I am up bright an early today, so I thought I would start by refreshing your minds with some Piet Mondrian.
Due to the artist’s less than flamboyant lifestyle and temperament, a Mondrian biography is easily written. This does not however, reduce the importance of the work of this very exciting artist and this Piet Mondrian biography serves as a tribute, as well as a source of information.
Pieter Cornelis Mondrian was born on March 7th 1872 in Amersvoort in central Holland and lived there for the first eight years of his life. He was the second child of four, with two brothers and one sister. His father Pieter Cornelis Sr. was headmaster of an elementary school, a gifted draftsman and amateur artist. Uncle Frits Mondrian was a self-taught painter and commercially successful, even the Russian court bought his work. As Piet Jr. progressed towards abstract art, he came into conflict with uncle Frits, which seems to have had something to do with Piet Mondrian signing his paintings with “Piet Mondrian” (instead of Mondriaan) from 1912 on.
The Mondrians, devout Calvinists, were an artistic family who painted and made music and Mondrian Sr. could afford a decent education for his four children. Early on Piet Jr. proved to have a talent for drawing. His father gave him drawing lessons and took his son to the countryside to sketch. Uncle Frits taught him the basics of painting.
As a teenager Mondrian was thoroughly educated in drawing and visited several schools. His education was complemented by a retired art-teacher Baet van Ueberfeldt. Mondrian Sr. intended his son to become a drawing teacher so that Piet would be able to make a living. Mondrian won his licences and was allowed to teach at primary and secondary schools. With his licences under his belt, having fulfilled his father’s demands, Piet Mondrian decided to become an artist, not a teacher, in 1892. His father could not afford an education at the National Academy of Art in Amsterdam, but Uncle Frits managed to obtain an allowance for Piet Mondrian; he was 20 when he moved to Amsterdam.
There he studied either full time or attended evening classes and joined several artist’s societies where he exhibited his work, for the first time in 1893 (he was 21). He got some commissions, like a ceiling painting and he applied for several prizes, with varying degree of success. In 1903 (at 31) he won his first prize from the “Arti et Amicitae Society”. Traveling back and forth between Amsterdam and various parts of rural Holland he devoted practically all of his time to painting landscapes, first in the style of the “The Hague School”, then gradually more and more abstract, omitting details he regarded as irrelevant. The more abstract his work became, the more appreciation and recognition he gained from fellow artists and other forward thinking contemporaries, at the same time the more criticism he met, particularly from Dutch art critics, “This man is totally confused”. Particularly important were his trips to Domburg, a small town on an island, that was turned into an artist’s community by Jan Toorop, one of the leading Dutch artists then, not in the least because of his organizational flair. Toorop acted as the principle intermediate between the Dutch and French art communities and devoted much of his time to bringing artists together.
In 1909 Piet Mondrian joined a theosophical society, which not only meant a definitive break with the orthodox Christian believe-system of his parents, but also became the foundation of his thinking and the intellectual side of his art. In these years Mondrian begins to resemble Rasputin in appearance (at least I think so) and he meditates. Like many artists of his time, Mondrian can be regarded as a hippy “avant la letre”, although later his appearance changes again, making him a sharply dressed man, indistinguishable from your average stockbroker or bookkeeper. This change may be connected to his love of nature and the country, changing into a preference for the city.
In his work this translates into his initial interest in the quasi random and disorderly quality of nature (the way branches on trees grow, the shape and distribution of clouds), which then changes into his well known paintings that consist of horizontal and vertical lines, the horizontal representing femininity and the worldly, the vertical masculinity and the spiritual. In his neo-plasticism he aimed to create a balance between the horizontal and the vertical, in tune with the laws of the universe, as he saw them, and his theosophical believes.
Around 1909, 1910 his breakthrough came insofar that he came to be regarded as one of the leaders of the Dutch avant-garde, of course still getting bad journalistic criticism. In 1910 he became a full member of the jury of an art society. In 1911 he was exposed for the first time by the works of the cubists Braque and Picasso, at an exhibition in Amsterdam. It is assumed that this made him want to move to Paris, the center of French art and cubism. Arriving in Paris in 1912, he quickly became internationally famous with exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. Piet Mondrian lived in Montparnasse, near the Eiffel Tower and enjoyed the city, with it’s exhibitions, parties and night-life. He was an avid dancer, preferably with young women. Piet Mondrian sold little in Paris, but made a living copying famous paintings from the Louvre.
In 1914 World War I began. Piet Mondrian had returned to Holland to visit his father who was mortally ill. Trapped in Holland, Piet Mondrian would not see Paris for four years because of the war, his equipment and paintings still in Paris. His father died in 1915. In that year he moved to Laren, in Holland, which then was an artist’s community attracting artists like Van Der Leck and Van Doesburg. The latter founded a magazine called “De Stijl” (The Style) for which Piet Mondrian wrote a few articles. Van Doesburg brought together a group of artists that contributed to the magazine. They were of the opinion that artists, architects and sculptors should work together to create a new society that would be in tune with “the laws of the universe”. The art that went with it should be clear in form and spiritual, as opposed to earthly. Natural forms were earthly, straight lines and angles spiritual. Thus “it would not be impossible to create a paradise on Earth”, they said. Now De Stijl is known as an art movement, almost synonymous with the red, yellow and blue neo-plasticism paintings of Piet Mondrian.
Not feeling at home in Holland, Piet Mondrian returned to Paris in 1919, where he had a book published, called Le Néo-Plasticisme, containing his essays written for De Stijl and it was translated in German in 1925. In Paris he had some more exhibitions, joined an art group, but perhaps most importantly, he met the American artist Harry Holtzman in Paris, in 1934. Holtzman later enabled Piet Mondrian to go to America, where he had his finest years as an artist.
While in Paris, he painted the walls and furniture of his Paris apartment/studio white and decorated the walls with grey and red cartboard rectangles, as he was living within a painting of his.
During his years in Paris, Mondrian’s reputation as an international representative of abstract art grew, but with art-insiders particularly. His paintings still didn’t fetch high prices as they never would during his lifetime. Mondrian didn’t really seem to mind. He had fulfilled his artistic dreams.
After Hitler had come to power in 1933, Mondrian’s work was put on the list of “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art). Presumably having learned from his experiences during World War I, in which he had to leave all his paintings in Paris, Mondrian left Paris in September 1938, before the German invasion. He lived for two years his London where he became befriended with artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. As the Germans increased pressure on England, Mondrian left London in September 1940, in the midst of the blitz.
On borrowed money, Mondrian arrived in New York in October 1940. Harry Holtzman had found and paid for his apartment and studio and introduced him to his friends. In New York Mondrian concluded his career with monumental works like “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” and (the unfinished) “Victory Boogie-Woogie“.
In 1944 (he was almost 72) Piet Mondrian died of pneumonia in a New York hospital.
This concludes this site’s biography of Piet Mondrian. The next part represents this author’s view on Piet Mondrian and his work.
Tribute to Piet Mondrian
One can arbitrarily divide Piet Mondrian’s work into two, the dividing line being his “Tree series”. Most first class artists would have been satisfied going on with painting trees the way Mondrian did. I can’t think of any other painting that conveys the soul of the Northern European landscape more deeply as his trees. Mondrian’s “Red Tree”, “Blue Tree” and “Grey Tree” are artistic masterpieces. Technically however, they look strangely insecure. With the “Red Tree” Mondrian seemed unable to render the foreground as convincingly as the rest. Two artists can arrive at the same point independently, but it seems likely that, like many artists of his generation, he was inspired by Vincent van Gogh while making the “Red Tree”. A serious artist who tries to “paint like Van Gogh” is in trouble, however. Van Gogh is one the greatest “composers” in the history of the visual arts. Composing in this context, is meant to represent the ability to fit a great many details together in the best possible coherence. Mondrian was a very able landscape artist, but to paint in Van Gogh’s expressive semi-abstract style is another matter. I hypothesize that Mondrian was overtaxed. The “Grey Tree” represents the limit (now in a cubist style) of how far Mondrian could go in creating a composition that is “spontaneously” painted, with semi-improvised brush-strokes.
It has been suggested that Mondrian pursued an abstract style to break with his domineering father, who was a draftsman and strict naturalist. One can always come up with some kind of Neo-Freudian speculation on another man’s mind; it seems more sensible to look for an artistic explanation, which there is, in my opinion.
Mondrian was, not commercially or socially, but artistically ambitious. He wanted to paint like the great, but ran into the limits of his ability. Mondrian could draw very well, he was well-trained and his drawings do not should show any signs of insecurity. “The whims of nature” can be captured with a pencil on paper, but painting adds other dimensions, such as color and the texture of the paint. Whether his presumed inability to render nature as he wanted is responsible for his growing dislike of nature, that developed during his life is an open question. Abstract painting however, has the advantage that it’s a more controlled environment. The abstract artist has a greater freedom to define his own artistic and technical parameters than the naturalist. Mondrian’s earlier neo-plastic works are compositionally quite simple, with carefully arranged rectangles, but with few details. In New York however, he created his “Boogie Woogie” paintings, which to my mind are among the best compositions of the 20th century. And thus Mondrian achieved his goal: to become one of the greatest painters in history.
While he had stretched his talent to the limit 20 years earlier, in the subsequent period he cleverly and intelligently developed a style that enabled him to circumvent his limitations and turn his career into an absolute success.