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Michael Rossiytsev

11/13/17
BIS 209
Art Research Paper

Mondrian’s Universal Beauty: Piet Mondrian’s Growth in the Context of Abstraction

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was a dancer, jazz enthusiast, mathematician and an artist. As an

artist, Stoye states that Mondrian developed art according to the artistic periods he lived through

while merging all his prior experiences into a piece of art. 1 Mondrian exhibited works during the

impressionism, post-impressionism, favism, and cubism eras until he finally distinguished his

own art style, one he is most famous for, that he coined as Neoplasticism. Neoplasticism, like

Bentkowska-Kafel states, avoids popular conventions in art by strictly defining “black

perpendicular lines,” projecting only primary colors, nonrepresentational figures and essentially

strips content to its bare minimum.2 Bentkowska-Kafel continues to describe that Mondrian’s

attempt in Neoplasticism was to reduce “components [to] a more elementary, mechanistic

level.”3 Neoplasticism is Mondrian’s attempt at, what Stokstad states as, a “universal beauty”4

that all artists can admire. Since his earliest works Mondrian has always depicted a form of

abstraction, but it is Mondrian’s continuous progress from figurative art into geometric

abstraction that has claimed him to be one of the most important twentieth-century artists.

The artifacts that exemplify Mondrian’s title and spirituality are presented throughout this

passage: Lonely Tree at the Gein Sun, Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, The Gray Tree,

1
Stoye, Jurgen. "Piet Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie, 1942-44: The Painting as Illustration of the Biography of
Landscape." In Landscape Biographies: Geographical, Historical and Archaelogical Perspectives on the
Production and Transmission of Landscapes (Amsterdam: Stoye, Jurgen, 2015), 235-52.
2
Bentkowska-Kafel, Anna, Hugh Denard, eds., Paradata and Transparency in Virtual Heritage. (Farnham: Taylor
& Francis, 2012), 115.
3
Ibid.
4
Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael W. Cothren. Art History: Eighteenth to Twenty-First Century Art. (Upper Saddle
River: Pearson Education, 2014), 1052.

1
Composition 10 in black and white, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, and Victory Boogie-

Woogie.

Living through impressionism (beginning around late 1860s) and inspired by Vincent van

Gogh, Kandel explains that Mondrian’s artwork began with “landscapes, farms, and windmills.”5

His work aligned quite significantly with the impressionist movement in a variety of ways and

Lonely Tree at the Gein Sun (oil on canvas, 1907, figure 1) illustrates such alignment. The

entire composition consists of a landscape in an area in the Netherlands called Gein. Gein has a

windmill that Mondrian portrays in another one of his impressionist-style pieces around the same

time as Lonely Tree at the Gein Sun (Windmill in the Gein) so it becomes clear that Mondrian is

familiar with the scenery he is depicting. Like other impressionists, Mondrian painted the scene

outdoors and not with imagination and memory. There is a mixture of color varying between

green, grey, and blue. The colors all vary in brightness as well and an implication of a light

source is developed because of this. On the painted water, there are rough silhouettes of the trees

shadows represented in darker tone of blue than the surrounding blue. Strangely, the tall tree near

the center of the painting has two shadows reflected on the water. Impressionists would often

paint scenes throughout the day, so their light source and shadows would move as the artists was

painting. Mondrian uses a Dionysian brush strokes and a wide-open space for all the objects in

his painting. However, to the left of the piece the tree is not painted in full and is cut off from the

viewers point of view which was a technique that is commonly influenced by photography.

Mondrian continues to paint trees in different styles throughout his career exhibiting the art style

and his philosophical standing of the time. Lonely Tree at the Gein Sun represents Mondrian’s

5
Kandel, Eric R.. Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the two Cultures. (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2016), 77.

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core, abstract personality that he expresses through his later works because impressionism does

not depict reality as detailed as possible but rather is an abstraction of objects through time

depicted in multiple light sources over time. Though minimal, Mondrian’s abstract practices in

Lonely Tree at the Gein Sun helped spark the beginning of the nonrepresentational abstraction

that grows into what is known as Neoplasticism.

After impressionism, during post-impressionism (1886-1905), according to Stokstad, artists

began to disperse in styles but had used impressionism as the foundation for their work.6

Stokstad continues describing the early twentieth-century in which artists began to use a drastic

contrast and “explosive colors.”7 As a result, Fauvism was developed and influenced Mondrian

to include it in some of his works. However, Salcman states that Mondrian would only “use the

primary colors of red, yellow, and blue” instead of any significantly-dramatic colors that defined

Fauvism. 8 Mondrian first expressed the primary colors together in Avond (Evening): The Red

Tree (oil on canvas, 1910, figure 2). Salcman defines Mondrian’s Avond (Evening): the Red

Tree as the beginning of his “tree motif.”9 Mondrian depicts a radically different representation

of a tree when compared to the trees in Lonely Tree at the Gein Sun. The first noticeable quality

is the limited color: only the primary colors are used. Mondrian uses the blue to dominate the

medium while the red stands out distinctly and defines the content of the tree. As the viewer

moves their gaze upwards towards the tree, the branches lose their red tone and become dark,

interweaving lines that form a variety of shapes within them. Compared to blue and red, yellow

is used minimally and instead as dots and small dashes which further expresses the dominance of

6
Stokstad. p. 1052.
7
Ibid.
8
Salcman, Michael. "Piet mondrian's (1872-1944) Composition A, 1920: On the Road to Perfection." World
Neurosurgery. (2014):447-450.
9
Ibid.

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blue. The red that makes up the base of the tree is similarly painted on the bottom and off the tree

as if the tree was a giant rose and all the petals have been stripped off. Steinman states that the

falling of the red leaves represent “the changing of seasons from autumn to winter”10 or maybe it

is a symbol representing Mondrian stripping away his earlier, more-natural pieces of art into an

evolved form of art style. In contrast to his earlier works in impressionism, Mondrian further

abstracts his paintings by excluding all colors except the primaries. It is in the painting Avond

(Evening): The Red Tree where Mondrian begins to experiment and abstract color in his

paintings that become a basis for his style, Neoplasticism.

Post-impressionism had come to an end and, during the late 1900s, Cubism reached new

heights in popularity for artists. Invented by Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism had inspired

Mondrian significantly, particularly, what Kandel notes as, the “analytic Cubist style” instead of

the synthetic Cubist style. 11 Analytic Cubism involves depictions from reality but defines them

in geometrical forms. Mondrian was fond of the analytic cubist style’s removal of detail into a

basic and geometric depiction. According to Stokstad, Mondrian would define the abstraction

developed through analytic Cubism as the “‘essential’ form.”12

Continuing the tree series and his activity in abstraction, Mondrian composed The Gray

Tree (oil on canvas, 1911, figure 3). Compared to Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, Mondrian’s

The Gray Tree provides less figurative detail and conforms to Cubist standards of geometry.

Mondrian moves away from any color and only uses grey to depict the background, and black to

shape the strong lines that distinguish the tree. The brush strokes near the bottom of the painting

are thick and horizontal, constantly repeating through the rest of the piece but with each one

10
Steinman, Lawrence and Robert C Axtell, eds. "Piet Mondrian's trees and the evolution in understanding multiple
sclerosis, Charcot Prize Lecture 2011." Multiple Sclerosis Journal. (2013):5-14.
11
Kandel. p. 79
12
Stokstad. p.1052

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varying in length. Salcman describes Mondrian’s cubist abstraction of a natural entity as unique

for an abstract artist because the differences that lie between the two concepts of the natural and

the human-defined geometry are drastic. Kandel notes that The Gray Tree is Mondrian’s

experimentation with the universal representation of form.13 Mondrian’s The Gray Tree

expresses the quality of Neoplasticism that continues to strip figures into their basic forms. By

using a figure from the natural world and breaking it down to its basic structure, Mondrian

begins construct the basis for universal beauty while at the same time moving away from the

natural, figurative representation and towards nonrepresentational art.

Four years after The Gray Tree, Mondrian delves himself into a sea of perpendicular lines

in Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean (oil on canvas, 1915, figure 4). During 1914, according

to the Kroller-Muller Museum, Mondrian returned to the Netherlands but wasn’t able to go back

to Paris due to World War I.14 In those years, Mondrian had lived near the sea and, after multiple

iterations, composed Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean.15 With no color used except the black

lines and the white background, Mondrian depicts opposing forces by using vertical and

horizontal lines, where Kandel states that the two forces represent different life forces, one

living, one dead.16 Mondrian, not only breaking down the structure of the ocean, breaks down the

structure of the society at the time of the war. Just like the waves the make up the sea can be

broken down into vertical and horizontal lines, so can the society be broken down to those who

are living and those who are dead. Furthermore, there is an invisible circle surrounding this wave

and replicates a water droplet implying an unmatched precision in Mondrian’s work.

13
Kandel. p. 77
14
"Compositie 10 in zwart wit, 1915 Piet Mondrian.” Kroller-Muller Museum. https://krollermuller.nl/en/piet-
mondriaan-composition-10-in-black-and-white. (Accessed November 12, 2017)
15
“Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean, 1915.” Piet Mondrian Biography, Paintings, and Quotes. http://www.piet-
mondrian.org/pier-and-ocean.jsp. (Accessed November 12, 2017).
16
Kandel.

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Stokstad explains that in 1917 Holland, Theo van Doesburg developed a magazine titled De

Stijl (“The Style”).17 Doesburg wrote about a variety of artforms and notably distinguished

beauty into categories of subjectivity and objectivity. Stokstad explains that Doesburg’s

definition of objective beauty inspired artists at the time, including Mondrian, to strive for

objectivity in their work.18 During this time, Mondrian was influenced by M.H.J. Shoenmaeker’s

concept, Theosophy which stated that perception of nature entailed opposing, but balancing,

forces. Kandel states that Mondrian’s philosophical standpoint around 1917, influenced by

Doesburg and Shoenmaeker, had led him to “reduce the complex forms of the visual world to

their essentials” which is what they define as “reductionism.”19 Feinstein states that the reduction

of detail into basic forms guided Mondrian “to the creative breakthrough he made in the late

1910s and early 1920s.”20 Eventually, around 1919, Salcman states that “Cubism was out of

fashion;” while artists moved away from geometric forms, Mondrian had continued to expand

what he thought Cubism intended to succeed.21 According to Kandel, Mondrian had “believed

that his spiritual vision of modern art would transcend divisions in culture and become a

common international language,”22 expressing Mondrian’s overall goal while breaking down

Cubism into further abstraction. It is after Mondrian discovered Theosophy and associated

himself with the De Stijl group that he began to spiritualize his works. The Art Story quotes

Mondrian stating that “through Theosophy I became aware that art could provide a transition to

the finer regions, which I will call the spiritual realm,”23 perhaps a realm that allows for the

17
Stokstad. p. 1052
18
Ibid.
19
Kandel. p. 83
20
Feinstein, Jonathan. The Nature of Creative Development. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2006), 375.
21
Salcman.
22
Kandel. p. 84
23
“Piet Mondrian.” The Art Story.http://www.theartstory.org/artist-mondrian-piet.htm. (Accessed November 14,
2017).

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universal beauty he attempts to depict. Seemingly cold, Mondrian tightly packs his works after

1917 with meaning, including the concept of the infinite expressed through distinct, dark lines.

However, Woeiczorek points out that, as the public viewer, there is a “tendency to focus mainly

on formal aspects” and his focus on flatness.24 However, Mondrian’s inclusion of spirituality in

his life had developed a new art style, one that has made him one of the greatest artists of his

time, Neoplasticism: A style involving strictly vertical and horizontal lines and primary colors all

while expressing the spiritual influences of Theosophy and De Stijl. It becomes difficult to view

Mondrian’s work as flatness when the spiritual message is emitting from the work.

Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (oil on canvas, 1930, figure 5) is the

culmination of all the work in his prior artistic years and classic Neoplastic. Mondrian paints a

grid in sharp vertical and horizontal lines that either travel across the entire medium or stop on

another black line but express infinity through their seemingly endless length. Excluding black

and white, there are only three colors in the entire painting: the primary colors red, blue, and

yellow. The colors are in geometrical shapes that, if calculated, represent the golden ratio. Like

da Vinci’s, both artist described the golden ratio in ways of beauty. However, as da Vinci

focused more on anatomy, Mondrian continues to strip qualities into their absolute core and

foundations. However, what is kept similar between the two artists is the idea of beauty through

the depiction of the golden ratio.

Mondrian paints his last piece in 1944 titled Victory Boogie-Woogie (oil on canvas, figure

6) on a perfectly square 127 x 127 cm medium. Though unfinished, it is in Victory Boogie-

Woogie that Mondrian seems to finally merge the ideas of Neoplasticism with the rest of the

24
Wieczorek, Marek. "Space and Evolution in Piet Mondrian's Early Abstract Paintings." (PhD diss., Columbia
University, 1997.) https://search.proquest.com/docview/304362447?accountid=14784.

7
world. The once thick and powerful black lines are now made up of primary colors in random

sequences and are no longer as linear and geometric as defined in his previous works. There is no

one color dominating the piece unlike previous compositions that were overwhelmed with white.

During the height of Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, he had strictly avoided representational aspects

where in Victory Boogie-Woogie, Stoye states that he is explicitly expressing the landscape of

New York City.25 Mondrian may have thought about what seems to be his motto, what The Art

Story says he’s been quoted with: “always further.”26 When Mondrian noticed that cubism had

lost its intention in geometric abstraction, he had stated that he would move “always further”27 to

achieve the goal that he thought cubism was set out to achieve, which involved the ideas of what

is now Neoplasticism. However, Victory Boogie-Woogie doesn’t seem to align with Mondrian’s

prior definitions of universal beauty and what Neoplasticism is defined as. In Victory Boogie-

Woogie, Mondrian provides two perspectives on the city’s landscape, returning to a figurative

representation rather than a complete geometric abstraction. The first perspective is an aerial

view of the city which was unusual because it would be too difficult to paint directly above the

city. The aerial depiction refers to Felix Nadar’s influence on Mondrian’s Victory Boogie-

Woogie since he, as discussed in class, was one of the first photographers to capture an aerial

view.28 The second perspective is from the side and illustrates the towering buildings made up of

randomly-sequenced, primary-colored lines. Besides the objective philosophy of De Stijl and

ideas of opposing and balancing forces in Theosophy, Mondrian was also influenced by jazz.

Mondrian describes jazz as a “pure rhythm” of intensity and contrasting sounds.29 Mondrian

25
Stoye. p. 238.
26
The Art Story.
27
The Art Story.
28
Class Lecture.
29
Mondrian, Piet. "O Jazz E O Neoplasticismo." Novos Estudos (2008). 181-189.

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created a seemingly unrelated relationship with his strict geometric depictions and jazz, which

consists of a fluid type of art style but maintains the basic standards for music. The San

Francisco Museum of Modern Art indicated that Mondrian’s attempts to strip art to its

fundamental characteristics aligned with jazz music’s ability to strip music to its basic forms to

allow a flow of looseness and creativity. 30 Mondrian’s Victory Boogie-Woogie, like jazz music,

represents a “rhythmic swarming of the great city with its giant buildings and straight streets.”31

I wanted to portray another perspective on Mondrian’s painting Composition with Red, Blue,

and Yellow. My version, titled Red, Blue, Yellow, Red (Acrylic on cardboard, 2017, Figure 7)

consists of six reproductions of Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow on each

side of a cardboard box made from scratch. The juxtaposition that exists between the flatness of

each copy and the three-dimensionality of the box itself refers the Mondrian’s standing in

Theosophy; the inclusion of opposing, but balancing forces. The lack of proper structure from

the box continues to express the quality of objective and pure geometric versus human

involvement and imperfection, another pair of opposing and balancing forces. Furthermore, as

one copy of Mondrian’s piece ends, another begins and does so continuously to extend

Mondrian’s concept of infinity in a more interactive way for the viewer than a two-dimensional

canvas. The box is constructed from leftover cardboard which pays respect to Mondrian’s

influence on design in architecture. I chose Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow because it

exemplifies the initial definition of Neoplasticism that Mondrian’s later works skewed away

from (such as Victory Boogie-Woogie).

30
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. [July 22, 2010] Mondrian and dance [Video]. Retrieved November 12,
2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Km8yTnmzTI .
31
“Victory Boogie-Woogie 1944.” Piet Mondrian Biography, Paintings, and Quotes. http://www.piet-
mondrian.org/victory-boogie-woogie.jsp. (Accessed November 13, 2017).

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On top of being a dancer, jazz aficionado, mathematician, and artist, Mondrian was a

storyteller by documenting his life by the style of his works. Sadly, Mondrian was not able to see

the impact he had on the world because Mondrian-inspired works were developed afterwards.

Wieczorek quotes Nancy Troy in a review on Troy’s The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian, that the

“Mondriania, - the artifacts inspired by Mondrian – are integral to the ways in which Mondrian

and his work have been seen and appreciated.”32 Mondriania expanded into artifacts involved in

a variety of different fields, interestingly mostly in scientific and medical departments. It is

exactly Mondrian’s universalizing concept of Neoplasticism that has inspired so many other

artists and non-artists to develop “Mondriania.”33 Though Mondrian can’t recognize the

universal beauty he created throughout multiple platforms, he achieved what he set out to do and

has become the most important twentieth-century artist.

32
Wieczorek, Marek. "The Price of Immortality." Oxford Art Journal (2015):157-160.
33
Ibid.

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Figure 1.
Lonely tree at the Gein Sun
Mondrian, Piet
1907
Oil on canvas
99.06 cm x 125.73 cm

Period: Impressionism

Figure 2.
Avond (Evening): The Red Tree
Mondrian, Piet
1910
Oil on canvas
99 x 70 cm

Period: Post-Impressionism

Figure 3.
The Gray Tree
Mondrian, Piet
1912
Oil on canvas
109.1 x 79.7 cm

Period: Cubism

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Figure 4.
Composition 10 in black and
white
Mondrian, Piet
1915
Oil on Canvas
85 x 110 cm

Period: Post-Cubism/Pre-De Stijl

Figure 5.
Composition with Red, Blue and
Yellow
Mondrian, Piet
1930
Oil on canvas
66 x 86 cm

Period: Neoplasticism

Figure 6.
Victory Boogie-Woogie
Mondrian, Piet
1944
Oil on canvas
127 x 127 cm

Period: Neoplasticism

12
Figure 7.
Photograph of Red, Blue, Yellow,
Red,
Rossiytsev, Michael
2017
Acrylic on Cardboard
30.48 x 30.48 x 30.48 cm

13
Bibliography
Bentkowska-Kafel, Anna, Hugh Denard, Marilyn Deegan, Lorna Hughes, Harold Short, and Andrew
Prescott. 2012. Paradata and Transparency in Virtual Heritage. Farnham: Taylor & Francis.
n.d. Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean, 1915. Accessed November 12, 2017. http://www.piet-
mondrian.org/pier-and-ocean.jsp.
Feinstein, Jonathan. 2006. The Nature of Creative Development. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Kandel, Eric R. 2016. Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the two Cultures. New York:
Columbia University Press.
Kroller-Muller Museum. Compositie 10 in zwart wit, 1915. Piet Mondrian. Accessed November 12,
2017. https://krollermuller.nl/en/piet-mondriaan-composition-10-in-black-and-white.
Mondrian, Piet. 2008. "O Jazz E O Neoplasticismo." Novos Estudos 181-189.
Parveen, Nikhat. n.d. Mathematics and Art. Accessed 11 9, 2017.
http://jwilson.coe.uga.edu/emat6680/parveen/Math_and_Art.htm.
Salcman, Michael. 2014. "Piet mondrian's (1872-1944) Composition A, 1920: On the Road to
Perfection." World Neurosurgery 447-450.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 2010. Mondrian and dance. San Francisco, July 22.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Km8yTnmzTI .
Steinman, Lawrence, Robert C Axtell, Donald Barbieri, Roopa Bhat, Sara E Brownell, Brigit A de Jong,
Shannon E Dunn, et al. 2013. "Piet Mondrian's trees and the evolution in understanding multiple
sclerosis, Charcot Prize Lecture 2011." Multiple Sclerosis Journal 5-14.
Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael W. Cothren. 2014. Art History: Eighteenth to Twenty-First Century Art.
Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.
Stoye, Jurgen. 2015. "Piet Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie, 1942-44: The Painting as Illustration of
the Biography of Landscape." In Landscape Biographies: Geographical, Historical and
Archaelogical Perspectives on the Production and Transmission of Landscapes, by Jurgen Stoye,
235-52. Amsterdam: University Press.
The Art Story. n.d. Piet Mondrian. Accessed November 14, 2017. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-
mondrian-piet.htm.
2011. Victory Boogie-Woogie, 1944 by Piet Mondrian. Accessed November 13, 2017. http://www.piet-
mondrian.org/victory-boogie-woogie.jsp.
Wieczorek, Marek. "Space and Evolution in Piet Mondrian's Early Abstract Paintings." Phd diss,
Columbia University. 1997. https://search.proquest.com/docview/304362447?accountid=14784.
Wieczorek, Marek. 2015. "The Price of Immortality." Oxford Art Journal 157-160.

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