Piet Mondriaan, greatest artist of the 20th century.

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If a list had to be drawn up of the ten most notable Dutch artists in art history, Piet Mondriaan would most likely be on it.

For many, he is the undisputed number one. It is Van Gogh, Willem de Kooning, Rembrandt van Rijn or Johannes Vermeer for still others. Be that as it may, Mondrian’s work underwent a unique and very spectacular stylistic development during his career.

He developed from Impressionism, through Symbolism and Cubism, into a personal form of abstract painting. From an art-historical point of view, he, together with the French Robert Delaunay and the Russians Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, is considered the inventor of pure abstraction.

Mondrian comes from a strict Calvinist family. It may explain his later almost devout dedication to attaining the ideal of perfect purity, harmony, and austerity in his work. His father was a headteacher, attached to the primary school for Christian National Education, first in Amersfoort and 1880 in Winterswijk.

Mondrian goes to school with his father and then follows a practical study to become an art teacher to teach at a primary school. However, he knows that he actually wants to become an artist, even if it is against his father’s will. However, the blood creeps where it cannot go, and at the age of 18, he already realized the first exhibition of his own work.

The First Phase.

Mondrian then follows an art course at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. He lives with the reformed bookseller JA Wormser in the Kalverstraat. During his training, he becomes a member of the important Amsterdam artists’ association Arti et Amicitae. It means that he can enter the official exhibition circuit. A few years later, he also becomes a member of the Amsterdam artists’ association St. Lucas. In this way, the young artist further increases his possibilities for exhibiting.

Around 1898, Mondrian works mainly on commission for private individuals. He painted traditional portraits and gave private drawing instruction to women from wealthy circles. Twice he attempts to register for the entrance exams for the Prix de Rome. It was a prestigious art prize organized by the Rijksacademie.

Mondrian, however, declined both times. According to the jury, he fell short about anatomy and the representation of the human body. He then mainly focused on landscape painting. He paints the landscape in the Hague and Amsterdam tradition. He soon incorporated a striking rhythm in his paintings, and he also distinguishes himself through his compositions’ color scheme. The colors become more intense.

Theosophy.

Around the age of thirty, the artist becomes interested in basic geometric shapes. His philosophy is that this form of language is the basis of everything, even though it never occurs as such in nature. He immerses himself in the teachings of Theosophy and discusses it with other Theosophists. His landscapes develop in the direction of abstraction.

The first signs of Mondrian’s changing philosophy of life and conception of art are already shining through in his work at this stage. In 1908 he became a member of the Theosophical Society and studied yoga. On the beach of the Zeeland seaside resort of Domburg, Jan Toorop ‘s daughter, Charley, is seen in a Buddha pose. His acquaintance with Toorop sparked his interest in the movement of Symbolism. He is going to repaint female portraits.

Flowers as theosophical symbols determine the theme of some of his paintings. It is symbolism, which should represent the unity of matter and spirit. His famous triptych Evolution, painted in 1910–1911, reflects such theosophical ideas. According to Mondrian, the painting depicts the three stages of spiritual awakening.

The Avant-Garde.

In the period that he is working on symbolist visual motifs, he also works on paintings in which color contrasts strikingly. These are compositions with areas of color, painted in coarse, clear keys. Mondrian was looking for ‘pure colors’ and wanted to get rid of ‘natural colors.’ He concluded that the colors of nature could not be imitated on the canvas. In 1908, Mondrian exhibited his first work in primary colors only: red, yellow, and blue. His introduction to the work of Jan Sluijters, among others, has made his use of color brighter and more expressive.

Around the same time, he also came into contact with French pointillism. Just before the First World War, the ambitious artist sought out the experimental avant-garde. He moves to Paris, where he lives from 1911 to 1914. He greatly admires the brutality of the fauvism of artists such as Henri Matisse and Kees Van Dongen. But he is even more attracted to Cubism, particularly to the work of Picasso and Fernand Léger.

Inspring New Contacts

The First World War broke out in August 1914. Mondrian is on holiday in the Netherlands at that moment. He is forced to stay there. However, the development of his work does not mean standstill. On the contrary, it has to do, among other things, with the new contacts he makes. His acquaintance with the painters Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck is important. The latter works mainly in primary colors with black and white, in a highly abstracted style.

The cross-pollination that subsequently takes place between Mondrian and Van der Leck leads to an even more drastic return of color, line, and surface. Mondrian’s style develops into sober abstract compositions of geometric shapes that are uniform in color. He founded the magazine De Stijl together with Van Doesburg and architect Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud.

The magazine offers him the opportunity to express his art-theoretical views. He writes a series of articles in which he introduces a name for his work. He calls it neoplasticism. He takes the term from the writings of Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of modern theosophy.

Victory Boogie Woogie.

Mondrian wants to evoke a sense of harmony with his compositions of primary colors, horizontal and vertical lines, and smooth areas of color, linked to the greater cosmic balance. He wants to create absolute ‘beauty.’ From 1921 onwards, the well-known broad black lines appear in his work, which borders the compositions’ rectangular and square surfaces. Mondrian’s world-famous series of paintings with red, yellow, and blue lines with horizontal and vertical lines appeared from 1925.

Like many European artists, Mondrian left for New York just before the Second World War outbreak in 1940, where he made his famous Victory Boogie during the war. Woogie(see picture above) will paint. The work is more playful than the last rigorous works he has made in Europe.

It is said to be mainly because it was inspired by the jazz and boogie-woogie music of New York. Mondrian continued to develop new ideas until the very last moments before his death. Working on Victory Boogie Woogie, shortly before his death in 1944, he concluded that a painted line in painting is actually not essentially different from a painted surface. It may explain why in the Victory Boogie Woogiethe, black lines are missing and replaced by lines consisting of different colored blocks.

In any case, he has not developed very much further on this last line of thought. He died on February 1, 1944, and the canvas has therefore remained unfinished.

Mondrian’s oeuvre, with its almost linear stylistic development, has led to a revolution in painting. Mondrian is considered one of the pioneers of pure abstract painting, which the avant-garde took from the last phase of modern art. In New York, Mondrian inspired the generation of American artists of abstract expressionism. However, they would add to the legacy of his oeuvre, among other things, the huge format’s dimension.

The largest collection of paintings by the artists is on display in the Netherlands in the Haags Gemeentemuseum. There it is also easy to follow the step-by-step development of the artist.

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam also has important masterpieces of ‘the genius Mondrian,’ who is perhaps only one of the few artists in art history who has managed to live up to such a pretentious honorary title.

bryan@dijkhuizenmedia.com

bryan@dijkhuizenmedia.com

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