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

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10  |  11 

In particular, he adopted the use of bright, intensely radiant colour combinations, a development he was to characterize in later years as his first major departure from tonalized naturalism. (2) However, one should not suppose a precipitous abandonment of realist canons of design merely because of the radical simplification of form and colour application which occurred. Throughout this experimental phase, Mondrian's landscapes continued to be produced, largely en plein air, and a remarkable allegiance to the actual proportions of the objects depicted survived. This can be illustrated in a comparison of the 1910-1911 painting, Church at Domburg (fig. 2), with a photograph of the site (see fig. 3), in both of which the scale proportions and starkly flat appearance of the building façade appear almost identical. Even the sienna red of the façade and the blue and green of the surrounding areas found in the painting correspond with the general contrast in natural colouration between, respectively, the brick architecture and the mixture of sky and foliage observable in the photograph. Admittedly, these last two entities would be transformed in form and colour for the painting.

The relationship to natural reality is further retained through suggestions of evening atmosphere, signified by the shadow found in the lower areas of the church brickwork. From all these attributes one may conclude that a highly intense perception of natural appearance was as integral a part of Mondrian's artistic approach in this 1910-1911 painting as was the equally evident de-emphasis of particularized realistic detail. By such means could this, in actuality, modestly-sized village chapel, emerge as a monumentally proportioned and seemingly timeless icon of mankind's striving for spiritual enlightenment.

It also would be deceptively easy to write off this idiosyncratic, immediately pre-Cubist, style of Mondrian as some kind of art historical aberration. According to this sometimes voiced opinion, the stark simplicity of Art Nouveau design, a reductio ad absurdum of primary colour contrasts, and a tentative knowledge of Cubist formalism, are here blended syncretically into what was, at most, a personally innovative cul-de-sac, from which only his 1912 move to Paris and direct contact with French Cubism could provide an escape. Of course there is some truth to this analysis, which Mondrian himself later encouraged by describing the use of "exaggerated" natural colouration as being too linked with the particularism, or lack of universality, of traditional art. (3)

Nevertheless, as a stepping-stone along the path to pure abstraction this work indicated a new direction of major importance. In terms of hindsight, it displays Mondrian's initial declaration of freedom from those specific source influences cited above, which justify the charge of previous eclecticism. whereas a general tendency towards geometrizing design within Dutch art and architecture, including an influx of Egyptianizing elements, helps to account for the frontality, the expressive severity, and the triangulated figuration within the composition of Church at Domburg, no single source model in the work of another artist provides a sufficient explanation for these factors. Similarly, if owing much to his previous experiments with colour in terms of Divisionist and other temporary borrowings, the reduction to three or four basic hues, applied in flat, relatively uniform compartments, not only transcends his sources but also firmly predicts his later colour conceptions as well. In short, Mondrian here forcefully emerges for the first time as his own master, and some inquiry into the theoretical justifications for this abrupt personal development is in order.

The theoretical support for Mondrian's initial departure here from traditional modes of style towards a manifestly proto-abstract pictorial structure appears to have been based upon two major intellectual traditions: one generalized, the other quite specific. Unfortunately, his involvement with treatises on art theory, even those by Dutch writers, is poorly documented, chiefly for lack of first-hand knowledge of how far-ranging were the artist's reading habits during youth and early maturity. However, one guideline is suggested by his oft-repeated distinction between the vertical line, as emblematic of the spiritual or male principle in nature as in art, and the horizontal line as the material or female principle. This convention was already so deeply rooted in Western art tradition, and so widely propounded in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writings on art, that by Mondrian's time it had become virtually a cliché.

Hence, whether learned first during his schooling at the Amsterdam Academy, or from texts by writers such as David Humbert de Superville, Charles Blanc or Wilhelm Worringer, as might equally be assumed, this fundamental precept could be applied to a variety of subjects: standing or reclining figures; natural growths such as trees, and the contrasting horizon line; and also the ascending quality of Gothic, as opposed to the trabeated, ergo earthbound, aspect of the classical (or Greek) style in architecture. (4) Doubtless, one may therefore read the vertical format and internal design elements in Church at Domburg, among other examples, in terms of an iconographic analogy between Gothic ascending lines and masculine spirituality.

One may also assume that Mondrian was to some degree acquainted with this convention as embodied in contemporary Dutch architectural theory. Reflecting such earlier nineteenth-century French-language writers as De Superville and Viollet-le-Duc, the major Dutch Art Nouveau architects, H. P. Berlage, K. P. C. de Bazel, and J. L. M. Lauweriks, all considered geometric figuration of some sort as necessary to the successful practice of architecture - for themselves as for previous ages. (5) This association, moreover, was applied to both the overall design of buildings, whether of religious or secular function, and to ornamental details, the analysis of which received extended treatment by these and other Dutch writers at the turn of the century. Given the pervasiveness of this type of analysis of geometric design principles in art and architecture, it must be given credit for having played at least a minimal supportive role in the evolution of Mondrian's art theory. Probably it also helps explain the progressive reduction of virtually all natural subject motifs to the more-or-less straight-edged geometric figures which subsequently occurred in his paintings.

The personal commitment which most profoundly influenced Mondrian's art and theory before his encounter with Cubism was his involvement with the spiritualist Theosophic Movement. A registered member of the Dutch Theosophic Society by 1909, Mondrian not only mentioned this occult philosophic doctrine approvingly in writings belonging to his pre-Cubist, and early De Stijl phases, but he also re-registered with the Parisian Theosophic Chapter as late as 1938, or on the eve of his departure from France to London. The contact with Theosophy was thus maintained until after he had begun - and, as we shall see, completed in preliminary form, - Composition 12.

Next Page1909-1911 period

  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10  |  11

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"