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composition with large red plane yellow black grey and blue (1921), mondrian

Artist: Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

Technique: Oil on Canvas

Dimensions: 95.7 x 95.1 cm

Year: 1921

Location of creation: Paris

Current Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands

Movements: De Stijl, Neo-Plasticism

Theme: Geometric Abstraction

Subject: Rectangles and squares of grey, black, red, blue and yellow, thickly outlined

in black.

painting summary

This work is pivotal in the foundation of Neo-Plasticism and explores the theosophical idea of the balancing opposing forces of the universe, by attempting to represent the underlying structure of reality. This is one of the most iconic works in contemporary pop culture, and has influenced a number of artists and subsequent abstract styles.

general description

The work is a geometrical/abstract composition (a squared and rectangle grid of different sizes), composed of different primary/basic colours (yellow, blue, black and grey) and thick black lines (of the same thickness) separating each of the distinct spaces. There is no narrative to the work, as this iconic abstract painting is an expression of an ideal of simplification, purity and harmony – the foundations of Neoplastic expression/movement.

The painting proved to be pivotal in the development of a new aesthetic order, Neo-Plasticism. Following the creation of De Stijl magazine, in 1917 (co-founded by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg), this work officially launched the new movement, with its structural format and fundamental use of the primary colours. It marked a new type and format of painting that would follow, specific to Mondrian’s work (the peripheral format), and was the key to unlocking the precedents of contemporary abstract art. With this painting, a new ideal emerged: the belief that the evolution of abstraction, and thus the evolution of art, would lead humanity to progress, coinciding with the modern progression of the world.

intrinsic content

The work exudes a sensation of simplicity and purity (the elemental and the essential) due to the use of the essential composition (use of basic elements, lines, colors and shapes). Whilst it possesses a clear simplicity, it is simultaneously very difficult for the viewer to understand Mondrian’s artistic vision (the derivative representation of the underlying structure of reality), creating a baffling experience. Overall, the pure primary colors, the strict geometry, the use of a grid, the 90º angles and the interlocking rhythms of squares and rectangles, all create a strong feeling of discipline, rigidity, reason, and balance.

The work aims to be a visual expression of the essential underlying relationships between all things; Mondrian strove to portray in his art this essential structure of nature and life, believing that art should act as a reflection of the intrinsic spirituality of nature; it is a visual representation of the universal principle of life.  In order to achieve this, the artist limits the composition to an elemental simple image, where only straight lines, solid planes of primary and achromatic colours and the simplest of forms (rectangles and squares) are shown; although at first sight they seem to be  immensely diverging from our perceived reality, they are in fact a dissolution of it. In this painting, Mondrian searched for the core of the universe and its forces in the abstracted elements of reality.

His contact with M.H.J. Schoenmaeker, a known Theosophist (a form of Western esotericism or religion founded in the late 19th century, in the United States – which believes that the perception of the universe is an outward reflection of the divine absolute, that govern all existence), exposed Mondrian to new concepts of perceiving reality. The artist carried the believe in the promotion of spiritual evolution through the use of the term ‘New Plastic’ (a concept created by the theosophist mentioned before), which explain the opposites as an expression of a hidden unity, a union of the real and the ideal, the tangible and intangible. From this Mondrian also strove to reach the ultimate balance between the two opposing forces that rule the universe and the human experience, the rational (the mathematical approach) and the mystical (the asymmetrical approach), in search for the mystical essence of the universe.

The artist juxtaposes various opposing and contrasting elements, combining the asymmetry with the perfectly pure solid rectangular planes, and the mathematical intent with the visible clear traces of brushwork, even when it’s all in the same direction. Other opposing elements used can be found in the balance between the vertical and horizontal elements that can represent dualities and oppositions,  balancing and cancelling each other out. They also indicate the expansional character of the Universe itself, continuing beyond our perception.

Reduction of art to its basics as a means to renew modern society. The distilled representation of reality, translated in the simplification of subjects into three basic visual elements, marks, for Mondrian, the evolution of abstraction, which leads humanity to progress.

The composition has specific formal qualities that add to its restrained and rational nature. The sense of depth is completely eliminated (no perspective, no distinction of planes), in order for the three visual elements (colors, shapes and lines) to prevail. The rectilinear forms are defined by a grid of thick black vertical and horizontal lines, painted with solid fields of primary colour planes. Despite its fundamental geometrical essence, it is an asymmetrical composition. In addition, in spite of the large red square offset to the left, the composition is balanced by the rest of the colour blocks in yellow, black, blue and grey around it, distributing the weight through the diagonals, and is grounded by the black rectangle in the bottom at the middle. Even though the lines don’t continue all the way to the edges of the painting, there is a continuity that is suggested by their direction and the colour planes at their perimeter. This also suggests a continuity beyond the visual canvas into space, a composition that would continue in infinite possibilities throughout the universe.

In terms of colour, the use of a limited saturated colour palette, composed of primary colours (red, blue, and yellow), and primary values or neutral colours (black, white, and grey). In regards to surface, the surface of the rectilinear forms are coloured in flat smooth planes, although the brushstrokes are still visible, specially in the colouring of the thick black lines. The black outlines are seen as coloured planes themselves, suggesting something entirely different from Cubism. In this sense, the lines (the grid of black lines) are considered to be independent planes, and not merely outlines. There is also a profound sense of rhythm and dynamic tensions that are created by the different shape sizes and orientations in primary directions (horizontal and vertical). There is a feeling of instability, conveyed by the mathematical distribution of weights and counterweights of mismatched rectangles, making even the most stable of geometric figures, the square, seem precarious. In opposition, the painting also exudes balance, created by a balanced composition, through weights and counterweights, balance between the rational and the artist pulse, in the rigid composition and traces of brushwork, and balance between the desire for universal artistic purity and the artist’s deep personal philosophies.

After a vast period of experimenting with compositions that were either too dynamic or too static, Mondrian achieved the ultimate dynamic balance between the universal forces by arranging rectilinear forms in asymmetrical compositions, using online black straight lines and primary colours, instead of organic and sinuous shapes and lines or secondary colours. This is the first composition of this type, using a peripheral formar; characterized by a large square that occupies most of the composition (in white or grey, in later paintings), near the center, surrounded by narrow shapes. This main square adapts its perception according to its asymmetrical position. This privilege use of the square adds to the ultimate goal of purity, and balance.

The new movement of the New Plasticism emerges with this painting, as Mondrian finally reached the perfect balance between the restrained elements, which he had been working on for about a decade. While the artist attempted several plays on the geometrical composition, with different colours, beyond the primary ones, in this one, Mondrian finally understood the power of the primordial elements and the balance between opposites, which led to the founding arguments of the new Neoplastic order.  With this work, a new way of perceiving the universe and its forces, in purely abstract manner, reaching for an utopian ideal of total harmony, across all arts. Applying an elemental pictorial vocabulary, Mondrian created a new abstraction concept, crucial in the evolution of Modern Art.

artist quotes

“I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects.”

direct influences and connections

Mondrian was greatly influenced by Cubism, as he moved to Paris in 1912. Although his work was greatly influenced by the Analytic Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, it was Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887) who inspired him to abstract from the reality of a tree to create more geometrical designs of an abstracted reality, starting in The Gray Tree (1912).

The painting was a great influence on Theo van Doesburg, Mondrian’s friend and co-founder of the De Stijl magazine, and the subsequent movement of Neo-Plasticism. Van Doesburg’s Contra-Composition with Dissonance XVI (1925), and many others, were especially influenced by the compositional elements of this specific work. It proved a pivotal work on various movements that followed, including De Stijl, Bauhaus, Minimalism and Colour Field Painting.  The language of the painting  has greatly influenced contemporary culture, and has been used and referenced in many fields of creation: including high fashion, design and architecture.

related works

Artist: Piet Mondrian
Title: Broadway Boogie-Woogie
Date: 1942-1943
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 127 x 127 cm
Location: MoMa, New York, USA

Artist: Piet Mondrian
Title: The Gray Tree
Date: 1911
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 79.7 x 109.1 cm
Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Holland

Artist: Piet Mondrian
Title: Tableau No. IV in Rhombus Form in Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow and Black
Date: 1924
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 100.5 x 100.5 cm
Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA

Artist: Theo van Doesburg
Title: Contra-Composition with Dissonance XVI
Date: 1925
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 180 x 100 cm
Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Holland

(CC BY 3.0, by Sailko)