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 

For the period circa 1909-1911 this influence is most thoroughly documented in the veritable Theosophic testimonial piece, the Evolution triptych. (6) The Church at Domburg, by analogy of style, may be thought equally imbued with implications of mystical content, intended to lead the viewer in a tandem of religious and aesthetic experience from the mundane level of observed reality to the so-called "higher spheres" of clairvoyant initiation. Thus, while it remains uncertain to what extent Mondrian felt himself to be the recipient of clairvoyant visions when painting such works as these, his figural subjects of the period appear as if transported to some higher level of occult experience.

Church monuments, especially if, as was the local Domburg example, in less than a perfect state of preservation, like flowers, number prominently among those "centres of spiritual force" which Theosophic initiates are advised to contemplate as a means of producing visionary thought-images of the so-called astral world. As the then still Theosophist Rudolph Steiner explained it, devotional concentration upon such objects pertaining to the "soul-world," would produce, in properly attuned sensibilities, transformations of natural appearance which are chiefly characterized by purification of the observed colours into radiantly luminous hues, and of the form into progressively simplified shapes. Indeed, throughout Theosophic literature, elementary geometric forms, such as squares, triangles, circles, ovals, and crosses are treated as emblematic of the most fundamental and universal spiritual truths.

It is within this rarified religious context that the essential aspects of colour and form found in the Church at Domburg are to be explained, even if, as stated above, an accurate perception of the natural world does not vanish completely before the power of super-sensory vision. In similar fashion, the remarkable reduction of the total imagery to a virtually two-dimensional principle of composition seems no less reflective of the innate design sense which had informed the House on the Gein than a distillation of artistic, art theoretical, and spiritualist doctrines derived from outside sources. To a larger degree than generally realized, the fundamental principles of Mondrian's later abstract oeuvre were already stated in his ultimate production of the pre-Paris years in Amsterdam.

It must not be thought that the intertwining of occult religious precepts and his work as a painter ceased when Mondrian arrived in Paris. His sketch-book annotations of approximately the period 1912-1914 are replete with Theosophic jargon, and the male-female duality associated respectively with vertical and horizontal lines was principally derived from this same source. (7) Even Picasso, whom Mondrian repeatedly credited with having exerted a profound influence upon himself, and whom the Dutch artist would have known not to be Theosophically inclined, was nonetheless credited with having furthered, albeit unconsciously, the same historical process of spiritual evolution which is the declared task of Theosophy.

Rather than appearing as a secular challenge in art to spiritualist preoccupations, Cubism to Mondrian as a justification offering a fruitful means of realizing such ideas in a contemporary artistic style. After all, had not Cubism accomplished more than any previous art movement since the Renaissance in de-emphasizing both literary subject matter and the normal appearance of maternal reality? If such an association between Cubism and pan-spiritualism would seem, by objective standards, to be a forced marriage at best, its tenacious grip on the mind of Mondrian contributed in no lesser measure to the evolution of his own art towards ever greater degrees of anti-naturalism and abstract canons of style.

Concurrently, incorporation of spiritualist ideas in his art assumed a quite individual form which had more significant consequences for the history of art than for the Theosophic movement. In Paris, the artist reduced his subject preferences to an all but exclusive reliance, first upon trees, and then upon building façades, neither motif being more than barely recognizable as such. (8) By these means, simultaneously preserved subject predispositions reaching back to his early naturalistic period, and yet gainsayed any possibility that standard Theosophic doctrines might be comprehensibly illustrated. As a consequence of this tendency towards iconographic camouflage, a large proportion of Mondrian's Cubist paintings were for many years thought to be relatively pure abstract configurations of line and colour. Only by reference to the more easily decipherable preliminary drawings which survive has it been possible in recent years to discover the actual sites of a number of architectural and other motifs which served as a basis for his "compositions" - as, beginning circa 1912, he preferred to label his paintings.

With the tree themes the issue is particularly complex. Along with verbal reports and sketch book evidence of his having executed drawings of trees in situ while in Paris, certain major paintings, such as The Flowering Appletree (fig. 4), clearly derive ultimately from earlier subject treatments, in this case the isolated motif employed in the "blue tree" series of circa 1909. (9) Given the fluid character of the web of linear patterns and brushstroke in-filling, the extreme painterliness of Mondrian's approach would, at first glance, seem at odds with the tendency towards geometrizing design found in the Church at Domburg from a year or two earlier. On closer examination, however, a deft combination of spiraling branch configurations, and opposing abstract linear and colour contrasts, grant this composition definite structural stability despite the coruscating movement of its surface patterns. The radiating sweep of lines, which, especially at the top and sides, imply projection beyond the actual picture plane, constitute a centrifugal force held in check only by those fewer convolutions of line which constitute a centripetal force, and by the knotted massing of darker colouration at the centre. Finally, within this vortex, one senses an underlying grid of vertical and horizontal line segments, a central cross-motif formed by the bisecting picture axes. Perhaps one even senses the implication of a lozenge, if the points of the cross are felt to be connected, albeit, in our example, with sides bent inward, in keeping with the overall curvilinear character of the design.

This latter aspect of the painting doubtless suffices to classify it as dominantly female in theme, as does also the greater emphasis upon the horizontal interlace of branches. At this time, the iconographic combination of largely curved lines and dominance of the horizontal axis signified for Mondrian the female, or material, principle, although it should be remembered that the presence of this force was thought to be as necessary as the vertical-spiritual entity for the preservation of universal harmony, that is to say, according to the artist's Theosophically inspired convictions. With this in mind, it is possible to interpret The Flowering Appletree as both an iconographic antipode to, and yet a striking compositional precedent for, Composition 12.

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