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

Despite the manifold differences which one easily observes - in particular, curves versus straight lines, and tonal nuances versus stark geometric contrasts of line, colour and plane - these two paintings betray a deep relationship in basic conception. Thus the rhythmic dispersion of irregular compositional patterns, the implication of linear extension beyond the picture plane, and the counterbalancing factor of greater density in the central areas, represent elements of design which intimately link the two canvases as products of a single artistic imagination. Because such similarities of conception were maintained over the last forty-odd years of his career, we can doubly appreciate why Mondrian himself, in 1914, was anxious to credit the Cubist movement with having incited a major breakthrough in his art, even while, as he also said, the basis of his art was different from that of Picasso, his then-avowed model. (10)

To be sure, only circa late 1913-1914, in reaction against the late analytic Cubism of Picasso, did Mondrian begin to employ systematically his classic elements of line, plane and colour, all embodied in a visible grid structure, in a manner which boldly forecasts his mature art of the De Stijl period, and after. And this was accomplished principally in reference to a repertory of Paris building façade subject motifs, which were as foreign to the preferences of Picasso as they were devoid, with the exception of a single church façade motif, of inherent sacerdotal, not to say Theosophic, associations.

Here, too, appearances may be deceiving, since the complexes of apartment dwellings, located near Mondrian's own residence adjacent to the Gare Montparnasse, which area largely provided the subject motifs of his final pre-First-World-War year of work in Paris, apparently assumed in his thinking the status of archetypal, cosmic images. For example, the mixture of compositional and yet iconographically elevated functions that such secular structures served are combined in a previously unpublished compositional sketch which, although allowing for no ready supposition of use with any specific painting, relates in subject matter to several major "Paris Façade" canvases from early 1914. (11) The drawing, Paris Court yard Façades (fig. 5), thus retains from observed appearance the disproportionate are as of wall surface which, in a final painting, almost certainly would have been transformed into rectangular units of a more uniform scale. In terms of naturalistic representation, the artist obviously has been concerned here with compressing "hollowed-out" spatial illusionism into an essentially "flattened-out" design. Gone, too, in any final painted version, would have been the details of architecture, which in the drawing might allow for certain identification of a specific site.

Most striking of all is the marked suppression of Cubist peculiarities of style, particularly of those elements which typically render ambiguous the distinction between volumes and surrounding space. Along with his simplification of façade areas, Mondrian has sought to preserve each rectangulated component as a separate entity, and thus to harmonize the total design pattern which emerges. This feeling of unity within the overall design is all the more remarkable considering the probability that the actual setting, for full visual appreciation, required a sweeping, constantly refocused viewing of what must have appeared as a complex juxtaposition of interlocking planar surfaces. In any case, this drawing represents a sophisticated attempt to deal with the problem of reducing conventions of spatial illusionism to an essentially two-dimensional system of design.

That Mondrian nonetheless interpreted the setting as of more than mundane significance is indicated by the inscription of the Dutch word leven (that is, "life"), lower left of centre. In contrast, the "R" above centre almost certainly indicates "red," whichever of the Dutch rood or French rouge was intended. Apart from the axiomatic reference to the depiction of a place where people live, the word leven, as found in contemporary writings by Mondrian and the Dutch Theosophist, Dr. M. H. J. Schoenmaeker, refers to the substantive concept of a fuller or higher life, in which polarities of male and female, vertical and horizontal, movement and rest, and also space and time are reconciled in a balanced manner. (12) One may therefore hypothesize that in this otherwise non-religious, abstractly depicted sanctuary, Mondrian discovered further corroborative possibilities for embodying content of a presumed universal significance. As for his artistic means, the drawing embodies the reductionist credo stated as an aphorism in a contemporary sketch book annotation: "For the spiritual artist colour and brush-work sufficiently represent matter." (13)

During the subsequent period of isolation in the neutral Netherlands of the First World War Mondrian evolved his own "abstractionist" style, this in concert with other like-minded Dutch artists, and in partial reaction against Cubism, which "did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries." (14) It was now that his cumulative aversion to naturalistic representation was finally manifested through reduction of "natural forms to the constant elements of form and natural colour to primary colour." (15) Although often thought to have constituted a radical step, taken abruptly, and to have produced a dogmatically unchanging art theory and accompanying personal style, this historical breakthrough actually allowed for a wide range of expressive choices, which Mondrian exploited throughout all subsequent periods.

Initially, while back in The Netherlands, for example, he displayed a preference for linear compositional structures, based primarily upon concatenations of short vertical and horizontal line segments, which often cross. This phase is designated popularly as the "plus-and-minus" style, and is illustrated synoptically in the ultimate version of Pier and Ocean (fig. 6). We can see, by comparing this painting with a photograph of the actual subject site (see fig. 7), a beach segment with a wooden pier breakwater at Domburg, what Mondrian meant when he stated: "Impressed by the vastness of nature, I was trying to express its expansion, rest and unity." (16)

On one level, the peculiarities of this composition may be thought to have resulted from a hold-over study of the appearance of nature, since the artist added to the statement cited immediately above: "Observing sea, sky and stars, I sought to indicate their plastic function through a multiplicity of crossing verticals and horizontals." And it was doubtless, in large part, the rhythms inherent to the reflected surface configurations of beach, pier, sea, sky, and stars that inspired the subtle nuances of spatial recession and surface pattern found in Pier and Ocean. No less than the sensed convolutions of trunk and branches for The Flowering Appletree, and the rectilineated wall compartments for the Paris façade paintings, the more staccato and broken rhythms of Pier
and Ocean seem to reflect a surviving Romantic attachment to the representations of particularized form within a cosmic landscape setting. (17)

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