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Piet Mondrian: Color, Harmony, and Rhythm

Piet Mondrian and Neoplasticism

The ideas and creations of Piet Mondrian, the 20th-century Dutch artist who change the course of art history with his abstract art, to this day, preserve their impression. Whether it be a coffee mug, carpet, wall decoration, or a dress, his pure style is easily recognizable.

Amsterdam to Paris

Mondrian, born 1872 in Amersfoort, Netherlands, met with art at an early age since his father was a drawing teacher, and in 1892, he entered the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Like many Dutch painters, he started with traditional landscape paintings. Then, he was impressed with modernist styles like pointillism, fauvism, impressionism, and post-impressionism.

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Upon seeing Picasso’s work, he became deeply influenced by Cubism and moved to Paris. Especially three of them amongst his paintings shows this transition deliberately. With their perfect rhythm and harmony, trees always impressed him and were prominent elements of his early works. While “Willow Groove” shows impressionist influences, “The Red Tree” reflects post-impressionism and Van Gogh’s affection. He unveils his Cubist side with “The Gray Tree” in 1911 and hints that something’s about to change. He emphasizes the lines, colors, and space in-between.

Cubism to Abstraction

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Mondrian’s two versions of the same subject, “Still Life with Gingerpot,” lucently project the next step in his style. As the first version gives us a Cézannesque rendition of Cubism, the second, made one year later, indicates an abstraction. Simple colors and harmonic lines shine through every object. Two years later, he takes the next step by showing us color compositions and linear structures in his “Composition with Oval in Color Planes.” 

De Stijl: The Purity of Art

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In 1914, while Mondrian’s visiting his father in the Netherlands, World War I breaks out. Enable to return to Paris, he retains his art in the Netherlands and meets Theo van Doesburg. Together, they form an art movement knows as De Stijl. They also publish a magazine with the same name. De Stijl or neoplasticism aimed to denounce naturalism and reduce painting elements to reach the universal truth. It was heavily affected by the theosophical ideas of the time.

Indeed, Mondrian was a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society. He intended to create balance and harmony and restricted his palette to primary colors; red, blue, and yellow, three primary values; white, black and gray and reduced his compositional structure to two primary directions; vertical and horizontal. In this period, numerous works he produced such as “Tableau I” and “Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue” plainly show various sized squares in three colors on a white background.  These compositions are his trademarks to this date.

The Universal Truth of Neoplasticism

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Mondrian returns to Paris in 1919 and starts to acquaint his ideas to the art world center. His insistence on pursuing a universal art intensifies. According to him, real art, like real life, takes a single road (Trudeau, 1991), and that single road is not mimesis but an abstraction. The indicative titles disappear from his paintings, and he titles them compositions or tableaus. He experiments with different pictorial shapes like diamonds and ovals to further the effect. Towards the end of the 1920s, even color begins to disappear from his work, and straightforward black and white lines start to dominate. He then begins to apply double lines and further increases the number of lines to reflect the rhythm. 

A Dutchman in New York: The City of Rhythm

Piet Mondrian, New York City I, 1942, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Mondrian was labeled “degenerate” by the Hitler regime, and his works were included in the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition. On the eve of a new war, Mondrian moved to London in 1938. Soon, the war breaks out and reaches London; he leaves for New York City. At that point, Mondrian’s life and art go through a vigorous change. The city that never sleeps bewitches him with its city lights, traffic, noise, jazz, and dance. Mondrian was a big fan of jazz and dance all his life, and now that he’s in the center of it, those things start to dominate his work. Even color begins to reappear vividly. In his “New York City I,” the rhythm of this super-dynamic city manifests itself. 

The Boogie-Woogie

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1943, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Mondrian’s late period’s most outstanding example is Mondrian’s last finished work in 1943, Broadway Boogie-Woogie. It shows two things that Mondrian adores; New York and music. Along with Manhattan, we can feel the rhythm of boogie-woogie, an African-American music/dance. This painting sums up his artistic style perfectly as a combination of his life’s work and affirms Mondrian as the great pioneer of abstract painting.

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Sources

Danto, A., 1997. After the End of Art. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Friedman, M., 1986. De Stijl 1917-1931: Visions Of Utopia. New York: Walker Art Center Abbeville Press.

Lynton, N., 1980. The Story of Modern Art. New York: Cornell University.

Seuphor, M., 1955. Piet Mondrian: Life and Work. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Tomassoni, I. and Mondrian, P., 1970. Mondrian. London: Hamlyn.

Trudeau, L. ed., 1991. Modern Arts Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc.

Figures with Sources
Piet Mondrian

Willow Grove: Impression of Light and Shadow, 1905, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas. collections.dma.org

Evening: The Red Tree, 1908-10, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands.wikiart.org

The Gray Tree, 1911, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands. wikiart.org

Still Life with Gingerpot I, 1911, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands.wikiart.org

Still Life with Gingerpot II, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands.wikiart.org

Composition with Oval in Color Planes, 1914, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.moma.org

Tableau I, 1921, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands.commons.wikimedia.org

 Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1920, oil on canvas, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.pubhist.com

Tableau No. IV; Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black, 1925, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. nga.gov

Composition with Yellow Patch, 1930, oil on canvas, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany.piet-mondrian.org

Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red, 1937-42, oil on canvas, Tate Modern, London. tate.org.uk

New York City I, 1942, oil on canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris.piet-mondrian.org

Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1943, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York. moma.org

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