The Prophetic Vision of Piet Mondrian, Part 1: Equilibrium in Art and Life

Evening; Red Tree (Avond; De rode boom), by Piet Mondrian, 1908–1910, Public Domain.

This is the first part in an series of occasional articles about why Piet Mondrian went from painting representational images to painting abstract images.

His writings reveal his reasons for this progression. These writings are profound and enlightening, but can be difficult to understand.

After a short review of his earlier work, this article examines the parallels he saw between the evolution of his art and the progress of culture and life itself. Subsequent articles will be about some of the other ideas — such as equilibrium, liberation, and high universal morality — described in his writings.

Pieter Cornelis “Piet” Mondriaan

View from the Dunes with Beach and Piers, Domburg , by Piet Mondrian, 1909, Public Domain

Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan was born to Johanna Christina de Kok and Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan sr. in 1872, in the town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands. He started painting at an early age and in 1892 entered the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam.

Mondrian’s early works were representational — landscapes containing fields, rivers, windmills, and the like. His Evening; Red Tree (Avond; De rode boom) from 1908–1910 and the 1909 painting, View from the Dunes with Beach and Piers, Domburg, are examples of his work at this time.

Theosophism and Cubism

Still Life With Ginger Jar I (Stilleven met gemberpot I), by Piet Mondrian, 1911–1912, Public Domain.
Still Life With Ginger Jar II (Stilleven met gemberpot II), by Piet Mondrian, 1911–1912, Public Domain.

Piet Mondrian joined the Theosophical Society in 1909. According to theosophical.org, Theosophists “encourage open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.”

One could say the theosophists taught themselves how to “think outside the box” long before it was even a thing, much less cool.

The 1910s were transformative for Mondrian. It is fascinating to view his paintings during this period in chronological order.

It was during this time that he — using terms from his writings — abandoned “particular forms” completely. By 1919 his paintings became so abstract that all representation was “annihilated.”

Mondrian’s work from 1910 through 1914 shows how his representative works became more and more geometric until they were totally abstract. Some of his paintings during this time — such as Still Life With Gingerpot I and Still Life With Gingerpot II — show a trend towards the Cubist style for which artists such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso are most well-known.

WW I and De Stijl

Cover of “De Stijl,” Volume 1, no. 1, by Theo van Doesburg, 1917. Public Domain.

World War I raged from 1914–1918 in other parts of Europe, but the Netherlands was neutral.

It was during the war, in 1917, that Mondrian joined several other artists and architects — one of them the very versatile Theo van Doesburg — in founding an art movement called De Stijl, Dutch for “The Style.”

And it was during this time — from 1916 through 1921 — that he developed the distinctive, neoplastic style for which he is most famous. Neoplastic paintings are totally abstract and non-representational, and contain only perpendicular rectangles and lines drawn using only black, white, grey, and primary colors.

Mondrian’s Writings

Tableau I, by Piet Mondrian, 1921, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Public Domain.

Most of Mondrian’s paintings after 1921 were what he called “purely plastic expression.” Reduced to only the essential elements, these paintings contain only black horizontal and vertical lines, and rectangles painted in primary colors, all on a white background.

While the evolution in Piet Mondrian’s paintings is interesting, his writings — which explain his perceptions and reasons for creating this style — are fascinating.

In his writings, Mondrian makes it clear his goal in using “pure line and color” was to compose these essential elements so that the opposites of form and color would exist “in equilibrium.”

The New Art — The New Life: A Culture of Pure Relationships

Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black (Compositie met rood, geel, blaw en swart), by Piet Mondrian, 1921. Public Domain.

Piet Mondrian completed his book, The New Art, The New Life: A Culture of Pure Relationships, in 1931, but by then had been working on it since at least 1921.

This book is short, but abstract, prophetic, and very profound — so much so that The Collected Works of Piet Mondrian, which contains all of his writings and was published in 1987, bears the title as its sub-title.

In this book — as the following quotes from it show — Mondrian reveals how he believed that art and life follow similar paths of evolution:

In life every sincere effort leads to human evolution, and it is the same in art. Rightly seen, there remains a single path of evolution that, regardless of time, is identical for life and for art….
This fact that art demonstrates is of great importance for life, because it forms the basis of progress and shows its path.
 — Piet Mondrian, The New Art, The New Life, 1931. [Emphasis in original.]

This realization is key to seeing how Mondrian’s vision was not just unique for its time, but also quite prophetic.

In this book Mondrian claims that, just as his and others’ art has evolved into a composition containing opposites of form and color in equilibrium, future society will likewise evolve. By liberating themselves from limiting forms, people will be able to see the opposites in society purely.

If art is an expression of life and anticipates it, we can state that the new life is the culture of equivalent relationships.
Just as with the plastic means in art, it is evident that for this life our mentality must become more or less purified, not in an old-fashioned puritanical way, but so as to rise above the oppression of limiting, particular forms. Thus in the same way as art, life reaches a state of real equilibrium through pure and equivalent relationships of increasingly free individuals.
 — Piet Mondrian, The New Art, The New Life, 1931. [Emphasis in original.]

Once free people can clearly perceive and understand life’s opposing forces, they can replace today’s conflicts with equilibrium — what he calls “equivalent relationships.”

Preposterous!?!

If at first this notion seems preposterous, it takes only a moment’s thought to realize that society and everyday life are rife with opposites:

The rhythm of the straight line in rectangular opposition indicates the need for equivalence of these two aspects in life: the equal value of the material and spiritual, the masculine and feminine, the collective and individual, etc. Just as the vertical line differs in character from the horizontal, so in life the two aspects have their inherent and opposed character. But just as in art these lines have different dimensions, so individuals and their groups differ in strength or size. Art demonstrates that life, through equivalence of its opposed aspects — despite their different nature — can approach real equilibrium.
 — Piet Mondrian, The New Art, The New Life, 1931. [Emphasis in original.]

Fully understanding this, of course, requires full understanding of the word “equilibrium.”

Understanding Equilibrium

Composition II with Black Lines (Compositie nr.2 met swarte lijnen), by Piet Mondrian, 1921. Public Domain.

A full definition of what Mondrian means by the term equilibrium is beyond the scope of this article. In fact, in this book Mondrian asserts that “the word equilibrium has caused many misunderstandings and repeated errors.

The wiktionary defines equilibrium as being “The condition of a system in which competing influences are balanced, resulting in no net change.” Thinking of it as being a balance of competing influences is a good start, but it implies the opposing influences are static, and that even mere symmetry could suffice to balance them.

So what is “equilibrium?” It’s actually a bit easier to explain Mondrian’s sense of the word in terms of what it is not.

Equilibrium: It’s Not Symmetry nor Harmony

Composition with Blue (Compositie met blauw), by Piet Mondrian, 1937. Public Domain.

In reality, life is in constant flux, so there is no way symmetry can bring these opposing forces into equilibrium. And even though a specific work of art may be static, art as a whole is always in flux as well.

So trying to use Mondrian’s art to understanding equilibrium definitely requires looking at more than one of his paintings. Looking at the work of other artists can be helpful, too!

The word harmony also falls short of defining what Mondrian meant. In The New Art, The New Life he states “the new aesthetic speaks of ‘equilibrium’ instead of harmony” because “the ‘harmony’ of the past expresses a veiled state.

Say What?!?

Taken out of context, these excerpts from the book may not make much sense to readers new to Mondrian’s ideas and his way of expressing them. Significantly, he wrote the original in French, so his words may well have lost something in the translation.

Although it is difficult to explain and understand what Mondrian meant by the term equilibrium, seeing a sufficient number of his paintings can help more intuitive people get the gist of what he means by it. And that, of course, this was precisely his intent in painting them — and explaining them in his writings.

Skeptics Versus Believers

Composition with Black, White, Yellow and Red (Compositie met zwart, wit, geel en rood), by Piet Mondrian, 1939–1942. Public Domain.

Life is full of pairs of opposites — and people who are convinced as opposed to those who are skeptical about all this comprise one such pair.

As an open-minded, intuitive person, I was immediately receptive to all this and had no trouble understanding it.

Not everyone, however, is all that intuitive. In fact, there is evidence that realistic people outnumber intuitives by about 3-to-1.

So the skeptics are no doubt actually in the majority! If you are one of these people, but willing to learn something new, keep reading.

Abstract Art, WTF?!?

New York City II, by Piet Mondrian, 1942–1944. Public Domain.

Many people grow up with the idea that visual art should be representational — depicting objects in the real world — without realizing they have been hearing abstractions in music all their lives. This is because, since the earliest cave wall paintings, visual art has been representational, while music is — due to its being invisible — by its very nature quite abstract.

This is the path I found myself on when I first learned about Mondrian. To help people in a similar position understand the painters of the early 20th century, in light of more modern popular music, I have written a series of articles about this on medium.com.

Part 1 is about Bob Dylan’s song All Along the Watchtower, Part 2 focuses on John Coltrane’s magnum opus A Love Supreme, and Part 3 discusses the music of The Talking Heads.

If you are a fan of one or more of these artists, but do not yet fully appreciate abstract visual art, please check out one or more of these articles!

It Looks Too Easy!

Composition II in Red Blue and Yellow, by Piet Mondrian, 1930. Public Domain

When I learned about Piet Mondrian, I immediately thought “a computer could do this.” Since then, I have tried writing a program to produce this type of art — multiple times, in fact — and failed.

It looks easy to create these compositions, but it is not! I have learned through experience that taking one of his paintings — his Composition With Red, Blue, and Yellow, for example — and changing it even slightly — changing just the colors, for example — can destroy the image’s equilibrium.

For proof, see the gallery of experimental “Mondrianesque Compositions” at seeourminds.com.

This is one of his less complicated images, but as it turns out it is quite fragile, despite its superficial simplicity. After this experience, I for one am sure that trying to tweak an of his paintings would result in similar less-than-ideal compositions!

A Final Thought

Victory Boogie-Woogie (unfinished), by Piet Mondrian, 1942–1944. Public Domain

Are we here today any closer to the goal of living in universal equilibrium than Mondrian was 100 years ago?

Is the following quote any less true now than it was when he wrote it in 1931?

Every day we are astonished by the complete absence of true love, friendship, brotherhood, kindness. Centuries and centuries ago the great message of universal love was proclaimed: although its influence is undeniable, man has not changed.
Therefore, let us not insist upon what has shown itself as unrealizable. Art demonstrates that life impels humanity toward equivalence of its two opposed aspects and thus toward the destruction of individual limitations. This is how life can realize the high ideals proclaimed so long ago.
 — Piet Mondrian, The New Art, The New Life, 1931. [Emphasis in original.]

These are questions each of us must answer in our own way, in our own time.

What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding, indeed.

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding — Elvis Costello & The Attractions.
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