What was the nature of the quest that moved the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) to abandon the representation of nature in favor of an art of pure abstraction? What, exactly, did Mondrian believe that he had achieved? In any attempt to address this question, we are obliged to deal with the fact that abstract art—and not only Mondrian’s—was born of an alliance of aesthetics and mysticism. We are obliged to examine the ideas that shaped the artist’s search for the absolute in art. Ideas, of course, are no substitute for the experience of art, and in Mondrian’s case are certainly not to be taken to be the “subject matter” of his painting. Yet without some grasp of the intellectual history that led the artist to make his fateful leap into abstraction, the spiritual imperative that governed Mondrian’s art is unlikely to be understood.
Founder of the DeStijl movement in 1917, Piet Mondrian was one of the most original thinkers of early twentieth century art, as he pushed for a simplification in art, restricting his palette to the ‘plastic’ essentials of the primary colours.Mondrian’s spiritual beliefs and love of music profoundly influenced his work and, ultimately, the art world. His study of Theosophy led to the embodiment of the male/female principle in the vertical/horizontal lines of his paintings. In the 1920s he developed a theory of Neo-Plasticism which became his guiding philosophy. Mondrian lived a fastidious lifestyle, was obsessively tidy, and elements of these personality traits can be seen in his pursuit of the abstract, through works such as Composition in Yellow and Blue of 1929. Mondrian’s influence is clear in much advertisement art of the 1930s and thereafter, and furniture design, decorative and industrial design owes much to this Dutch artist.
“With the development of human consciousness, however, ‘there automatically ensued a disharmony between man and nature.’ It was thus to be the function of the new abstraction, or what Mondrian sometimes called ‘abstract-real painting,’ to give us ‘the image of this regained harmony.’ This was to be achieved, Mondrian avowed, by the creation of a pictorial composition ‘more mathematical than naturalistic,’ an art of ‘pure relationships’ that eschewed ‘all that was capricious’ in nature in order to achieve ‘the most constant, the most determinate plastic expression of equilibrated relationship—composition in rectangular planes.’ Hence the Compositions with Color Planes that set him on his new course in 1917.
This “New Plastic in Painting” concluded by celebrating the emergence of ‘a purer and purer mode of expression in art’ as a triumph of the modern era, and Mondrian was himself to live by this artistic faith for the rest of his life and make it a source of inspiration for others. All the same, an existential uncertainty about the role of nature ,in art and in life, remained a vexing issue for Mondrian, and his philosophy of abstraction cannot be fully comprehended in isolation from it.
Toward the end of “The New Plastic in Painting,” his ruminations on nature suddenly take the form of an arcane discussion of the male and female principles transposed to the realm of mystical archetypes. Identifying nature with the female principle and spirit with the male, he concludes that “The female and male elements, nature and spirit, then find their pure expression, true unity, only in the abstract.”Again, the emphasis is Mondrian’s. This is clearly the sheerest mysticism, and more the expression of a lingering anxiety about nature than a resolution of the problem it posed for a sensibility nurtured on the occult. Yet it was upon such an uneasy mystical foundation that Mondrian’s absolutist aesthetic of abstraction finally came to rest.
A certain degree of Piet Mondrian’s aesthetic thought then, can be confidently ascribed to unconscious sources; there is no doubt these forces existed and significantly shaped his work. That assault on nature, so critical for his religion and for his admiration of the city, re-emerges in his style of life, and in his style of painting. The assault was a counterattack, a way of managing anxieties that would otherwise be intolerable. But, then, what was Mondrian afraid of?
“…crazy about Mondrian… something happens in his painting that I can not take my eyes off… it has terrific tension. It’s hermetic. The optical illusion [of] Mondrian is that where lines cross they make a little light. Mondrian didn’t like that but he couldn’t prevent it. The eye couldn’t take it, and when the black lines cross they flicker. What I’m trying to bring out is that form is [natural in the] point of view of eyes, its not an optical illusion. That’s the way you see it.” ( Willem de Kooning )
We are all afraid to some degree, but more desperately than most, the obsessive personality needs to escape fears and deny conflicts with their endless rituals, compulsive cleanliness, and stubborn refusal to change the most trivial arrangement. There is one curious, immensely instructive clue to Mondrian’s fears: his brother Carel reported that Mondrian had “an almost maniacal fear of injuring his eyes”; he would close them “at the slightest danger,” or, more dramatically, cover them with his hands. Castration is punishment for illicit desires; and so vivid a fear recalls to mind Charcot’s famous exclamation: “C’est toujours la chose génitale…toujours, toujours, toujours. ”
In fact,the course of Mondrian’s relations with women followed a single significant pattern all his life. He would fall in love, and then something would always seem to happen which prevented the creation of more lasting bonds. While he seemed to regret the invariable reverses that kept him a life-long bachelor, Mondrian’s overwhelming response to this fate was likely one of relief.
“…In this ambition, notwithstanding its rationalist claims, a belief in the occult was to play an important role. In 1915, the Dutch writer M. H. J. Schoenmaekers published a treatise called The New Image of the World, described by its author as a work of ‘positive mysticism.’ This and a subsequent volume, Plastic Mathematics (1916), exerted a crucial influence on Mondrian and the other founders of De Stijl. According to Jaffé, ‘Both Mondrian and Schoenmaekers lived, at the time, in Laren and … saw each other frequently and had long and animated discussions.’ Schoenmaekers’s ideas were directly incorporated into the De Stijl program, from 1917 onward, as well as into Mondrian’s later theoretical writings. The very term that Mondrian adopted for the geometrical abstractions of his later years —Neo-Plasticism—was borrowed from Schoenmaekers’s wartime writings.”
Schoenmaekers was a Neo-Platonist in quest of a reality more absolute than any that could be discerned in the natural world without the aid of mystical illumination. Nature, from the perspective of this “positive mysticism,” was looked upon as a mystery to be scrutinized and penetrated—a view that was more or less in accord with theosophical doctrine, and that also bore a distinct resemblance to the Symbolist philosophy of Mallarmé…..
Mondrian seems to have talked about women incessantly, with the theoretical exuberance of a prurient teenager. His very enthusiasm is suspect; it committed him to nothing.his brings us to the question of Mondrian’s relation to women:
“Although he was in his fifties when I knew him in Paris, the subject of women was ever on his lips. He would interrupt any type of conversation in order to comment with boyish enthusiasm upon the physical attractiveness of some admired example of the opposite sex. His taste was catholic in this respect, ranging from the refined beauty of a number of female acquaintances to the more direct appeal of pin-up posters. He was completely captivated by the charms of Mae West, who at the time was quite young, but nonetheless used artificial make-up in a way that Mondrian found attractive.
Indeed, his ideal wife would have been precisely this kind of youthful love goddess, whose chief virtue of character would be the patience to spend long hours in a corner of his pristine studio knitting or watching him paint — a Mae West in crinolines, so to speak. Perhaps Mondrian himself realized that these two ideals were difficult to combine, as his often repeated disappointments in love graphically illustrated. Like Brancusi, whose personality was otherwise so different and who was much less inhibited in his enjoyment of female company, Mondrian had adopted a pattern of life which did not allow any realistic prospect of ordinary domestic relationships. ” ( Nelly van Doesburg )
There is a deep pathos in this account especially in his fascination with Mae West, that ambiguous sex object whom Parker Tyler, in a perceptive remark, once called a woman impersonating a female impersonator.
Although Mondrian is rightly represented as a pivotal figure in the unfolding story of Modernism, there can’t help but be the discernible stain of sexual ambiguity and by extension, a form of misogyny present in the equation, that though evoking modernity is rooted in a patriarchal repression of the feminine that masks something perhaps quite perverse:
“From Nietzsche’s anxiety about the feminizing effects of theater (‘in the theater one becomes… herd, female,… idiot’), to Adolf Loos’s excoriation of ornament as a ‘crime’ against the virility of pure form, to Clement Greenberg’s fear of the feminized debasements of kitsch (his excoriation of the ‘leveling out of culture’ promoted by the new mass media, with its the ‘usually’ female readers); from Kasimir Malevich’s white squares to the minimalist geometric structures of Piet Mondrian, Agnes Martin, and Sol LeWitt – an impulse towards systematization has worked in one dominant trajectory of modernism to eradicate the gooey, irrational, emotional, unpredictable and otherwise disruptive (feminine, primitive, other) aspects of human creativity. In this modernism, feminine ostentation and decoration are the dirt, refinement and clarity of design the virility-ensuring ‘Mr. Clean’ of aesthetics. Every little woman needs a man around the house to purge it of its threatening domestic/emotional excesses: hence the pivotal role of Mr. Clean.”
Mondrian’s manner of social dancing, a form of physical contact with women that he unequivocally enjoyed, reveals the same corrosive ambivalence. He went dancing as often as he could and repeatedly took lessons. Often he chose as his partners the wife or mistress of one of his friends which was one means of securing safety. Another means, even more instructive, was his posture, stiff, graceless, distant; in short a man desexualized.
In view of the fame that “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” enjoys, it is important to recognize that to Mondrian the meaning of the dance it celebrates strikingly differs from its customary connotations. “True Boogie-Woogie”, he told an American friend J.J. Sweeney, shortly before his death, “I conceive as homogenous in intention with mine in painting; destruction of melody which is the equivalent of destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means; dynamic rhythm.” And he added, “I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art.”
In exhibitions of his work, Mondrian is usually promoted as a very model Modernist,with it can be noted, a suppression of his commitment as a card-carrying Theosophist. He was, by his own admission, influenced by Madame Blavatsky’s intoxicating brew of hocus-pocus, and he was fascinated by her monumentally opaque tome, The Secret Doctrine, a work in two volumes that Blavatsky claimed contained the key to all knowledge.
In other words, while Mondrian was straining for an art that broke completely with the past, he was also meddling with spiritualism and mouthing the mumbo-jumbo of the ancients. And he was not alone. Some of the greatest artists and writers of his time were steeped in the magic and mysteries of the occult.
The pathogenicity of childhood primal scene observation has been a controversial issue in psychoanalytic thinking.Phyllis Greenacre believed that Mondrian constructed an elaborate defensive constellation that promoted a defective sense of reality and, in certain instances, the formation of an “illusory wall” that reduced external stimuli and the risk of losing control of libidinal and aggressive impulses. She felt Mondrian was traumatized from either the witnessing of parental intercourse, the birth of a sibling ,or a miscarriage, that resulted in a thwarting of drive development; evoking primitive denial along with isolation of affect, rationalization, and displacement to bolster repression.Mondrian then developed as coping technique, a lifelong method of dealing with such early trauma. In support of these concepts, Greenacre cited the life and work of Mondrian as well as her own analytic cases, working on Mondrian’s determined intensity to repress emotion in order to achieve a pure form of abstraction with just primary colors.
“The idea that Modernism enjoys a formal relationship with Theosophy is anathema to many critics. As its texts are largely indecipherable, and Madame Blavatsky is widely considered a charlatan, many art historians flinch at the association of the avant-garde with what they see as the loony fringe. But the link does exist, and it plays havoc with the conventional history of Modernism. The central claim of this history is that Modernism is something that pushes forward, that represents a caesura, a complete rupture with the past. But the truth is that, if Modernism is a great juggernaut that moves inexorably forward along the road of progress and formal innovation, it also looks in its rear-view mirror at the road stretching out behind it.
Mondrian – and many other Modernists – believed that art could change the objective conditions of human life. He saw art not as an end but as a means to an end – spiritual clarification. But it soon became clear that traditional ways of seeing would not satisfy this imperative. Artists now understood that the key to understanding the universe could not be found just by looking at ordinary day-to-day matter. ‘What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things,’ wrote Brancusi. ‘It is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.’
This was the key to abstraction, which began to emerge around 1910. And it was also the key to Theosophy. Both busied themselves with investigating the process of cosmic and human evolution, with finding the ‘essence of things’. Both looked for a universal grammar that could communicate this essence. Both were instinctively drawn into the ancient philosophical and religious controversy concerning the relationship of appearance and reality. And both were essentially anti-intellectual movements: they shared the belief that one could understand emotionally the secrets of creation in a way that transcended scientific observation or sheer logic.
Wassily Kandinsky in Germany, Frantisek Kupka in Czechoslovakia, Kazimir Malevich and others of his circle in Russia, Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands – all now moved away from representational art towards the creation of a pure abstract vision that embodied their involvement with esoteric thought. In an attempt to draw upon deeper and more varied levels of meaning, they replaced natural colour with symbolic colour, perceived reality with signs, direct observation with ideas. Abstraction was not just about making pretty patterns. For the Modernists, it indicated the existence of a level of reality higher than the merely material.”