create a relationship between the parts and the whole both when we strive to see all the different facets of reality and when we are driven by emotion to trace everything back to a few elements and make generalizations. Though aware that the reality is far more complex, we often tend to make narrow, summary judgments. The reality before us is always more complex than our descriptions but we cannot always concentrate on it and investigate every single aspect in depth, not least because every single aspect is in fact an infinite reality in itself. This has always been true and is even more so today given the level of complexity attained by modern societies. I therefore believe that the question of the one and the many is one of the most relevant to the present day.

Nor is this something purely intellectual. We often experience a drive for concentration when rational explanations give way to an urge that transforms all the complexity and fragmentation of a vision thought into the almost absolute synthesis of a vision felt. When we fall in love, for example, the whole of our fragmented daily life seems to come together in a concentrated form of energy that makes us feel in harmony with the world. Here too we can talk of multiplicity becoming unity.

Every description we formulate of the world is a process of transposing the infinite physical reality into a finite series of mental constructs that we can use to observe, examine, and establish relations between different things. Physical reality is to be understood both as the macrocosm outside us and as the microcosm out of which our very individuality is constituted. It must, however, be remembered that these constructs are abstractions of the real phenomena, which are always far more complex than our ideas. We have been aware ever since Immanuel Kant that we can know our representations of phenomena but not phenomena in themselves. Nevertheless, we identify our mental symbols with physical phenomena out of habit and take our ideas as reality for the sake of convenience. Every era and every civilization or culture has its own ideas about the reality of things.

While we do our utmost to give precise shape to our ideas, things change slowly and we change with them. Like every other expression of human thought, all of the arts construct symbols that evoke reality but - as it should be recalled, obvious though it may seem - are not reality. This is what René Magritte meant when he painted a realistic pipe in 1926 and entitled the work Ceci n'est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe). He used this paradox to tell us that the pictorial image of an object, no matter how faithfully it may be produced, is not the object itself. Presenting just one single aspect of a certain thing, the image abstracts from its reality, which is far more complex and multiform.

No canvas or human mental construct can ever represent the reality of the world except through a synthesis of its multiform appearance, i.e. by abstracting just some of its many possible aspects. In point of fact, a realistic (figurative) painting of a landscape, a human figure or a vase of flowers is also an abstraction, albeit one to which we are accustomed and that does not therefore disturb us in the same way as a more evidently abstract painting. Many claim that they can understand a naturalist (figurative) painting with ease but cannot decipher an abstract painting. What they actually mean is perhaps that they can recognize familiar things in the former but have to grapple with things never seen before in the latter. Does recognizing things you have seen before mean understanding the art of painting?

How many of those looking at an example of Impressionist painting - which everyone "understands" nowadays - succeed in seeing and appreciating the accuracy of the composition and the felicitous sequence of colors? How many succeed in following the measured and joyous rhythm of the forms that interweave, separate, and meet again, concentrating the space and opening it up again in new forms to the deep breath of life?

The creation of a work of art worthy of the name requires a great deal of talent in the choice of colors and compositional ability, regardless of whether the painting is to be figurative or abstract. What makes the difference is the quality of the means of expression. This holds also for the painting of a face. This is what Cézanne said with reference to the critics: "I would like to see them here, all the ones who write about us, in front of your ugly mug and me fumbling with my tubes of paint and brushes... They are a thousand miles away.. And you can imagine how little they know that you can make a mouth sad or a cheek smile by combining a shade of green with a red ."

The secret real content of painting is its own form.

 

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Sixty years after the death of Piet Mondrian, we still find ourselves halfway between a system that is old but still real for many, namely naturalistic or figurative painting, and a newer and more functional system used by a growing number of people that is not yet capable of constituting a tried and tested language, a canon serving as a yardstick to establish what the art of painting consists in today. Has the time perhaps come to sketch out a code for the new form of painting? What can we take as the grammar and syntax of the new space? I am obviously not referring solely to painting as traditionally understood but also to the whole range of expressive possibilities offered by the new techniques of visual representation.

Even though I believe that the new space depends to a great extent on the work of Piet Mondrian, a code for the new painting will not be based solely on Neoplasticism as handed on to us by the Dutch painter. I am also thinking of Matisse's last period and his masterly use of color, Mark Rothko's vibrant textures, the "repetitions" or variations introduced by Andy Warhol, and the spontaneous, uninterrupted continuity of space evoked by Jackson Pollock. As a matter of fact, I do not believe it necessary to paint like Mondrian in order to produce true abstract art.

To give just one example, consider the work of an unknown Zen painter of the 18th century, which appears at first sight to be the very antithesis of a Neoplastic work.

It is a painting of a circle that opens up again just when it is about to close, a circular process where the end coincides with a new beginning, as in Broadway Boogie Woogie.

Unlike the geometry constructed by Mondrian, that of the Japanese artist requires a rapid gesture of the hand. But how much practice was needed before such a well-formed circle could be painted in one go. It is an open and imprecise circle that resembles nature and at the same time manifests the striving for perfection typical of human thought, a circle that expresses our idea of a universal cycle of life but with the spontaneity that life alone possesses.

The circle seems to contain all the impermanence of the moment within itself while nevertheless striving for almost absolute fulfillment, a circle in a state of becoming balanced between the everyday and the eternal.

Like Broadway Boogie Woogie, this image is again capable of evoking the unity of all things, a unity that can only be attained through a dynamic vision. That gesture, as fast as lightning, seems to enclose the secret of life itself. While a circular process evoking the cycles of nature is generated in both images, in one case (the circle of the Japanese artist) it is a matter of immediate intuition that captures unity without too much concern for its manifold aspect.
Broadway Boogie Woogie
instead presents a mediated vision that proceeds through a variety of particular forms, all differing from one another, before showing how they belong intrinsically to a unitary process. The image that takes the form of a spontaneous gesture in the Japanese painter is broken down in Mondrian and arranged in a complex pattern of forms that are developed, juxtaposed, and finally brought together.

In their very different ways, both images celebrate the dynamic and unpredictable spontaneity of life. Both are sacred visions of life, but the Zen painting tends toward a mystical and absolute mode of expression while Broadway Boogie Woogie endeavors to organize itself, to explain itself, and to assume the relative nature always possessed by our fragmented experience of reality.

I wish to make it clear that the spontaneity I am talking about corresponds to the most advanced stage of a long and patient exercise of discipline that must be completed before you can let go without missing the "target". Matisse: "Novice painters think they are painting from the heart. Artists at the peak of their development also think they are painting from their heart, but they alone are right, because the training and discipline they have imposed upon themselves enable them to accept its impulses."

 

 

Another example of true abstract painting (even though the title could prove misleading here too) is a work that Matisse produced in 1952. I refer to a cutout or papier découpé: paper colored by the artist (or his assistant, to be more precise) then cut out in accordance with compositional requirements and glued onto canvas.

Every plane has a certain color and assumes its particular shape in relation to the configuration and color of the neighboring planes. As a whole, the planes evoke a circular motion that can also recall the spiral shape of a snail's shell, whence the title L'Escargot.

As pointed out with respect to Broadway Boogie Woogie, this work too should have been given a more neutral title so as to avoid prompting the inexpert observer to see nothing but a snail.

Once again it is an image that seeks to evoke a dynamic unity made up of the most disparate entities. While every surface differs from the others both in shape and in color, they all form part of a unitary process.

As in Broadway Boogie Woogie and the work of the Japanese painter, we again see a circular structure that generates an impression of dynamism and variety while evoking synthesis and unity at the same time.

 

Henri Matisse, L'Escargot, 1952

The extreme synthesis generated in the Zen painting is arranged here in a series of parts. The immediate and very visible circle of the eastern painter becomes a circular motion that takes shape in a more gradual and structured way. Matisse's work can be described as being midway between the almost absolute circle of the Japanese painter and the circular process generated by means of straight lines in Broadway Boogie Woogie. It expresses a degree of multiplicity that is greater than the Zen painting but not so great as Broadway Boogie Woogie. I will not even try to describe the beauty of the colors and the healthy energy that emanates from this masterpiece by the French painter. It is well worth a trip to London and a visit to the Tate Gallery to observe the work at first hand.

 

Broadway Boogie Woogie, a painting by an anonymous Japanese artist, and Matisse's L'escargot: three images that speak to us in their very different ways about the same things. Abstraction does not mean adopting a certain style but rather the capacity to capture the essence of things, each in his or her own way. Through the deft use of shapes and colors, abstract art can evoke the intimate nature concealed behind the changing appearances of life, contemplating it as one might contemplate the immensity of a sea with all its waves, every new wave appearing to be different from all the others but always consisting of water. There is a form of painting that looks to the particular appearance of a few waves and one that is capable of concentrating on the state of becoming of the water and hence of seeing all the possible waves. This presupposes an uncommon sensitivity that succeeds in looking beyond manifold appearance, but also something more, namely the ability to give concrete form to one's inner visions, which requires a great amount of talent if the images are to gladden the eye and be transformed into content that enriches the mind and the spirit.

All this is very rare on the contemporary artistic scene. We are today presented with a great amount of self-styled abstract art that actually has more in common with wallpaper. Even among those prompted by honest intentions, there are very few works of abstract art born out of the fertile observation and distillation of reality.
Most of the time, contemporary abstract painting presents syntheses that prove empty. This is what Matisse said to Verdet about a canvas by Cézanne: "It takes a great deal of analysis, invention, and love to arrive at the simplicity of the bathers you see at the end of the garden. You have to be worthy of them, to deserve them. As I have already said, when the synthesis is immediate, it is schematic, lacking in density and impoverished in expression."

It is not necessary to paint like Mondrian. It is possible to talk about the same things in different ways. But filling a canvas up with just any shapes and colors is not enough to produce a work of abstract art, just as any combination of words or notes is not enough to create a work of literature or music. The beauty and the rightness of certain combinations of color and forms are things that cannot be taught or learned and still less explained in words. They are either there or not there. You either know how to recognize them or you do not. Color has its own inherent expressive strength that a good painter must know how to calibrate, like the notes of a musical composition. Just as the same words can be used in verbal language to come out with nonsense or to construct splendid phrases rich in meaning, so it is with the language of forms and colors. The dictionary is the same but the difference between an image of fully expressed significance and one devoid of sense mainly depends on the use made of that dictionary. In the absence of established rules and canons for the new form of painting, we are today at a primitive stage where everyone thinks themselves capable of creating an abstract work of art. We are actually surrounded by a great mass of illiterates who want to make us believe that they can write poems.

Variations of form become content in Broadway Boogie Woogie, but it is not just any variation of form that can evoke content in the art of painting. There are unfortunately not many people capable of seeing and distinguishing compositions in which form becomes content from ones where content never come to life. And those few no longer count in a society where mass consumption predominates, hence the confusion prevailing in the contemporary artistic panorama.
As always, confusion means a great opportunity for fraud. This is why most of what is put forward as art today does not really possess the qualities one would expect to find in a genuine work of art.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

The method I have used to explain Piet Mondrian's work is based on one of the key ideas underpinning it, namely the relationship between unity and multiplicity. The analysis thus develops from an initial overall survey to detailed examination and then back to an overview of the whole.
More study will still be needed and I am sure that further confirmation will be found. Many other compositions (Victory Boogie Woogie in particular) will have to be painstakingly assessed, explained, and enjoyed. A reading of the explanations will be followed by visits to museums to examine the original works, allowing the eye to reveal all the delights of the painted surfaces transformed by the Dutch painter into authentic wordless discourse about life.
This work is also dedicated to those who truly believe that abstraction can be reduced to a superficial exploration of cold geometry for its own sake. This has, unfortunately, been the case with many, all head and no heart, the type Fausto Melotti referred to as hardworking clerks of abstraction.

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Paul Gauguin wrote these questions on a painted image. Piet Mondrian painted them in colored lines that turn into planes and then back into lines. The content of Mondrian's thought is equivalent to its form. This aspect, which I shall discuss at length in my next work, constitutes what I regard as one of the crucial differences between North American and European culture. I believe that the existential path followed by Mondrian, who was born in the Netherlands and died in New York (a city previously called New Amsterdam), is not wholly a matter of chance. I think he planted a seed that will bear all its fruit in the new world. Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie constitute a bridge between Europe and North America. Time will tell.

Neoplastic geometry demonstrates that it is possible to talk about universal questions without being tied down to absolute and eternal truths. Contrary to the claims of some unimaginative people, "universal" is not necessarily synonymous with "dogmatic".
Neoplastic painting is not a grid of black lines with a few planes of color; it is not even always and necessarily an arrangement of lines, as Victory Boogie Woogie shows. Neoplasticism is a way of conceiving reality that starts from its deepest contradictions. Mondrian sought rest and found it in motion; he pursued the beauty of the external world without losing sight of internal harmony and equilibrium. The work of an entire lifetime served the purpose of giving concrete shape to a feeling for existence, which he perceived in all its aspects, everyday and eternal, particular and universal. I think of all the times I have realized that the reality of the world is actually far richer and more complex than the ideas we form of it. Our peremptory images of reality-either/or, good or bad, black or white-should be opened up to contemplation of all the real gradations in between. I think of Lozenge with Four Yellow Lines becoming Victory Boogie Woogie.

The Neoplastic vision urges us to open up to the manifold aspect of the world both outside and inside, to contemplate all its variety, but without losing our way. This is certainly very difficult in everyday life, where so much fear is aroused in the human mind at the thought of opening up to variety and addressing diversity. All forms of closure, intolerance, and racism are born out of this.

In a world like ours today, where there seems to be no time for anything but first fleeting impressions, it is encouraging to discover that certain concentrated images like Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie can still express all the wisdom of which human beings are capable, when they so wish.

I am sure that Mondrian's two last paintings will become spiritual symbols of the new world that we are now approaching through countless contradictions.


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