Happy Birthday, Piet Mondrian! Today, 145 years ago, this great artist was born.
Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan was born on 7 March 1872 in Amersfoort in the Netherlands.
Mondrian’s earliest paintings showing a degree of abstraction are a series of canvases from 1905 to 1908 that depict dim scenes of indistinct trees and houses reflected in still water. Although the result leads the viewer to begin focusing on the forms over the content, these paintings are still firmly rooted in nature, and it is only the knowledge of Mondrian’s later achievements that leads one to search in these works for the roots of his future abstraction.
In 1911, Mondrian moved to Paris and changed his name (dropping an ‘a’ from Mondriaan) to emphasize his departure from the Netherlands, and his integration within the Parisian avant-garde. While in Paris, the influence of the Cubist style of Picasso and Georges Braque appeared almost immediately in Mondrian’s work. Paintings such as The Sea (1912) and his various studies of trees from that year still contain a measure of representation, but, increasingly, they are dominated by geometric shapes and interlocking planes. While Mondrian was eager to absorb the Cubist influence into his work, it seems clear that he saw Cubism as a “port of call” on his artistic journey, rather than as a destination.
Mondrian published “De Nieuwe Beelding in de schilderkunst” (“The New Plastic in Painting”) in twelve installments during 1917 and 1918. This was his first major attempt to express his artistic theory in writing. Mondrian’s best and most-often quoted expression of this theory, however, comes from a letter he wrote to H. P. Bremmer in 1914:
I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. 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, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…
I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.
Piet Mondrian is perhaps the greatest modern artist who ever lived. His renowned abstractionism was not an overnight development. He started by painting lush green landscapes full of cows, drainage ditches and farmsteads. The skies and dunes of Zeeland prompted him to use dazzling colours and loose brushwork. Theosophy inspired other-worldly flowers and female figures. And his encounter with the Parisian avant-garde led to a more Cubist idiom. Place the glowing pictures of windmills, the colourful polder landscapes and the angular apple trees in chronological order and what you see is not only Mondrian’s personal artistic development, but the entire history of modern art unfolding before your very eyes.
It would have been interesting to see Mondrian’s style continue to evolve, especially since he’d just made such a big stylistic change—but unfortunately he died shortly after completing Broadway Boogie Woogie, in 1944.
Piet Mondrian left behind about 250 paintings, many of which are compositional masterpieces in their own right. The most fascinating thing to me about Mondrian’s work, though, is his single-minded devotion to his art.
On display in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag are a number of paintings from this period, including such Post-Impressionist works as The Red Mill and Trees in Moonrise. Another painting, Evening (Avond) (1908), depicting a tree in a field at dusk, even augurs future developments by using a palette consisting almost entirely of red, yellow, and blue. Although Avond is only limitedly abstract, it is the earliest Mondrian painting to emphasize primary colors.
The De Stijl movement was launched in Leiden exactly one hundred years ago. The Netherlands is poised to mark the centenary in 2017 with a year-long programme of events under the title Mondrian to Dutch Design. 100 years of De Stijl. Piet Mondrian is among the best-known artists involved in this international art movement. As the home both of the greatest Mondrian collection on Earth and of one of the world’s major De Stijl collections, the Gemeentemuseum will be at the forefront of festivities in 2017. Among other things, it plans to take the unprecedented and unique step of presenting its entire Mondrian collection – no fewer than 300 works – in a single, great retrospective. Come to The Hague and explore the life and work of Piet Mondrian and De Stijl as you’ve never experienced it before.
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