This is the End
Piet Mondrian was born (as Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan) on March 7, 1872 in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, and died on February 1, 1944, in New York City, from the effects of pneumonia. The painting pictured here, Victory Boogie-Woogie (1944), was his last work. It is arguably his most famous and certainly the most expensive, as it was bought by the Dutch government in 1997 for 82 million guilders (or 37 million euro). Many consider it an important example of abstract art and one of the artist’s best works.
And to think that it wasn’t even finished.
You may be forgiven for not realizing this when you look at the image above. After all, Mondrian was known for his abstract paintings consisting of straight lines, primary colours and large white areas, and in that regard Victory Boogie-Woogie seems to fit in just fine. Sure, it differs somewhat from the iconic style that inspired so many others.
For one, there are no black lines in Mondrian’s last painting, there are coloured planes within coloured planes and, apart from primary colours, a light grey is used. The diamond or lozenge shape of the canvas is uncommon, but something he had used a few times before. For all intents and purposes, Victory Boogie-Woogie appears finished and is a great contribution to the artist’s legacy. However, Mondrian was not satisfied with the composition and was still working on the painting when he was taken ill and moved to the hospital. He was using pieces of coloured tape instead of paint, enabling him to make quick and temporary changes. It appears that he was not yet done with these changes when he died, as the work was later found still sitting on the easel, futilely awaiting the return of its creator. The fact that the painting is considered unfinished is undoubtedly part of its appeal. It begs the question what Mondrian was trying to say or show, and in what way he thought he was failing.
Victory Boogie-Woogie and other paintings from the final years of his life seem to imply a new direction the artist was taking. This should come as no surprise. Like any artist, Mondrian developed his style over the course of decades and was subject to many influences. Not only the works and words of other artists and thinkers, but also the impressions of the world at large had their effect. Furthermore, he was driven by a need to find a perfect art form. Therefore, it is simply unfair and incorrect to dismiss his vast body of work as no more than a collection of primitive lines and rectangles. It is evidence of a man on a mission and shows his progress, the development of his style and his idea of art. This can also be seen in his earlier pieces, which are in many ways much different from the abstract paintings he was famous for, yet similar in some interesting visual and thematic ways.
We will take a journey back through time to uncover the evolution of Mondrian’s style.
A New World
The last years of his life, Mondrian lived and worked in New York. He had left war-torn Europe in 1940 in favour of a more safe and conducive climate. These years were very productive and he often worked feverishly on his paintings. The impressions that this large, bustling city provided seemed to inspire him greatly. The new sights and sounds – the lights of the cars and neon signs, the traffic on the grid-like streets, the verticality of the skyscrapers, and the energetic nightlife and music – all influenced and complemented his new work.
It is no coincidence that two of his paintings from this period are named after the boogie-woogie, the popular, fast-paced music Mondrian loved to dance to. Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1943), the first of the two, similarly uses multi-coloured lines, shapes within shapes, and coloured tape. It can be interpreted in more ways than one as a visual impression of Broadway. One way of looking at the painting is as if you are looking down on the streets of lower Manhattan, the dotted lines representing traffic, while the larger shapes are parks and buildings. Interestingly, when you compare it with an actual map of the area, it becomes clear that Broadway itself, the one diagonal street that crosses the rectangular grid, is conspicuously absent from the painting.
An alternative interpretation is that of the lights, movements, and rhythms associated with the shows on and around Broadway. The lines, broken up in small strips of colour, are reminiscent of the improvisation and syncopated beats of jazz and boogie-woogie, like lines of musical notation. The larger shapes can be explosions of sound and light that punctuate the musical landscape. This interpretation is probably closest to the artist’s intention, as Mondrian himself said:
“True Boogie Woogie I conceive as homogeneous in intention with mine in painting: destruction of melody which is the equivalent of destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means – dynamic rhythm.”
– Piet Mondrian, from a 1943 interview, quoted in ‘Eleven Europeans in America’, Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, 1946
Whichever interpretation you prefer, the painting clearly takes a step away from Concrete Art, that is to say, abstract art that is devoid of any reference to a symbol or real life image. Unlike practically all his works from the previous two decades or so, Broadway Boogie-Woogie is not just a composition of geometric shapes; it is a visual representation of a place, whether that representation is of a physical impression, an emotional one, or a combination of both.
Around the same time, Mondrian painted several works that were inspired by a location. At least, the names of the paintings Trafalgar Square (1943), Place de la Concorde (1943), and New York City (1942) seem to imply that was the case, though it can be hard to find the connections. The first two especially seem very typical of his iconic style of straight, black lines and primary coloured planes on a field of white. Only New York City is different and seems an indication of what he would eventually accomplish with the two Boogie-Woogie paintings. The coloured planes have disappeared and the black lines are replaced with coloured ones. They again remind us of the typical American rectangular street grid. However, if you look at the painting with tall buildings and construction activities in mind, you can also spot floors, windows, columns, and steel beams.
Before going to New York, Mondrian lived in London from 1938 to 1940, away from the growing tensions and the rise of fascism on Continental Europe. He had good reason to be wary of the Nazis. In 1937, the Germans had organized a very popular exhibition called the Degenerate Art Exhibition (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst”). It consisted of artwork that the Nazi party considered insulting to German sensibilities or that they just plain found inferior. It included many abstract paintings and Mondrian was also represented with two pieces. Needless to say, he was abhorred by this development and he feared the growing influence of the Nazi party in Europe. His time in London was not very productive. Instead, it was one of reflection and relaxation and being with friends. Many of the works he did start on in London, he actually finished in New York, including, not surprisingly, Trafalgar Square.
Earlier, in the period between the two World Wars, Mondrian lived in Paris, the cultural capital of the world and a haven for many artists like him. It was here that he fully developed his familiar and widely recognizable style. Especially his work in the late 20’s and 30’s is considered quintessentially Mondrian. The works are firmly within the confines of Concrete Art, as defined by his friend and influence Theo van Doesburg:
“We speak of concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a surface. A woman, a tree, a cow; are these concrete elements in a painting? No. A woman, a tree and a cow are concrete only in nature; in painting they are abstract, illusionistic, vague and speculative. However, a plane is a plane, a line is a line and no more or no less than that. “Concrete painting”. Spirit has arrived at the age of maturity…”
– Theo van Doesburg, ‘Comments on the basic of concrete painting’, Paris, January 1930, Art Concret, April 1930, pp. 2-4
As such, Concrete Art makes interpretation a fluid and almost futile task. After all, what can definitively be said about the following three paintings?
Not to diminish their artfulness, but the most interesting aspect of these works is perhaps not what they depict or how they were made, but rather the reason why they were made the way they were. What drove Mondrian to create such abstract art?
Defining the Style
During the First World War Mondrian lived back home in The Netherlands, a neutral country at that time. He met and worked with fellow Dutch artists and together, recognizing similarities in their intent and expression, in 1917 they founded the group De Stijl (Dutch for “The Style”). Apart from Mondrian and Van Doesburg, the group also included painter Bart van der Leck and architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld. The following works, all from the year of founding of De Stijl, are early examples of the group’s principles in action and show some of the influence they had on Mondrian and each other.
The group strove for abstraction and reduction to essential elements. Mondrian himself invented the term Neoplasticism and wrote about it in the first edition of the group’s eponymous journal:
“The new plastic idea cannot, therefore, take the form of concrete representation, although the latter does always indicate the universal to a degree, or at least conceal it within. This new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour. “
“Art will become the product of another duality in man: the product of cultivated externality and of inwardness deepened and more conscious. As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. “
– Piet Mondrian, De Stijl, No. 1, Oktober 1917
In light of this, the intent behind his later works becomes clearer. His art was not meant to depict anything, but only to evoke a response from the audience. What the response was did not matter, as long as it was a result from a connection between the artwork and the viewer, without any external stimuli or context. To achieve this, Mondrian chose to paint only abstract forms and gave no indication that the paintings were supposed to depict anything. Even the titles were neutral so as not to give any suggestion.
This interpretation of what art should be not only lay at the foundation of Mondrian’s future output but can also be found in some of his earlier work. For example, Composition with Oval in Colour Planes II (1914) uses the straight, angular black lines and vivid (though not primary) colours. It is a more playful work, utilizing some curved and diagonal lines and fading certain areas along the borders. When studying the painting, one can imagine buildings, windows and doors, as if tossed on a colourful heap. The fading at the bottom has a shimmering quality, as if it is a reflection in water. It could be a building at some water’s edge, perhaps on the docks or a canal, or maybe it is just the artist’s (or the beholder’s) imagination gone wild. All this is pure speculation, as neither the painting’s name nor the image itself gives any clear reference to what it is supposed to depict.
Before the First World War broke out, Mondrian lived in Paris, from 1911 to 1914. Here, he officially dropped the second “a” from his name, giving it a more French appearance and pronunciation. The Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who both were working in Paris during those years, were a great influence on Mondrian. At the same time, though, he was also working on developing his own style, as he felt Cubism had its limitations:
“Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction towards its own goal, the expression of pure reality.”
– Piet Mondrian, source and date unknown
A wonderful example of his search can be found in two paintings he made of the same subject. While the first, Still Life with Ginger Pot I (1911), is a more traditional work, reminiscent of other artists working at that time, its companion piece, Still Life with Ginger Pot II (1912), shows a completely new style, indicative of the work that was to come. While it depicts the same (or very similar) scene, it was finished a year after the first painting. Mondrian had obviously taken the time to reinterpret the tableau, implementing the principles of abstraction and reduction he later finalized with Neoplasticism. While the objects on this painting have been reduced almost to their essential form, with as many straight lines and angles as possible, they are still recognizable. Where later works seem somewhat crude, this painting retains a certain elegance.
Another interesting series of paintings from that era are those that are depictions of trees. Involving the same subject, they show a development from a figurative style to one that is becoming more and more abstract.
The Red Tree (1910) is a Post-impressionistic painting of a bare tree at night. It uses vivid (almost primary) colours and bold strokes to create a harsh yet vibrant picture.
With The Grey Tree (1911), Mondrian took the image of a tree with its crooked, bare limbs, drained it of its colour and turned it into a rather wild, twisted depiction.
He continued the process of reduction with Trees in Blossom (1912), a calmer, gentler painting, but one where its subject may not be clear at first glance. Knowing the title, it is easy to see the tree trunks in the lower half of the painting and the canopies above, but it is now obviously an abstract interpretation of its real-life counterpart.
With Composition Trees II (1912) Mondrian has reduced the trunks and branches of the trees to a collection of sharp, angular lines. The use of “composition” in the title is also an indication that he is moving away from considering the painting a representation of an object or scene, but starting to look at it as art justified by merely its own existence. In later works any descriptors other than shape and colour are rejected.
Experimenting with Styles
The Red Tree was actually made while Mondrian was still living in the Netherlands, during a period when he was experimenting heavily.
Around 1909-1910, he painted various versions of the lighthouse at Westkapelle, using different styles and techniques, as exemplified in the two paintings below.
Around the same time, he also made a lot of paintings of windmills, flirting with a range of styles.
These works show that Mondrian was constantly trying out new styles. Some of these, such as Post-impressionism, Pointillism and Fauvism, have influenced elements of his later work. Pointillism, for instance, was his first foray into the breaking down of the image in smaller parts, each meaningless by themselves, but essential elements of the picture as a whole. Other influences included the bold colours of Fauvism and some of the more abstract elements of Post-Impressionism, such as the inclination towards unnatural shapes and colours.
In a letter from 1909, he philosophises about the nature of art:
“For the present at least I shall restrict my work to the ordinary world of the senses, since that is the world in which we still live. But nevertheless art can even now form a transition to the finer regions, which perhaps I am incorrect in calling spiritual, for everything that has form is not yet spiritual, as I read somewhere. But it is nonetheless the path of ascension away from matter.”
– Piet Mondrian, in a letter to Israel Querido, 1909
Before he came into contact with those movements, he painted in a mostly Realistic and Impressionistic fashion. His preferred subjects were the Dutch landscape, villages, farms and windmills, though he has also painted a few portraits and still lifes.
Mondrian was introduced to art and painting at a young age. His father taught him to draw and his uncle Frits, a painter himself, often took young Piet along with him to paint in the countryside. Later, he received lessons from retired art teacher Baet van Ueberfeldt and was accepted into the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam in 1892. He earned his degree and became a qualified art teacher, working at a primary school while painting in his free time.
The works from the earlier part of his life show that Mondrian was an accomplished and versatile artist, one who had enjoyed a formal education at the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam. It is always enlightening to look at the origins of artists and the progression they have made in their lives. It places their works in context and helps you appreciate them more. In Mondrian’s case, it shows an artist who had mastered several styles and techniques and was in search of the perfect art form. He sought it in abstraction, in the removal of subject from art. Whether or not you agree with his beliefs, or even like his works, is irrelevant in this regard. The fact that Mondrian dedicated his life to his pursuit, and not caved in to complacency or commercialism, made him a true artist.
After all, it is amazing to see that the man who distilled his art to this:
…40 years earlier, drew like this: