Piet Mondrian Did What? Flowers!
Updated: May 7, 2021
Oh no, no, no. This is Mondrian, the neo-plastician of red, blue, yellow, white and black fame, firm voice of De Stijl or The Style, and no pussyfooting around.
Well, let's put it like this: things can start out one way and wind up another all together.
So let's take a look at what happened here. The best description for it is "the artist's journey." Mondrian was born and grew up in Holland, the son of a drawing teacher. He was always involved with art and with nature. His first works were very much influenced by the nature he saw in his homeland of Holland. It was there between 1908 and 1911 that we see so many of his flowers, though he did them after that, too (more about that later). It was at that time (1908) that he joined the Theosophical Society and developed a spiritual, Utopian world view. Though he would move through several categories of art movements, post-impressionism, fauvism, cubism, and neo-plasticism, he always maintained a certain connection to nature.
The flowers show a bit of abstraction, especially in the indistinct backgrounds and the leaves, which are of lesser importance than the blooms. The flowering parts are done in a realistic way, at least realistic enough to be recognized as chrysanthemums. One does see a looseness in the forms, but yes, they are chrysanthemums. In the two paintings below, we see the beginning of a move toward abstraction, yet still with the wild color combinations popular at the time with the Fauves. Fauvism was short-lived as a movement (1904-1910), but important, as its key adherent was Henri Matisse.
The dunes in the painting above are almost chiseled across the top, leaving geometric patterns across the picture plane, which itself has a dizzying tilt. In the distance on the left, one sees the hint of ocean with perhaps the pale triangular sails of a couple of little boats. The main focus is on the color harmony of pinks, violets, and blues, contrasted gently with the dull greens and darkened shadows of descending dunes. One wonders how you would get across such a sandscape to the water. Of course, while the abstract has nothing to do with the practical, it is extremely beautiful in its lyricism. The Red Tree, in the photo above Dune Landscape, almost feels as though it is underwater, as the furrows at its roots look more like wave-washed sands. The picture seems to waver as images do when seen through water.
In 1911, Mondrian went to live in Paris and there encountered Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Cubism. One of the best examples of his move into Cubism is The Gray Tree.
In this painting, I see Mondrian still working with nature, pulling the structure of the tree apart and using dashes of paint in the background to emphasize the fractured nature of his deconstructed tree. The other noteworthy thing here is that he is using white, black and gray for this painting. The usage of these neutrals seems a foreshadowing of what was to come when he returned to Holland in 1914. His stay in Holland was to be a visit, but World War I broke out, so he remained there until 1918 when he returned to Paris.
While in Holland he lived in an artists' colony where he met theoretician Theo van Doesburg. Together they formed a philosophy of art called Neo-plasticism, or the New Plastic Arts (arts involving modeling, molding, or representing objects in three dimensions). Mondrian's goal was to reduce art to its purest form in order to create universal beauty. To that end, the rules were quite strict. The only colors were the primaries, red, yellow and blue; the neutrals, white, black and gray; and two directions for lines, vertical and horizontal.
From this theory emerged the paintings that Mondrian is so famous for. They are modern, architectural, and strictly ordered. Mondrian was such a devout adherent of the original principles of neo-plasticism that in the mid-1920s when Van Doesburg introduced the diagonal into the theory, Mondrian broke off with him.
Mondrian was such a believer in this style that he sought to live in it, decorating his studio space in the style of his painting. There he would work listening to the only music he choose as fitting, Jazz. That aspect of Mondrian, a quiet, solitary man who never married, saying that he was too poor when young, and never met the right woman in his later years, fascinates me. Why jazz? Then in my research on Mondrian, I found an interesting comment of his. He spoke of lines and color in terms of harmony and rhythm, saying in particular, "...harmony and rhythm of horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness ...and led by intuition... can become a work of art as strong as it is true." Harmony and rhythm would be what he heard in jazz, for it combines the harmony found in European music with the rhythm found in African music.
Mondrian left Paris in 1938 because of the impending war and went to London, but in 1940 he moved to the U.S. to New York City, where he had his first solo exhibition in 1942 at the Valentine Dudensing Gallery. He was 70 years old. He died in New York City in 1944, but not before he began producing his vision of the outcome of World War II. Sadly it is unfinished, but we see where he thought the war was heading. Here we have his Victory Boogie Woogie. It has the frenetic look of an aerial view of the traffic choked streets of New York City, and of course, it's jazzy.
Lastly, the answer to why Mondrian came to dislike his floral paintings. After having moved away from the representational art of his early career, he was forced by economic necessity to return to it. His paintings of flowers provided the income he survived on while he continued to develop the principles of De Stijl, which moved beyond painting into sculpture, architecture, and graphic and industrial design, influencing color field painting, abstraction and minimalism. Simply put in an equation: Mondrian = Modernism.
As a lover of flowers and someone who likes to draw and paint them, I was inspired by Mondrian's flowers long ago.
To enjoy the variety and the inventiveness of the artist just in terms of flowers, here is a short video montage of his flowers:
Are you a lover of Mondrian's flowers? If so, what about them appeals to you? Log in and tell us about it.
Images are from Public Domain sources
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