MONDRIAN Piet
( 1872-1944). Dutch painter; born at Amersfoort, in central Holand; died in New York. Mondrian came from a strict Calvinist family. His father, a schoolteacher himself, brought him up to teach. Eventually the son turned down this career, and having earned two degrees to teach drawing in state schools, he enrolled in the Amsterdam Academy ( 1892), where he was a studious pupil, well thought of by his teachers. Then he went through a difficult period, painting a great deal, selling little, gaining his livelihood by copying museum pieces or making scientific drawings. He worked chiefly in the vicinity of Amsterdam and often returned to the same motif: a farm at Duivendrecht, for example, which he repainted many times from the same vantage point. The colour was often delicate, although grey and dull green predominated; the style was direct and the handling full of assurance. A long stay, about 1903, among Catholic peasants in Dutch Brabant seemed to open new vistas to him.
Religious matters fascinated him, and he read books published by the Theosophical Society, of which he became a member a few years later. At this time he preferred to paint isolated houses or mystical undergrowth in mauve and grey. His first stay at Domburg on the island of Walcheren, in the summer of 1908, changed his manner entirely. Light appeared in his palette; mauve faded gradually to make room for light blues, whites, pinks, and golds (the sequences of Dunes and of The Towers of Westkapelle, 1908-1911). Friends urged him to go to Paris. The Dutch painter Kickert lent him a studio in Montparnasse, and he left late in 1911. Influenced at once by Cubism, he painted the famous Trees series, successive abstractions of a given theme that remain unique in the painting of the century. Two weeks before the outbreak of the First World War he returned to Holland to see his sick father. The war caught him in Amsterdam, and he was unable to get back to Paris until after the Armistice was signed. During these four and a half years he stayed at Domburg, Scheveningen, Amsterdam and the village of Laren. He continued his research in abstractionism -- themes of The Sea, Cathedral Façades -which resulted in 1915 in rhythms of horizontal and vertical lines (canvases later called plus and minus series), and which constituted an immediate prelude to Neo-Plasticism or pure plastic art.
Afterward he made the acquaintance of Theo Van Doesburg, and together they founded the magazine De Stijl. At this time Mondrian wrote more than he painted. He published lengthy doctrinaire essays in De Stijl, some of them under the form of dialogues. One of these, Natural Reality and Abstract Reality, can be considered one of the cornerstones of Abstract Art. Returning to Paris in 1919, Mondrian continued his long meditations upon the NeoPlastic horizontal-vertical theme, meditations which were terminated only by his death twentyfive years later. The backgrounds he used were at first grey and then blue, but beginning in 1922 they remained uniformly white. Often compositions were repeated with slight changes, like the series of square canvases produced between 1929 and 1932. Among colours, red held his preference. Some of the works of this central period contain a red rectangle that occasionally takes up two-thirds of the painted surface. The painter exhibited little, sold only to a few collectors, and lived modestly in a studio organized and painted according to Neo-Plastic principles. He made very little stir but was known the world over. The significance of his work spread far beyond the borders of his native country. For a time Léger and Baumeister, and later Ben Nicholson and Max Bill, were influenced by his ideas. He had disciples: among them Miss Moss and Jean Gorin. In 1925 the Bauhaus published his book Neue Gestaltung, an expanded German translation of a booklet that had appeared in Paris in 1920 under the title Le Néo-Plasticisme. The significance of Mondrian's art is due, above all, to his search for plastic purity through reduction of means to a simple expression of the essential relation of two straight lines meeting at a right angle. He proscribed not only the curved line and spatial illusion, but also every trick of the brush and every treatment reminiscent of the Impressionist technique. The result was a kind of mystical pursuit of the absolute that made a tabula rasa of the world of appearances. The canvas being a plane, the paint applied to it was also on a strict plane and was to be the vehicle of a concept outside both space and time but presiding over them: the relation. But Mondrian always desired this relation to be dynamic and to express an asymmetrical balance.
In September 1938, sensing the approach of war, he left Paris for London and went on to New York in September 1940. There he resumed work, encouraged by the interest of numerous admirers. Canvases begun in London, or even in Paris, were finished in New York with the addition of squares and lines of colour to alleviate the oppressive effect of the black lines that had grown so numerous. The last two years of his life brought him more satisfaction than had the fifty preceding years of incessant labour. His material comfort was reflected in his works by a greater spiritual ease. Black was proscribed. New York City contains only yellow, red and blue lines. In Broadway Boogie-Woogie the lines tend to split into small rectangles, as if keeping time to a happy pizzicato. Finally, with the unfinished Victory Boogie-Woogie, he achieved joy, in a symphony in which measure and freedom, restraint and exaltation dissolve into perfect unity, of which the Neo-Plastic horizontal-vertical basis remains the law. The importance of Mondrian in this century's painting is considerable, not only on account of his slow, gradual progress from Naturalism to the most severe Abstractionism, but also on account of the quality of the work at each progressive step. At no moment of its development does this painting leave one indifferent: it takes full responsibility and knows no compromise. On the most arid summits of abstraction something still vibrates behind the canvas, warming, humanizing and making it inimitable.
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