Written for Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services for Private Collection 20 September 1998.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
Composition No. III
Oil on canvas in artist’s original frame, 19 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches, 1929.
Gouache on paper, 25 1/2 x 19 5/8 inches, 1928.
Piet Mondrian is one of the first and will always remain one of the most important artists in the world of Abstract painting. His work and life were as seamless, simple and consistent as the mature paintings like Compositions III that won him international fame and a crucial place in the history of twentieth century art. Over the course of a fifty year period, Mondrian sculpted the initial sparks of his original vision into some of the most formal and pure abstract paintings that have ever been made.
Mondrian was born in 1872 into a Calvinist Dutch family. His father taught drawing and and was the principal of several schools during Mondrian’s childhood, which inspired Mondrian initially to become a professor like his father. His uncle Fritz Mondriaan, however, managed to instill in his nephew the art of the times, which led young Mondrian to pursue higher art education at the Royal Academy in Amsterdam. The artist remained in Amsterdam for the next twenty years, studying and working through all of the new and prevalent European styles and immersing himself in the Theosophy, symbolism and mysticism which would always remain important cornerstones of Mondrian’s maturing philosophy.
Mondrian visited The Salon des Independents of Paris in 1911 where of his new works had been accepted. Immediately seduced by the fertility of the thriving art scene and energy of Paris, he decided to stay. This is actually when Mondriaan dropped the second ‘a’ in his name to Mondrian, which is how the art world has always known him. The inspired artist fell under the magnetic pulse of Cubism and Paris, where he began to forge an instantly identifiable style based on eliminating all that was representational and balancing only line, form and color on a canvas. A visit back in Holland with his sick father in 1914 coincided with the outbreak of the first World War. Mondrian continued to build his philosophy in Holland with the formation of a group of artists called De Stijl(The Style). Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, the Belgium sculptor George Vantongerloo, architect J.J.P. Oud, and others focussed on the formal elements of art while denouncing most everything else as “Baroque”. With the end of World War I, Mondrian hastily moved back to Paris, where he remained until the second World War would force him to London and then the United States for the last several years of his life.
Composition III of 1929 is quintessential Mondrian, one of the best paintings out of Mondrian’s most famous and celebrated series of works. As most artists, Mondrian worked from series to series in order to illuminate the specific inspirations and investigations that a given series would inevitably represent. The Compositions between 1928 and 1932 solidified Mondrian’s vision and years of patient, dilligent evolution along a line of thinking and painting that began to take shape when he first moved to Paris. Composition III is perfectly balanced, peaceful in its nature, and as pure as Mondrian’s painting ever becomes. Tableau Poeme, a consistent example of the strength in his Compositions series, replaces the boldness of Mondrian’s black lines with the delicacy of poetic black type. Thin black lines compliment the well designed type, composing and containing his bright palette, softened by the color of the paper the work was created on.
Mondrian’s trademark palette in Compositions III and Tableau Poeme is in full stride using only black, white, and primary colors blue, red and yellow. In earlier examples of Mondrian’s work his palette went from soft, spacial colors and lines to a more minimal expression of sharp lines and clean colors which reinforced his notion that the space in his paintings should focus on one foreground plane. His colors achieve a greater intensity and vibrancy than his friend Fernand Leger, whose works originally inspired Mondrian to paint with a primary color palette. So inspired by Mondrian was Alexander Calder that he declared with great conviction in 1930 that “I want to make four-dimensional Mondrians”, which he arguably succeeded in doing.
Compositions III and Tableau Poeme are distillatons of Mondrian’s balance and simplicity. His brilliant compositions give the viewer some feeling of undeniable truth. When one looks at Mondrian at his best, his fast, quiet rhythms of peace and harmony evoke spirituality and a sense of unparalled purity.
Mondrian’s consistency is really quite flawless when reflecting on the artist’s career. There was no separation between art and life, as Mondrian worked and lived in a space which reflected the same things in his canvases, practicing what he preached down to the last detail. Always perfectly dressed, quiet and austere, Mondrian moved through life with the power and focus that may have been assisted by his firm belief that he had lived many lives. His restraint included women, apparently, which seems logical for a man of Mondrian’s monastic disclipline and solitary focus. His unbending philosophy and the purity with which Mondrian created had an immense influence on Abstract art, and in a time when Manhattan was preparing to take over where Paris had left off during World War II, it is only fitting that the New York art community welcomed Mondrian with open arms and a great measure of respect.
The dedication and focus with which Mondrian methodically and with great certainty evolved his unique and important brand of art is phenomenal. Amidst the perpetual motion and sounds of the Modern era in the greatest and strongest cities of the Western hemisphere, Mondrian negotiated and constructed, block by block, a unique world of line and color that seems only to grow more impressive and pure as civilization continues to move from the Modern era to the Information Age.