National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 29, 1977

Annual Index
Author & Subject

The Place of "Composition 12 with Small 
Blue Square" in the Art of Piet Mondrian

by Robert Welsh

Article en français

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When in 1970 the National Gallery of Canada acquired the Composition 12 with Small Blue Square by Piet Mondrian, 1872-1944 (see gatefold), the painting already was widely recognized for its high quality and special position within the artist's late oeuvre. Among the eleven paintings begun in Europe and finished in New York which were included in his one-man exhibition of January-February 1942 at the Valentine Dudensing Gallery (whence its title "Composition 12" and inscribed date lower right "36 / 42"), (1) this all but exclusively black-and-white canvas most clearly prefigured the diversified grid structure found in New York City I of 1942 (Sydney Janis Gallery), the most recently completed painting then exhibited.

Mondrian himself implied this relationship while posing for a photograph in his studio (see cover), wherein he is seen focusing his attention upon Composition 12, which he holds upright, while New York City l is comparably featured by placement upon an easel. The use, in the latter New York period painting, of a larger number of lines, now coloured in primary hues, seemingly interlaced on the canvas and heavily concentrated towards the picture edges, would allow for the presumption that Mondrian, through the photograph, had wished to stress the difference between his European and American stylistic phases, even implying improvement due to the New World environment. Tempting as this might be for American audiences to believe, one might as easily deduce an intention to stress continuity within the previous six years of activity on the two continents.

The issue is intriguing, but by no means the only one in the solution of which Composition 12 figures prominently. For example, the degree to which conceptual as opposed to perceptual concerns dominated Mondrian's thinking equally affects our understanding of his contribution. Reflecting the traditional distinction within Western art between intellectually inclined "painter-poets," and presumably less thoughtful "pure painters," this polarity in modern times has also implied a respectively greater and lesser dependence upon scientific analysis of the norms of form and colour.

Thus the Neo-Impressionist movement led by Georges Seurat is classified as hyper-intellectual, or conceptual, for its derivation of Divisionist laws of colour usage from a number of nineteenth-century grammars of art or optics, while Realism and Impressionism are believed to have been created by more instinctively or perceptually motivated colourists. The Cubist-Abstract Art movement, as might be expected, generally is described as heavily inclined towards conceptualization, doubtless in large part due to the considerable number of therein participating artists who have produced theoretical writings in defense of radical stylistic innovation. Certainly Piet Mondrian is widely considered an archetypal exponent of conceptualized abstraction in art, both for his seemingly pitiless dissection of the painting surface into rigid, geometrically conceived components of line, plane, and colour, and for the published explanations of these practices which accompanied his later periods of development. Here, too, Composition 12 offers an unusual opportunity to examine the validity of characterizing Mondrian essentially as a conceptual artist. This issue is especially pertinent to his advanced stylistic phases, but also applies insofar as these embody, in distilled form, the totality of his extended involvement with earlier movements and precepts. For all these reasons this singular painting may be considered a major signpost in the general history of twentieth-century abstract painting.

Whatever the proper resolution of the conceptual versus perceptual dilemma might be for his mature periods, the early naturalistic oeuvre clearly manifests a greater emphasis upon the latter criteria. Throughout an approximate twenty-year period, ending circa 1908, Mondrian worked primarily as a landscape painter, principally in a Dutch mode of the plein air Barbizon tradition, wherein he produced the greater part of his surviving output. As an epigone representative of the Hague School of painting, he followed with relative fidelity the tonal impressionism of such Dutch masters as Anton Mauve and the Maris brothers, whose realist depiction of picturesque landscape settings embodied the then current motto alleen maar schilderen (that is, "merely paint"), a Dutch variant of the pure painting credo. Within this historical context the depiction of nature as perceived in all its detail and atmospheric nuance was the primary goal. The conceptualization of subject themes inherent in historical and other forms of elevated narrative painting was banned as involving false, or at least unnecessary, literary content. While it is impossible to summarize the diversity of Mondrian's naturalistic experimentation in a single example, the water-colour, House on the Gein (fig. I) of 1900, represents with marked comprehensiveness that blend of detailed realism and atmospheric tonalism which typified the Hague School and the bulk of his own early landscape production.

At the same time, this example betrays a minor element of personal innovation, since the near lozenge, or diamond shape, formed by the triangles of the central house façade and its reflection, though in fact true to natural appearance, foreshadows later compositional features present alternatively within, or as the framing format, of a number of major canvases. If not very likely a conscious prediction of things to come, this otherwise historically retarded and minor example of pictorial naturalism nonetheless shows its author to have been set upon a path leading about as far away from Barbizon habits of design as anyone then, or perhaps now, could imagine.

The Mondrian of the years circa 1908-1911 might be described as a stylistic chameleon of many colours. His interspersed involvements with the Fauve, Art Nouveau and Divisionist movements, all encountered second-hand via native Dutch practitioners, were manifested in such a diversity of unorthodox modes that few critics, then or since, have viewed this body of work as anything more than an anomalous parade of misunderstood and eclectic, if sometimes interesting, borrowings. Yet it was precisely during this period that the artist's attachment to modernist, largely French-derived tendencies commenced.

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