Monday, December 20, 2010

In the Beginning: Piet Mondrian

This is the second in a series of posts about the roots of modernist painters. The first, about Salvador Dalí, is here

I'll start this post by confessing that I've always liked the 1930s work of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). That is, those irregular grids formed by straight, black lines on a white background with some of the grid areas filled with a primary color (red, blue or yellow). These paintings served as reference points for exercises in a design class my Freshman year in the University of Washington's School of Art.

Unlike many other modernists of his time, Mondrian wasn't trying to "say" anything during this phase of his career; these paintings were essentially design experiments where the elements of line and color were reduced to fundamentals about as far as it was possible to do so.

But Mondrian didn't begin his career painting such works. His father was an artist, so he received some training at home before he began formal art studies. Moreover, his formative years were in an era before the surge of modernist "isms" hit the art scene with full-force. Here are examples of pre-abstract Mondrian paintings:

View of Winterswijk - 1898-99 - (watercolor)

Self-Portrait - ca. 1900

Mill at Edge of Water - 1900-04

Red Tree - ca. 1908

Devotie - 1908

Self-Portrait - 1918

Based on the examples above and others seen on the Internet, I think Mondrian made an exceedingly smart career-move when he hit upon his geometric-abstraction style. The 1918 self-portrait, for example, was painted when he was 45 or 46 years old and had had plenty of time to hone skills in realism. True, the style takes a bow to modernist thinking, but it and the other paintings shown suggest that Mondrian would never have been top-notch had he stuck to representational works.

If you disagree with this assessment, please Comment.


kev ferrara said...

As with so much of Modernism, Mondrian's reputation rests on publicity and politics alone:

mike shupp said...

I rather like MILL AT THE EDGE OF WATER. I'm inclined to think it would have been quite wonderful to have an artist with a bent for technical illustration running around at the start of the 19th century, so I can imagine a world in which Mondrian chose to specialize in canals and windmills and railroads, etc. OTOH, Mondrian wasn't such an artist to judge from what you've shown us. He didn't have the necessary obsession with details. I see warmed over van Gogh, at best. Conventional stuff by the time Mondrian got to it, not leading edge.

OTOH, what I do see in these early works is a sort of "blockiness." Here's water. Here's a shore. Here's land, and there's a sky. Here's a shaded wall behind a head; here's a well-lit wall not behind a head. The lines are straight or fairly simple curves. There aren't shadows or graduations. Things stay put.

So what did he do later on? What we remember him for are patterns with colored blocks. It makes a bit of sense now.


David Apatoff said...

I agree with your assessment of these works, although I think Mondrian did some representational work, such as his series of flowers, that was more successful than these examples. Clearly, he wasn't sacrificing as much as some other artists when he abandoned this line of work in favor of abstraction. His stark lines and colors were his flash of insight (much like Adolph Gottlieb had his great leap forward with his "bursts" or Rothko was inspired to work with his blocks of color. All of them spent the rest of their careers working on variations on their chosen theme.) As with most pioneering efforts, It doesn't all hold up well in hindsight, but I do think there is more of interest in this work than some seem to think.

El said...

Loved your article, it helped me to do my project about him. Thank you.