When Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, moved to New York in 1940, he was 68 years of age. He had spent a lifetime living alone in apartments starkly decorated and furnished in the manner and style of one of his own, now famous, grid paintings. A sense of order and harmony had always been important to him and he believed that the goal of life should be to eliminate chaos and disorder.
He wanted to create a path back to paradise and his paintings were that path. Through them he could offer others a means to achieve in their own lives that same purity, order and balance he felt. New York, however, changed all that. There he discovered a freedom he hadn’t known before and he was able to let go of that sense of responsibility. With the new-found knowledge that life was for living, he embraced the city’s dynamic energy with relish, leaving austerity behind and transforming his art in the process.
Piet Mondrian was born in the Netherlands in 1872. Brought up in a strict Calvinist home, under the influence of a fanatically devout father, he was never able to shake off his religious upbringing entirely. He found an alternative outlet for his spirituality in Theosophy, an obscure religion which promoted the idea of a universal harmony and order in nature. These are the ideas that lie at the heart of all of Mondrian’s work.
During his early career, he worked mainly as a landscape painter, incorporating elements of Impressionism, Fauvism and pointillism into his early works and experimenting with the use of colour. Trained at the Academy of Fine Art in Amsterdam, he studied the techniques of the Old Masters (particularly Rembrandt) and blended them with ideas from contemporary artists such as Vincent Van Gough. Although he produced naturalistic paintings to meet the demands of the art-buying market of the time, his real interest lay in exploring the process of painting and the experience of the painting itself and he was determined to become an abstract painter.
Mondrian sought to achieve a purity of experience in his paintings through a process of stripping back and expanding the existing boundaries of art. In 1912, he moved to Paris and came into contact for the first time with the Cubist work of Picasso and Braque. Their radical ideas and techniques opened new doors for him. Cubism gave him a set of tools he could use to take his own ideas further and the black lines that formed the basis of Cubist paintings were of particular interest to him. In works such as Apple Tree In Blossom and Still Life with Ginger Pot 2 he began to experiment with his own brand of cubism, making it more abstract and laying the foundations for his iconic later works.
In 1914, he returned to the Netherlands, where he remained for the duration of the First World War. During this time, he encountered another major influence on his work in the form of the mystic and mathematician, Dr M.H.J. Schoemaeker who promoted the idea of a mathematical and geometrical structure to the universe in which grids and lines played a fundamental part. Mondrian began to explore these ideas and, using the sea and the rhythm of the waves breaking against the vertical structure of a pier, he created abstract geometric compositions.
Writing about his theories around art was also important to Mondrian and in 1917 he was invited by artist and architect, Theo van Doesburg to contribute to a new magazine on avant-garde art entitled De Stijl.
It was an ideal opportunity for Mondrian and, in the magazine’s first issue he published essays on the nature and meaning of abstract art and developed his ideas of what he termed Neo-Plasticism (art that was characterized by its use of flat colours, rectangular areas and straight, horizontal and vertical lines). By this time, he had moved away completely from the depiction of recognisable objects and readers were encouraged to be conscious of their feelings and their responses to these works of total abstraction.
When he returned to Paris again during the 1920s, Mondrian further developed his Neo-Plastic style. He loved the rhythms of the jazz and tango music of the time and began to transform his work by using blocks of pure primary colours divided by black lines, against a background of white or grey. The finished paintings look simple but are the result of a long and laborious process of trial and error as the artist searched for solutions to the challenges he had set himself. On close inspection of these paintings today, layers and layers of paint are visible and it is possible to see how much planning went into the positioning of the lines and the colours. His efforts paid off and these new paintings had an order and balance that appealed to the art world and from the mid-1920s European and American collectors began to buy his art.
Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Mondrian moved to London and then, in 1940, made his way to New York. He had long held the dream of visiting New York and the city lived up to his expectations. He socialised with other artists and enjoyed music and dancing and the latest trends including one which helped to bring about another transformation in his art.
He discovered a new sticky tape that was available in a variety of colours and he was able to use this tape to design his paintings. It allowed him to work more quickly and no doubt freed him up in the process. He began to replace the black lines with brightly coloured ones and his paintings from this period are lively and colourful. His masterpiece, Broadway Boogie-Woogie, is a riot of colour and a joyful reflection of the exuberance of life in the city. The Mondrian who had lived such an ordered and restricted life according to a long-held set of principles suddenly discovered that life could be just for living.
Sadly, his time in New York was short-lived. Broadway Boogie-Woogie was to be his final work and he died of pneumonia in February, 1944. In 1945 his contribution to modern art was acknowledged and honoured in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Mondrian’s grid paintings remain a source of inspiration for graphic artists and designers today and variations of them frequently appear in designs for clothes, shoes, bags as well as major advertising campaigns, including the famous Gordon’s Gin campaign in 1991. We can only speculate as to what he would make of this use of his art but we could hazard a guess that Mondrian, the New Yorker, just might be delighted.