By: Louk Vreeswijk

Apr 03 2022

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Category: Europe, Netherlands

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This painting (The Grey Tree), revealing cubist influence, shows Mondriaan at the crossroads between his earlier figurative work and his later purely abstract paintings. Mondriaan made it in 1911, the year he went to France where he wished to join the Parisian Avant Garde. On his way to Paris Mondriaan dropped one ‘a’ of his name to let its ending sound more French: Mondrian.

The timeline of Mondrian’s life is marked by the two World Wars. In 1914 he happened to be in Holland and couldn’t go back to Paris till the end of WW1. From 1918 -’38 he lived and worked again in Paris but in order to escape WW2 he moved to London in 1938 and in 1940 further west to New York where he died in 1944.

It was in 1917 in Leiden, during WW1, that Mondrian together with Theo van Doesburg founded the abstract art movement De Stijl, of which the painter Bart van der Leck and the architects Gerrit Rietveld and J.J.P.Oud also became members. They adhered to the artistic philosophy of ‘Neoplasticism’, aiming at pure abstraction through concentration on the essence of form and colour. This meant working with straight horizontal and vertical lines, with the three primary values of black, white and gray, and the three primary colours of red, yellow and blue. For Van Doesburg, who was the main theoretician of the group, De Stijl was a reaction to the Dutch expressionist architecture of the Amsterdam School.
(I happen to like both equally much.)

Back in Paris, Mondrian made his first true neoplasticist paintings in 1919 and ’20, the style of painting through which he became known. In the early 20s Van Doesburg started propagating the use of diagonal lines as being more dynamic than horizontal and vertical ones. Mondrian couldn’t accept this deviation of the core principles of De Stijl and felt compelled to leave the group.

Paintings by De Stijl members Piet Mondrian en Bart van der Leck, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Netherlands 2021

With the death in 1931 of Van Doesburg who had been the central figure of De Stijl, the group disintegrated. Apart from its influence on abstract painting and modern architecture (think of Bauhaus!), De Stijl has also had a great impact on interior design and on clothing and fashion.
Mondrian – De Stijl – Bauhaus: they have left an indelible mark on the theory and esthetics of modernity in the first half of the 20th century.

Painting by Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), Composition A XI, 1923, Oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Netherlands 2021

Photo of the week: Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944), The Grey Tree, 1911, Oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Netherlands 2021

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