Piet Mondrian

The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) created a geometrical abstract style known as neoplasticism, which had widespread influence on modern painting, architecture, and design.

Piet Mondrian was born on March 7, 1872, in Amersfoort. His father, a schoolteacher, wished Piet to become a teacher, and he earned his diploma for teaching. But in 1892 he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, where he studied for several years and was encouraged by artists of The Hague school, who continued the landscape tradition of Charles Daubigny and the Barbizon painters. Mondrian's early pictures are mostly of such subjects as meadows with farms and cows or windmills. Although a few of his works from about 1900 show some influence of Claude Monet and symbolism, he continued working in a very conservative tradition for a number of years.

Development of His Style

In 1908 Mondrian became deeply involved in the latest developments in art, and in the course of the next 10 years or so he developed with astonishing rapidity through a succession of styles. He began to use pure, glowing colors and expressive brushwork under the influence of pointillism and Fauvism in pictures which are almost like those of Vincent Van Gogh in their vivid colors and intensity of expression. Motifs such as church towers and windmills were painted in a blaze of color with staccato, pointillist brushstrokes. But Mondrian soon turned to a more monumental and simplified treatment in which the motif was depicted close up, in isolation, dominating the picture area symmetrically, and the pointillist brushstrokes were replaced by large unmodulated areas of color. Although these pictures were still usually based on some definite motif, they show an attempt to go beyond realism to a sort of symbolic superreality, an attitude which partly reflects Mondrian's growing preoccupation with theosophy. The works of this period include some very poetic landscapes of deserted dunes in Zeeland.

By the time Mondrian moved to Paris in 1912, he had already seen a few cubist pictures and had begun to be influenced by cubism. But at a time when Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were turning back to figuration, Mondrian decided to carry cubism through to what seemed to him its logical culmination of pure abstraction. Although he continued until as late as 1916 to make some reference to such subjects as trees and the facades of buildings, he gradually eliminated all traces of figuration. He quickly assimilated the cubist idiom of Braque and Picasso, working in grays or ochers and sometimes using an oval composition, but over the following years his compositions became more and more clarified, with a concentration on vertical and horizontal lines.

This development became particularly marked after Mondrian returned in 1914 to Holland, where, because of the outbreak of war, he remained until 1919, living mainly in the artists' colony at Laren. It can be seen, for instance, in various paintings and drawings of the sea in which the movement of waves is evoked by short horizontal and vertical lines (his so-called plus-and-minus compositions).

Contacts with the Dutch painters Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg at this time led to further developments in Mondrian's art. Van der Leck had begun to work exclusively with white and black and with flat planes of the three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow; Van Doesburg founded in 1917 the periodical De Stijl and the art movement of the same name. In 1917 Mondrian began to paint completely nonfigurative works composed of rectangles of different colors and sizes against a neutral white ground. At first these color rectangles (some upright, some horizontal) were situated at varying intervals in depth, with a certain amount of overlapping, but overlapping was soon avoided, and he began to bring the color areas more and more into the same plane, in a shallower picture space. In 1918 he introduced a grid of vertical and horizontal lines which divided the composition into a number of rectangles of different sizes, each painted a uniform color; in this way the color rectangles were integrated into an overall framework. (Although he had begun to work toward the use of the three primary colors and white and black, he still mixed his colors to some extent and tended to achieve a muted effect.)

Advent of Neoplasticism

Only after Mondrian's return to Paris in 1919 did this tendency reach its culmination in the style to which he gave the name neoplasticism. From 1922 on he worked exclusively with vertical and horizontal lines and with white, black, and the three primary colors—the strongest and purest possible contrasts. In all but a few of his last works, he divided his pictures asymmetrically by a grid of heavy black vertical and horizontal lines, with certain rectangles painted a uniform intense red, blue, or yellow and all the other areas left a brilliant white. But within these limitations he achieved a wide range of effects by varying the proportions, the choice and distribution of the colors, and so on. Although he painted some pictures on canvases of square format hung diagonally, he always kept the lines strictly vertical and horizontal and indeed resigned from de Stijl in 1925 because Van Doesburg had introduced diagonal lines.

Mondrian lived in Paris from 1919 to 1938 and in London from 1938 to 1940; then he settled in New York. Stimulated by the tempo and dynamism of New York City and by jazz, in his last works he used colored lines instead of black ones and even broke up the lines into a lively mosaic of different colors. He died in New York City on Feb. 1, 1944.

Further Reading on Piet Mondrian

Mondrian's own writings were republished in an edition entitled Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937, and Other Essays, 1941-43 (1945). The most comprehensive work on Mondrian is Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian: Life and Work (1957). Another important study is Frank Elgar, Mondrian (trans. 1968). A brief introduction to Mondrian is L. J. F. Wijsenbeek, Piet Mondrian (trans. 1969).