Piet Mondrian is unquestionably one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. A key figure in the De Stijl movement whose 100th anniversary is being celebrated in a series of exhibitions throughout The Netherlands this year, he played a pivotal role in the international art world’s move towards abstraction.
His iconic grid paintings are instantly recognisable and have inspired everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to The White Stripes. However it may come as a surprise to many that the godfather of abstraction began life as a rather more conventional landscape painter. His journey to abstraction saw him influenced by everything from German Expressionism and Luminism to Cubism, before making the discoveries which would lead to his groundbreaking new style.
In one of the most important exhibitions in De Stijl’s centenary year The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague is taking the unprecedented step of exhibiting their entire collection of Mondrian’s work, some 300 paintings, allowing us to trace his artistic development in full.
After graduating from the Rijksacademie (State Academy of Fine Arts) in Amsterdam in 1895, Mondrian quickly made his name as a landscape painter.
He spent periods in the country, in Domburg (Zeeland) or Uden (Brabant), where he felt liberated from tradition and able to experiment with a different formal idiom and palette. He painted light-hearted, brilliantly colourful pictures of windmills, apple trees, cathedrals and dune landscapes. But he was constantly in search of a new approach and dreamt of an art appropriate to the modern world of the 20th century.
Windmill in Sunlight is one of his masterpieces on the new Luminist Style, an offshoot of French neo- Impressionism which put great emphasis on the effect of light. Whereas hitherto he had sought simplification in form, now by reducing his palette to three vibrant primary colours his vision of reality and optimism was beginning to find expression.
Painted the same year, Red Tree is similar in terms of colour range, brushwork and conception. The influence of Van Gogh can be seen in both paintings, most notably in the brushwork and simplification of colour.
The limited palette and trend towards non naturalistic colours are some of the most striking characteristics of his work during this period. By rejecting tonalism and focusing solely on red and blue he shows himself for the first time to be an independent thinker developing a style of his own.
In 1911 Mondrian resolved on a radical change of course and set off to try his luck in the effervescent art world of Paris. There, he mingled with an international crowd of artists, writers and thinkers who were all searching for a modern, progressive form of art. Here he encountered the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and began to experiment with greater forms of abstraction.
The influence of the Paris Cubists is certainly evident in Blossoming Apple Tree, both in terms of form and the colour palette of ochre, grey and brown. However the work still possesses a lyrical delicacy which shows that although Mondrian was strongly inclined to abstraction he still continued to work closely with nature.
Indeed, as late as 1921 Mondrian was painting relatively conventional floral portraits. As he later explained ‘I enjoyed painting flowers, not bouquets, but a single flower at a time in order that I might better express its plastic structure.’ The attraction to floral motifs was partly due to his interest in Theosophy, a type of philosophical mysticism which he had discovered in 1909, that aimed to disclose the concealed essence of reality. Mondrian appreciated the ‘exterior beauty,’ of flowers but believed that ‘there is hidden within a deeper beauty.’
However his encounters with Cubism had encouraged him to strike out increasingly in his own direction and to attempt even greater abstraction. His aim was to reduce visible reality to its absolute essence: a rhythmic arrangement of planes and colours, horizontals and verticals. The eventual result was his now world-famous style, which gave him the means to represent the energy of modern urban life.
The Discovery of Mondrian is at The Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag from 3rd June – 24th September 2017