When we think of Mondrian, most of us only recall his later works—the abstract canvases referred to as “Neo-Plasticism” that feature only horizontal and vertical lines and the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow with bars of white and gray.
Traditionally all art that attempts to represent three-dimensional reality is referred to as “Plastic Art.” So, what Mondrian intended with the concept of “Neo-Plasticism is that his abstracted style depicted most simply and directly, what is essential, real, and universal—and it did not have to be three-dimensional.
But… Mondrian didn’t spring out of bed one day in 1943 and decide to paint “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”
What people often fail to understand is that the paintings Mondrian is most famous for—the geometrically precise red, blue, and yellow squares—came about through an aesthetic evolution.
Piet Mondrian’s prolific body of work tells the story of an artist who underwent an artistic evolution, from objective, figurative representation to pure abstraction. In 1905 he began to paint landscapes and people, in various styles, changing colors and use of line. He tended to work in series, painting the same image in multiple, but subtly different ways. In so doing, he became aware of the underlying, universal patterns that exist in the natural world and various techniques of interpreting them in aesthetically pleasing ways.
It was Mondrian’s belief there is an
underlying equilibrium that connects all beings.
Mondrian was born in the Netherlands the same year that Claude Monet painted “Impression, Sunrise” which initiated some of the most significant repercussions the art world had seen since the Renaissance. When Mondrian was 12 years old, Georges Seurat began painting in dots. Six years later, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in a cornfield… and 12 years after that, Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a work that profoundly affected painting and how artists perceived the world around them.
With post-impressionism and new ways of interpreting nature swirling around young Mondrian, he began his painting career trying to accurately capture the world around him. But, upon graduation from art school, rather than simply imitating nature he wished to express something more intrinsically relevant to him and so began intensifying the quality of light and the experience of colors that he used.
I have been enthralled with the early work of Mondrian since I was an art student in Florence. Riding the bus to painting classes across town, I remember seeing posters for an exhibit of Mondrian’s early work—specifically his trees. I was intrigued. I was studying art and art history, but the history books rarely highlighted anything but his later primary colored abstracts. So, I jotted down the address, and one Saturday afternoon, I made my way to the small gallery. I don’t even remember where it was located, but I remember being very proud of myself of navigating my way there without getting lost!
I was mesmerized by these early paintings by Mondrian—especially his trees. I reveled in the way he used light and his use of color. You can see his fascination with the intricate patterns of branches and how his obsession with patterns later became more abstract as he distilled his vision to the most essential elements. This transition eventually became his signature style—or more accurately, De Stijl or Dutch style—free from recognizable visual references.
Of course, I bought a poster and carried it back to my Florentine apartment and through much of my life I tacked that poster onto the walls of wherever I was living. It served as an inspiration and a reminder of the transitions and evolutions we all go through in life.
For the joy of it, I now share Mondrian’s early works here today. I find these paintings incredibly beautiful. Over the course of years, an artist evolves and develops… yet still, I think the early works should be appreciated as they are like the seeds of inspiration that are planted that grow into beautiful trees.
If the universal is the essential, then it is the basis of all life and art. Recognizing and uniting with the universal therefore gives us the greatest aesthetic satisfaction, the greatest emotion of beauty.”Piet Mondrian