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Piet Mondrian, Neoplasticism and De Stijl

Piet Mondriaan was born in the Netherlands in 1872. His painting style evolved as he discovered the new styles of painting of Europe in the early twentieth century. He and his painting became more European and international and he changed the spelling of his name from the more Dutch-sounding Mondriaan to the less Dutch (even perhaps Armenian) Mondrian. He was influenced by Cubism to the point of taking art studies in Paris at the late age of about forty. He had previously been acquainted with artists influenced by Fauvism and Pointillism. But these schools of thought in art were left behind at he developed his own doctrine of art, called Neoplasticism. This aesthetic philosophy was rooted in his interest in Theosophy. Under the guidance of theosophy painting became a devotional experience for Mondrian.

Using his doctrine of Neoplasticism as a guide Mondrian and other artists created works of art which were collectively known as De Stijl (The Style). This started at the time of the First World War.

De Stijl was not limited just to painting; it also included architecture, stage sets and furniture design. Mondrian was joined in creating De Stijl by the artists Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, Georges Vantongerloo and Gerrit Rietveld. Van Doesburg edited a periodical entitled De Stijl which gave coherence to the movement and in which Mondrian published his formulation of the movements aesthetic principles.

The Tenets of Neoplasticism

The implementation of these principles can be seen in the artistic production of the group. The reversion to geometric and color simplicity can be seen in Mondrian's Square Composition with Gray Line produced in 1918. The illustration shown below is not a reproduction of Mondrian's painting but a reconstruction of it as a Java Applet. The reason for using this method of presenting Mondrian's painting is that it is more in keeping with the principles of Neoplasticism. The computer can produce the elements of his painting with a purity and uniformity that was only approximated with the use of canvas and paints.

This point is better illustrated with Mondrian's Checkerboard Composition in Light Colors (1919) and his Composition: Checkerboard, Dark Colors.

Checkerboard Composition in Light Colors (1919)

Composition: Checkerboard, Dark Colors (1919)

Mondrian's earlier implementation of neoplasticism seem tame by comparison to his later work. Such an early work (1917) is his Composition III with Color Planes.

Composition III with Color Planes (1917)

In Mondrian's Composition C (1920) the distinctive features of his later style are seen, although this work is clearly a primitive version.

Composition C (1920)

In his Composition of 1921 his style has evolved a bit more but there are still adjoining blocks of the same color. When these adjoining blocks are dark blue it detracts from the aesthetics of the composition.

Composition (1921)

His geometrization of art becomes more extreme in later years but more aesthetically pleasing. In his Composition II (1929) he has perhaps gone too far in spareness.

Composition II (1929)

But in his Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1930) and another composition of the same title but uncertain date he has achieved the right aesthetic balance.

Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (1930)

Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue

Finally in the last few years of his life his compositions became primarily rhythmic placements of lines.

New York City I (1942)

This line of development culminated in Mondrian's tribute to New York City, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43). There was only one work after this one, one that was not complete, entitled Victory Boogie Woogie.

Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-43)

Mondrian's painting Victory Boogie Woogie seems to have been affected by his ill health and perhaps wartime shortages of artist supplies. Some of the colors are muddied rather than the pure tones expected on the basis of Neoplasticism. The painting was not finished and some patches seem to be in the process of being painted out. Below is a reconstruction of Victory Boogie Woogie that attempts to present what Mondrian was trying to achieve. Computer graphics, with its precision and pure, emissive color, is probably the ideal medium for Neoplastic art.

Victory Boogie-Woogie (1943-44)

Self-portraint of Piet Mondrian behind a transparency of one of his abstracts

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