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Piet Mondrian : the evolution of his neo-plastic aesthetic 1908-1920 Wallace, Ian Hugh


One of the most decisive careers in the history of twentieth-century painting is that of Piet Mondrian. Not only did he singularly commit himself to the development of non-figurative art and take this development further than any contemporary, but he also was able to formulate an articulate theoretical program upon which his aesthetic decisions were founded. The neo-plastic art by which Mondrian is best known, executed between 1920 and his death in 1944, is only the climax of a long development which began with his break away from a regional landscape painting about 1908, and crystalized in the formulation of his neoplastic aesthetic between 1914 and 1920. This essay will trace this development in an effort to reconstruct the impulses, the decisions, and the resolutions which led to the birth of a pure non-figurative painting. The impulse of this evolution is rooted in Mondrian's personal, obsessive search for the unity of a philosophical and formal ideal. About 1908, he felt the need to express a philosophic ideal, or a ‘content' which was incompatable with his early regional style. This led him to move at first hesitantly, then with complete freedom, into contemporary developments in abstraction in the search for a form which would satisfy the demands of a content. As he expanded upon the formal innovations of cubism from 1911 to 1914, he began to realize a totally unique mode of picture-building which would not 'express' the content but 'be' the content:- not only the physical embodiment, but also the creative function of the philosophic ideal. This ideal began with Theosophy, but married to his art, it became neo-plasticism. This evolution of form, which this essay will concentrate upon, was achieved essentially through the development within the medium of painting itself, and through the recognition of the absolutely essential, non-arbitrary, non-metaphorical components of a painting. The 'content' becomes implicit through the concentrated but intuitive ordering of these components according to both the plastic laws of the universe and the plastic laws of the medium itself. Despite the theoretical and philosophical inclinations shown in his abundant writings, he was above all a painter, and his most immediate concern was always to come to terms with the means of expression. When his painting began to take upon an abstraction that could almost be considered as being non-art, his theorizing took on a greater importance as a philosophical substantiation for an unfamiliar non-figurative image. His neo-plastic philosophy, fully articulated by 1920, recognized above all the plastic laws of painting, and thus the non-figurative image, but it also kept within this formal exingency that ideal residing outside and beyond art which has guided artists throughout history:- the recognition of the universal laws of creation. The uncompromising nature that led Mondrian to a perfected art, an ultimate and complete synthesis of form and content, forced him to eliminate the most sanctified traditions of art. But rather than destroy art, he gave it a new life. He revealed an arena of expression that had never been apparent or possible to artists of any previous age, and which is the heritage of contemporary art today. Within the context of this essay, a study in the evolution of form, it might seem irrelevant to comment upon matters of taste, something which Mondrian himself considered irrelevant to his immediate aims, but now that his accomplishment and his theoretical assumptions are taken for granted, it is mandatory that the quality of his work not be overlooked. He will be remembered in the future not so much for the fact that he was a pioneer of non-figurative art, something ultimately important only for his own generation, but rather for the power of beauty he evoked within an imagery that claims nothing more than an absolutely exclusive perfection, a sensibility rare in any period of art history and which he shares in this century with Giorgio Morandi, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Not all of his work is successful. Mondrian was at his best when he worked in depth with a preordained, self-effacing system, not when he was working with forms that demanded a capricious sense of invention. He was a penetrator, not an expander; his sense of form was analytical, not synthetic. When he strayed away from an art that expressed his innate sensibility for form into an area where form is sacrificed for the idea, such as happened in his 'stylist' period of 1911, his work was considerably weakened. Also less successful are his earliest cubist pictures, awkward in the new style, and the 'plus-minus' pictures of 1914-1915, which attempt an expression of space which cubism could never handle. The majority of his works, however, are unqualified masterpieces, and one feels the temptation to view him as a twentieth-century Vermeer. This leads one to sense that the spiritual power that lurks within the constructive obviousness of Mondrian's art, lurks, with equal strength, within the prosaic realism of Vermeer's art. Both artists are concerned ultimately with a sense of order which finds its metaphysical source in the physical world, and both communicate this sense of order through an expression of tensions of space.

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