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

Bulletin 29, 1977

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 14 here for an enlarged image

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

by Robert Welsh

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Similarly, with intense and prolonged viewing, effects of glowing irradiation (for example, an exaggerated tonal contrast in the purity of the white and black, where line edges and ground meet) and distortion of size (the seeming slight expansion and contraction of particular areas of line, colour and background) gradually become visible in Composition 12, as indeed they do in paintings having a less rhythmically syncopated linear structure. One may deduce from an ultra-violet photograph of Composition 12 (fig. 14) that the final overpainting of the white surface area in New York involved renewed emphasis upon a visibly striated brush technique during this final period of activity. In consequence, the muted sensation of overall surface glow, or vibration, which is hereby produced, must be considered a consciously sought expressive effect.

Regarding these observable kinetic effects, the painter was doubtless aware of at least most of them. However, given his overriding concern for an essentially balanced mode of composition, it seems probable that he considered them no more than secondary expressive phenomena, of merit only insofar as they add an additional minor element of dynamic movement or rhythm to his paintings. Instructively, the climactic stylistic development from the New York City I of 1941-1942 to the Victory Boogie-Woogie, which he still was revising at time of death in 1944, displays a progressive integration of the popping phenomenon, found at the line-crossings of the former painting, into the actual structural fabric of the even more rhythmically complex, latter example. If by no means as kinetically and expressively variegated an exercise in visual dynamics as these major canvases of the New York period, Composition 12 does, nevertheless, number among the most rhythmically, which is to say optically, active creations of his total career. As such, it lends support to the possibility that Paris, rather than New York City, initially bore witness to the jazz-like syncopations of his ultimate stylistic phase.

This possibility is further strengthened through a precise knowledge of the date at which Composition 12 was initially conceived. This question involves its classification as one of the so-called "double-line" paintings of the 1930s, a term the meaning of which never has been fully explained. Although not mentioned as having constituted a fundamental change or breakthrough in his own published writings, a number of close artistic friends seem to have considered it just this, and the usage certainly entered his oeuvre, approximately 1932, rather abruptly, and as a pervasive habit of style. Possibly Mondrian was in part inspired by the example of the female painter, Marlow Moss, whose Composition in White, Black, Red and Gray (fig. 15) of 1932 is bisected horizontally by a closely-spaced pair of lines. Admittedly, this practice by Moss was by no means followed exactly by Mondrian, whose own pairs of lines almost invariably bisected by lines in an opposing direction. (31)

In Composition in Gray and Red (fig. 16) of 1935, for example, the picture plane is traversed vertically and horizontally by sets of double lines, which, incidentally, preserve the Greek cross image internal line structure of Composition 12 may still be thought a direct, if diversely expanded, descendant. (32) It is generally believed that Mondrian those closely-spaced, thin-line pairs, in the belief that by replacing one or more of the wider which typically characterizes works of circa (1930-1931, he was divesting his paintings of what he had come to consider a "tragic" dominance of one direction over the other. (33) Moreover, the double-line paintings in general allow for a greater sense of movement and intricacy of design than the immediately wide-line paintings. This must have been part of the artist's intention in contrasting the Composition with YeIlow Lines with a now lost, double-line painting, when he placed one above the other for a photograph taken in his studio, circa 1933 (that is, fig. 17). (34)

However attractive a device the use of quite closely spaced and compositionally isolated pairs of thin bisecting lines proved to be in the early 1930s, by circa 1936, when Composition 12 was begun, a development was in motion towards even more complex compositions, containing greater numbers of lines than had characterized his paintings since the beginning of the 1920s. In particular, it is no longer possible to interpret whatever double lines do occur as simply a single, broad line, split up the middle, like railway tracks. Virtually all lines, whether or not part of a pair, now must be read as functioning simultaneously as space dividers, and as boundary edges of various rectangular planar units, both white and coloured. This multiplicity of linear configurations, of course, anticipates the systematic breakdown in the separate identities of the elements - line, plane and colour - which characterize the major paintings of the New York years. Since Composition 12 was finished in time for exhibition in early 1942, it is of no little importance to know just which alterations to its condition in Europe may be thought to have been made in New York.

Fortunately a photograph has recently come to light (see fig. 18), which records the appearance of several paintings arranged along a wall of Mondrian's second Paris studio in 1937, the year being as certainable from the apparently just completed state of the easel-mounted Composition with Small Blue Rectangle (S: cc 395, now in the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague), which bears that date. More instructive still is the inclusion. at the upper right of the photograph, of two paintings in unfinished state which may be identified as Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue (fig 19) of the Tate Gallery, London, and Composition 12. Apart from indicating Mondrian's continuing habit (circa 1937) of mounting his paintings upon a flat board, thereby inducing the effect of projecting reliefs, this photograph allows for certain deductions about the kinds of changes he made in New York to certain paintings begun in Europe. Most significantly, the Tate and Ottawa paintings indicate the addition of respectively only three and two additional vertical lines, all at the outer peripheries, while no horizontal lines appear to have been added.

Thus, the working method was to expand the compositional nexus outward, hereby further reducing the cruciform aspect derived from earlier precedents, although this is still identifiable to a degree in Composition 12. Whereas the Tate painting also gained colour squares, which were added to the single enclosed colour rectangle visible in the 1937 photograph, this does not hold true for Composition 12, supposing that the single blue square was already present, but excluded from camera view. Assuredly, the blue, unbounded bar of colour at lower left in the Tate painting constitutes the most radical known species of New York addition, since it intentionally fuses the elements of line, plane, and colour. By way of contrast, the use of only one or two smallish colour planes consequently may be thought more typical of at least one compositional type favoured by Mondrian circa 1937. (35) Such a lean and stark application of colour as we find in these examples, mayor may not have something to do with the sobriety of Mondrian's own life, and the general political climate at the time. However, it does offer a decided contrast with the more exuberant and colourful art style, which, despite the continuing war, he evolved while in New York. (36)

In total, we have seen how trenchantly the Canadian National Gallery Composition 12 summarizes the many rich years of Mondrian's European experience, while also forcefully anticipating the sense of dynamic, rhythmic equilibrium which was the dominant feature of his New York period. An essential dualism between kinetic factors, and their resolution into an overall structural harmony, is the most striking quality of this rigidly composed, yet radiantly luminous and structurally imposing painting. Somewhere beneath its geometrically abstract surface doubtless survive those involvements with the world of natural appearance, spiritualist meditations, and artistic - scientific investigations with which he had been so strenuously engaged during earlier phases of his career. It would be going too far to suppose a conscious reference to either some natural subject-motif, an occult emblem, or any mathematical-spatial formula, in this relatively late painting. Yet there is adequate reason to believe that Mondrian's contemporary concepts of dynamic equilibrium and pure abstraction in art, were meant to subsume all three areas of experience in one fundamental system of imagery. It was doubtless due to this same, all-embracing, universalist philosophy that he was able to sustain, to the end, his belief in the unity of art and life, and in the prospect of enhanced happiness for mankind, despite the many adversities which surrounded him. Almost needless to say, it also explains why, for him, no strict separation of conceptual and perceptual modes of art was possible. A forceful interaction of the two is what chiefly accounts for the sublime beauty embodied in Composition 12.

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