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

On a second level, that of the intended iconography, this painting may be considered a quintessential expression of Theosophic doctrine, in which primary geometric shapes embody allusions to fundamental spiritualist ideas. Thus, the oval border of the interior composition implies the cosmic egg born of the sea which Theosophy derived from Hindu tradition. (18) Similarly, both the central cruciform image, formed by the major vertical and horizontal axes, and the many smaller line-crossings, imply one or another of the several cross-forms (for example, the Latin, Greek and Tau types), which are cited in many basic Theosophic writings as signifying profound cosmological truths. Like the simple opposition of vertical and horizontal elements, the white-versus-black contrast had, for Mondrian, come to imply an ultimate polarity, that common to most religious systems: namely light versus darkness. Henceforth, both the basic black-and-white colouration, and the "plus-and-minus" connotations of vertical and horizontal lines in grid paintings by Mondrian, should be interpreted to involve a cosmic principle of attraction of opposites, rather than simple arithmetic symbols for addition and subtraction.

On a third level, however, we can view the "plus-and-minus" style as evidencing the emergence in Mondrian's thinking of a less spiritualist outlook than that resulting from contact with Theosophy. This would be a basic concern with the dissolution of the distinction between form and space as substantive absolutes, traditional to Western art. In reference to his Dutch wartime experimentation, Mondrian thus later wrote:

At this point, I became conscious that reality is form and space. Nature reveals forms in space. Actually all is space, form as well as what we see as empty space. To create unity, art has to follow not nature's aspect but what nature really is. Appearing in oppositions, nature is unity; form is limited space concrete only through its determination. Art has to determine space as well as form and to create the equivalence of these two factors. (19)

On the one hand, the development of this theory should not be thought to signify a precipitate termination of his Theosophic involvement, since an interpretation of the Pier and Ocean, as representing a species of universalized visionary landscape, is easily reconcilable with, perhaps enhanced by, the innovative significance it had for Mondrian's conceptual abandonment of the Renaissance form - space dichotomy. On the other hand, as he gradually abandoned reliance upon the various expressive and symbolic associations of specific subject motifs (including those predicated by Theosophy), his style and content increasingly took on a more independent and individual cast. To the extent that his conception of pictorial space appears more and more analogous to the general anti-Newtonian bent of twentieth-century astronomy and physics, there is, of course, a heightening of the secular or scientific aspect of his art. Nonetheless, until the end of his career, Mondrian's primary theoretical preoccupation continued to be "liberation from oppression in art and life," as he entitled one of his late essays. (20) In this search, both religion and science were found necessary to his theory of art, chiefly insofar as they illuminated or coincided with his primary pursuit of artistic goals.

The reader already may have noticed certain general structural similarities between the Pier and Ocean, and the Composition 12. There is no reason to think that Mondrian was consciously returning to the earlier painting in determining the composition of the National Gallery example. Yet the occurrence in both of a central cruciform image, and a common reliance upon stark black-white and vertical-horizontal contrasts, allows us to see the two works as generically related, in contrast, for example, to the much greater number of mature period paintings, in which asymmetrical design elements predominate. Most important , the rhythmical dispersion of vertical and horizontal lines against a luminous white ground provides the principal source of aesthetic interest in both paintings. To this extent, since Composition 12 seemingly represents the only major painting to have been begun in Europe and finished in New York while leaving intact a dominant centralized cruciform image, it may be considered the final elaboration of a theme in Mondrian's oeuvre of which the Pier and Ocean constituted his most definitive statement during the immediate post-Cubist years.

Another major precedent was set for Composition 12 when Mondrian, before returning from The Netherlands to France in 1919, which is to say, during his early De Stijl period, adopted an exclusive reliance in his art upon three basic plastic elements: namely, straight lines, rectangles and primary colours (that is, variants of blue, red and yellow, employed with the rectangles). Initially, this usage retained a form-space dualism, as is embodied in Composition in Colour-A (fig. 8) finished in early 1917. Here, space is still represented by the white ground as in Pier and Ocean, whereas the square or rectangular colour planes, and the conceptualized black lines, are treated as particularized forms which appear to overlap and to float against the lighter background. Just how difficult it must have been for Mondrian to abandon this residual attachment to observed subject matter is illustrated in another previously unpublished drawing, which one can designate a Detail Study of the Domburg Church Façade (fig. 9), from the remnants of Gothic window contours which survive from earlier versions of the subject (for example, fig. 2 and S: cc 250, 252-257; see also photograph, fig. 3). However, as the only known version to use a square, rather than vertical format, this modest exercise in achieving a disequilibrated balance of lines and implied planes must be considered a uniquely related preliminary study for Composition in Colour-A, and the companion piece, Composition in Colour-B (S: cc 291), both only slightly higher-than-wide canvases.

Moreover, in contrast to the few other known precedents, for example, Pier and Ocean, the Detail Study more consistently employs a network of straight lines in order to form a pseudo-grid composition, the individual linear components of which ambiguously act both to divide and to enclose areas of white ground. In this respect, the drawing functions as a link between the loose grid compositions of the Paris Façades, and the regular mathematical grid works which occurred exclusively during the years 1918-1919. In terms of the National Gallery Composition 12, it serves as yet another reminder of the variety and depth of experimentation that preceded the achievement of the late classic phase which began in the early 1920s. Thus, Composition 12 employs a near-perfect square picture format, and a basically cruciform interior composition, which, upon closer examination, cannot be viewed as a homogeneously unified configuration of lines and planes. This complexity of internal structure is due chiefly to an irregularity of internal intervals between the lines, all of which, like those of the Detail Study, function as much to divide as to contain the various white rectangles.

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