Mondrian’s 100 year legacy

Mondrian art, 100 year legacy

Mondrian Art lasting influence

Two years ago, the 1929 piece called Composition 3, with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black, was sold to a buyer for over twice its estimate. This iconic image is fully representative of Mondrian’s style, one that has been imitated and utilized for over a generation and still, today, reminds us fully of the modernist era. It’s impressive that the De Stijl school of art and Mondrian art have been so utterly important for the progression of Modern art as a whole. Numerous outlets have chosen to take this style and celebrate its lasting influence.

Christie's auction - Mondrian art Composition 3, with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black
Christie’s auction sale – Mondrian art – Composition 3, with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black

100 years at The Hague

The Hague, one of the most impressive and important artistic cities in the world, is celebrating Mondrian art centennial event by conducting a year-long event called “Mondrian to Dutch Design.” A number of prominent buildings, including the city hall itself, will be celebrating Mondrian’s signature style and work by adding adhesive plastic squares – red, blue, and yellow – all over the buildings in the town. As the biggest Mondrian collector in the world, The Hague will undergo a complete overhaul in terms of aesthetics, specifically to honor and revere the genius creator.

City Hall of The Hague transformed into the largest Mondrian's painting in the world.
Mondrian’s Centennial – City Hall of The Hague transformed into the largest Mondrian’s painting in the world.

Piet Mondrian

De Stijl Journal cover - Mondrian Art
De Stijl Journal cover

Born in 1872, Mondrian was a precocious child who would learn the basics of drawing and painting from his uncle and father, who ran the nearby school. Always encouraged, the boy had a wonderful family life where his talents were nurtured and cultivated, and even as a young child, Mondrian never stopped experimenting. He would go on to spend twenty years working as an artist in the city, after obtaining a teaching degree when he came of age.

He would move to Paris in the early 1910’s, and draw influence from the Cubists at the time to create the Mondrian art style we know today. He would return to Holland during World War I where he would continue to develop his signature style in 1917. One hundred years ago, he would contribute to the art journal De Stijl, founded by Theo van Doesburg, and quickly evolved the publication into an art movement itself.

Quickly the magazine became the platform on which the global impact of De Stijl was made. The signature aesthetic, of simple shapes and primary colors, was quickly applied to all forms of media. Although the two would go their separate ways due to a dispute about the use of diagonal lines (Mondrian was firmly against this), the magazine indeed launched a new voice into the art world.

De Stijl and Mondrian’s Contribution

Also known as neoplasticism, De Stijl artwork focuses around abstraction and getting to the ideal representations of ideas. The importance of the movement is ubiquitous as it has affected a range of media, from product design and fine art, to architecture itself. It is difficult indeed to consider talking about the great Mondrian art masterpieces and neglect the other early 20th-century Dutch masters and their abstract style. Indeed, without its guiding hand, influencing style after style ahead of them (Cubism, most famously) the destination of contemporary art would have been much different. Museums around the Netherlands have taken part in the centenary in order to give credit to these pioneers, with Mondrian playing no small role.
Mondrian’s early work was comprised mostly of still-lifes and landscapes, as was typical of the Hague school of thought. Even though these works were praised by his tutors, Mondrian felt the urge to move away from these structures and towards more experimental modes of expression.

The Red Tree (1908) - Post Impressionism
The Red Tree (1908) – Post-Impressionism

As the years went on, Mondrian art style would become more and more abstract, which would culminate in the style everyone is familiar with nowadays – namely, that of black lines, primary colors, and simple shapes. During his lifetime, he would also incorporate his love of Jazz into his works, which would culminate with works such as “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, 1942
Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942)

Influence

As a man heavily interested in spirituality, nature, and the unifying whole of reality, Mondrian’s entire aim with his style was to show up front the underlying harmony of the universe itself. By choosing the simplest elements, his art gained a ubiquity and lasting immortality that transcended language and ideas, bringing reality itself down to a very simple and understandable level.
The horizontal and vertical lines in his work would express the ‘yin and yang’ of the positive and negative. Included within this dichotomy were the feminine and masculine, order and chaos, the dynamic and the static. These lines, for Mondrian art, were the philosophical underpinning of the universe itself.

Mondrian, composition C 1935
Composition C (1935)

This universal harmony of ideas was integral for the sensibilities of the modernists, especially around the time when Mondrian was most active – after the horror of the First World War, chaos seemed an everyday occurrence. How could there be light and hope in a world of trench warfare? These themes underscored a very important philosophical and spiritual belief. The horrors of war needed to be balanced out with beauty and grace to cope with these newfound horrors. Rationality and harmony needed to emerge as well.
Mondrian would go on to write a book on Neo-Plasticism which would become one of the key documents of abstract art. In it, he would hypothesize the future of modern art, while extolling the virtues of “plastic” art – the specific action of the colors and forms on a canvas.

Enduring Works

The Gray Tree

The Gray Tree (1911) by PIet Mondrian
Mondrian – The Gray Tree (1921). A perfect example of the early transition towards abstraction.

The Gray Tree came at a time in Mondrian art and development where he was still blending life drawings and landscapes with more and more abstract thought. This low-fidelity, abstracted tree shows Mondrian’s philosophy in action – by taking a regular tree and abstracting the significant elements of it, Mondrian was able to essentialize a living object and bring it into the abstract. It is easy to see this watershed moment in terms of Mondrian’s overall development because his strong style permeates even works that aren’t fully abstract.

Pier and Ocean

Composition nº10, Pier and Ocean (1915)
Composition nº10, Pier and Ocean (1915)

Yet another step forward in Mondrian’s career, this 1915 painting depicts a series of horizontal and vertical lines in sequence, resembling piers on an ocean. By eliminating diagonal lines and allowing only horizontal and vertical, Mondrian art was fully able to conceive of his style and put it into practice. The image suggests more than it shows: the horizontal landscape intersected by vertical pier pillars is the only hint of the natural world we can glean from this painting. The asymmetric nature of the painting also plays into the theme of rolling waves and floating structures.

Composition with Color Planes

Mondrian - Composition with Colors Planes (1917)
Composition with Colors Planes (1917)

Finally becoming one with the style we know him for, this 1917 piece truly signals his conversion fully into his beliefs – his use of square, colored blocks is his ultimate expression into abstraction. While residing in Holland during the First World War, he would use this painting as a prime example of his De Stijl aesthetic. This particular piece also serves as a break from the more analytic cubism of the day, enabling the viewer to better understand the spirituality and expressiveness at play in Mondrian art. Moving away from the colors and scheme of the Cubists, Mondrian, in this masterpiece, finally found his voice and moved towards primary colors.

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue, 1921
Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921).

The final step of his process – the process we are all very familiar with, and that The Hague itself chose to decorate its town with – wherein Mondrian finally metamorphoses into his final form. This definitive abstract work has all the calling cards of “Mondrian.” The primary colors as square planes, the intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, and the simplicity of the creation were all integral to Mondrian art and creation of a new style. The varying blocks of color and lines intersecting the piece illustrates the rhythm and flow that Mondrian wanted to cultivate, allowing his spirituality to flow across the canvas. Once again asymmetrical, the inner workings of the painting are ultimately meditative and compelling – whether you see these images as a soothing interplay of the cosmos or an interesting display of color and space, they have the ability to affect anyone. This specific painting serves as the ultimate example of Mondrian’s genius and shall be immortalized in the annals of art history.

A true genius

Mondrian’s passion for art and for life itself can hardly be understated, and his lifelong struggle for perfection gifted us with one of the most prolific and intellectual geniuses of all time. It is simply not enough that the man helped revolutionize the art world because he was also so much more:

  • He was a figure of order in a time of complete chaos and he was interested in the spiritual when so much was going wrong.
  • Mondrian art remains entirely contemporary in spirit.
  • He is someone who sees the chaos of everyday life and strives to cultivate order and meaning from it.
Piet Mondrian in his workshop (1933)
Piet Mondrian in his workshop (1933)

No matter what country you are from, no matter your experiences, spoken language, identity or beliefs, the ability to attune yourself to the universe in a healthy and productive way is one of the most important things we can accomplish.

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