How Piet Mondrian’s Abstractions Became a New Way to See the World

Inside his final studio, on East 59th street in New York, Dutch painter Piet Mondrian covered each wall with painted papers cut into crisp rectangles. Mondrian had become famous at the beginning of the 20th century for this signature style: the three primary colors framed by thick bands of black. But in this piece, the colors had been released from their frames, creating a mosaic of pulsing beats, evoking his beloved jazz and the city’s electric grid.

“We must destroy the particular form” was Mondrian’s mantra throughout his life, and he applied that throughout his career, even breaking down the forms that had made him famous. His final two pieces—Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943) and Victory Boogie Woogie (1942–1944)—attempted to do just that, reducing New York to its essence. And with Victory Boogie Woogie, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1944, Mondrian pushed the destruction of his conventions even further, turning the canvas so it became a diamond instead of a square. He conceived the painting in anticipation of the Allied triumph, which he never lived to celebrate.

After his death, friends opened Mondrian’s studio so the public could pay their respects. Photographer Fernard Fonssagrives later wrote of his visit that it was as “if I was able to look at the lost thoughts of the man who had just died. A man obsessed with a vision that was entirely his own. I took my photographs in silence. The only sound came from the traffic on Madison Avenue, but it only accentuated the intimacy and loneliness in the studio, with life outside rushing by.”

Piet Mondrian, Victory boogie woogie, 1942-44

Piet Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie, (1942–44).

Giving Everything Up for Art

At first, Mondrian’s art taken together can give off a certain rigidity or coldness—obsessive, mathematics-based formality endlessly reproduced. But the celebrated modernist’s canvases are in fact stripped to their barest form, as a way to be closer to their spirits, informed by his upbringing.

The artist was born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan in Ameersfoort, near Amsterdam, to a family of artists. Even still, he once said that none of his immediate family had been “willing to give up everything for art,” like he was. His father was a schoolteacher and talented draughtsman; his uncle Frits Mondrian a professional painter.

When it became clear that the young Pieter intended to also become a professional artist, his father tried to dissuade him. He eventually asked his son to at least gain the qualifications to teach, which Mondrian did in 1892 in Amsterdam. Mondrian described his early 20s as full of “hard struggle,” working as a teacher to afford “just enough money to be able to do what I wanted to do”.

His earliest work is rooted in Amsterdam Impressionism, a late-19-century movement inspired by the French style and that emphasized pastoral images. Trees, windmills, rivers, and fields were frequent subject matter, though he struggled to distinguish them from contemporaneous works in the Naturalist style, a reaction against Impressionism. He looked to post-Impressionist artists like Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh as a way forward.

His 1907 painting The Red Cloud was a breakthrough. In the style of Fauvism, it is fiercely colored, depicting a luminous multihued blue sky accented by a dash of reddish-orange at the center of the canvas. The Red Could would represent his first step toward pure abstraction, though his brushstrokes are much looser than that of his mature style.

Piet Mondrian, The Red Cloud, (1907).

Piet Mondrian, The Red Cloud, 1907.

Limited by Figuration

Around this time, Mondrian would continue to create expressive works that evoked artists like Edvard Munch. When he created an image of a withered white chrysanthemum against a black background, he viewed it as a failure.

He wrote later to a friend about the piece, “And as to what you say about the appearance of a flower: you are surprised that I wish to dissect the delicate beauty and transform it into vertical and horizontal lines. I very readily admit your wonder, but it is not my intention to depict the delicate beauty.”

Figuration, no matter how expressive, was limited. Cubism was in full swing in Paris when he arrived in 1911. Once there, he changed his name (dropping the second ‘a’ from his surname), became a regular at the city’s dance clubs (he had already earned the nickname “Dancing Madonna” in the Netherlands), and fell in with the Cubists.

“Of all the abstractionists I felt only the Cubists had discovered the right path,” Mondrian once wrote. He absorbed the work of Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso, and his imagery grew fragmented. He began a new series in which trees are depicted as interlocking geometric shapes.

It was a productive time for him, but eventually he concluded that the Paris experiment lacked imagination. Cubism was too naturalistic, unconcerned with the “logistical consequences of its own discoveries.”

Gray Tree, (1911).

The Style

In 1914, he returned to Holland, unaware that war was on the horizon. The Netherlands remained neutral throughout World War I, resulting in a period of cultural isolation.

During the war, Mondrian stayed at the Laren artists’ colony with Bart van der Leck and van Doesburg, the latter of whom Mondrian would cofound De Stijl (The Style), a journal dedicated to the artistic theory he dubbed neoplasticism and which would spawn its own art movement.

In his manifesto “Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art,” Mondrian defined neoplasticism as finding “its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour.”

In a letter to fellow Dutch artist and critic H.P. Bremmer, Mondrian further elaborated, “Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that.”

It was around this time that he began developing what would become his signature style. His initial post-Cubist experiments consisted of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines in white, black, red, and blue, but he found those “restless.” He moved onto canvases bearing a single black rectangle flanked by rectangles of primary colors, but these were “too static.” At one point he tried just black and white, but felt that the two opposite colors alone couldn’t convey the vitality of nature.

Mondrian returned to Paris in 1918, where he stayed until 1938, constantly fine tuning his grids to reach this goal of finding the truth. By some accounts, he painted uninterrupted until his hands blistered and bled. Soon enough, his studio at Rue du Départ 26 became a destination for artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp, and Diego Rivera, and collectors like Peggy Guggenheim.

Mondrian soon began to fill his mostly white-canvases with taut black bars, which emphasized the depth of the tiny pops of primary colors that dotted the canvases. Over time the lines thinned and extended to the edges of his canvases, with sparse arrangement. The all-black lines gave way to lines in yellows, reds, and blues, overlapping and creating even more depth—and optical illusions that would lead other artists to create Op Art and its descendants in the years to come.

Composition No. 10, (1939–1942).

In 1938, Mondrian was forced to leave Paris after the Nazis labeled his work “degenerate”; the Netherlands would soon be invaded by the Nazis. After a brief stint in London, where he narrowly survived the Blitz, he sailed to New York, where Guggenheim introduced him to the city’s leading artists, most of whom were already admirers of his.

Mondrian’s artistic experiments end on an illuminating, if frustrating, note. The austere black lines last appear in Composition No. 10 (1939–1942), abandoned in favor of adjoining rectangles punctuated by large pops of color and cream. The threads he had struggled to reconcile in his paintings seemingly settled, he envisioned even further experiments. Before his death, Mondrian wrote, “True Boogie Woogie I see as similar in intention to mine: destruction of melody (natural aspect) construction through continuous oppositions of pure means.”

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