Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian
Eucalyptus, 1912
Composition No. XVI, Compositie 1 (Arbres), 1912/13
Composition No. VI, Compositie 9 (Blue Façade), 1914
Tableau No. I, 1921/1925
Komposition mit Gelb und Blau, 1932
Komposition mit Doppellinie und Blau, 1935
Picture No. III, 1938
Eucalyptus, 1912
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Piet Mondrian
Eucalyptus, 1912

Oil on canvas, 60 x 51 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

In all the phases of his œuvre Mondrian subscribed to the ideal that his painting should serve as the expression of a higher, spiritual order. The early years of his career as an artist, in particular, saw him employing a number of markedly different concepts in his pursuit of this goal. Initially esoteric in character, from 1911 onwards his work became increasingly influenced by Cubism. Mondrian’s highly individual treatment of this painting’s subject was an important step along his path to complete abstraction. Eucalyptus represents a tree, hence a motif that is very typical of early Mondrian, but not of Cubism in general in this period. His choice of palette and the compositional focus upon the picture’s centre nevertheless bear a Cubist stamp.

Composition No. XVI, Compositie 1 (Arbres), 1912/13
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Piet Mondrian
Composition No. XVI, Compositie 1 (Arbres), 1912/13

Composition No. XVI, Composition 1 (Trees)
Oil on canvas, 85.5 x 75 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Composition No. XVI (Composition I, trees) dates from Mondrian’s Cubist phase. Here he incorporates the forms of his trees into a network of lines that spread all over the canvas. In this, however, Mondrian departs from the Cubist compositions of Picasso and Braque, which invariably contain individual, seemingly illusionistic elements that stand out more markedly from the underlying grid of the picture. As such, Composition No. XVI is indicative of a more profound conceptual difference: while Mondrian sought to advance from the real-life object to an evenly rhythmic and abstract pictorial plane, the Cubists had no desire to be abstract and held fast to the representational.

Composition No. VI, Compositie 9 (Blue Façade), 1914
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Piet Mondrian
Composition No. VI, Compositie 9 (Blue Façade), 1914

Composition No.VI, Compostion 9 (Blue Façade)
Oil on canvas, 95.5 x 68 cm
Photo: Peter Schibli, Basel

Composition No. VI was painted in Paris, after Mondrian had made drawings of the side walls of houses on which the structures of demolished adjacent buildings could still be read. Such observed structures here become painted pictorial architecture. Horizontals and verticals have been made the common denominator of the internal forms and overall form of the composition.

Tableau No. I, 1921/1925
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Piet Mondrian
Tableau No. I, 1921/1925

Picture No. I
Oil on canvas, 75.5 x 65.5 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Picture No. I was painted in 1921 and subsequently reworked in 1925. Fundamental elements of Mondrian’s mature abstract pictorial language, including the sole use of right angles and black lines and the avoidance of symmetry, are already in place. But the artist still allows black as a plane, places a dark orange – rather than red – beside the two other primaries of blue and yellow, and deploys shades of grey instead of his later white. The key aspect here is balance. This shows itself, too, in the spatial choreography of the colours, which have been liberated from the object: while the blue gives the impression of lying behind the black grid, the yellow plane at the top seems to be thrusting out towards the viewer from the background.

Komposition mit Gelb und Blau, 1932
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Piet Mondrian
Komposition mit Gelb und Blau, 1932

Composition with Yellow and Blue, 1932
Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 55.5 cm
Foto: Peter Schibli, Basel

The Fondation Beyeler has brought together major works from the period of Mondrian’s fully abstract art. Compared with Picture No. I of 1921/1925, Composition with yellow and blue manifests a marked clarification and simplification in the arrangement of its planes of colour, whereby large areas of the picture now remain white. Examining a work of his mature period like this, which is reduced to just a few elements, we can sense Mondrian’s aim to convey the experience of a higher order that transcends the purely formal dimension by means of the subtle relationships between the forms and how they correspond to the surface of the picture as a whole.

Komposition mit Doppellinie und Blau, 1935
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Currently exhibited at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

Piet Mondrian
Komposition mit Doppellinie und Blau, 1935

Composition with Double Line and Blue, 1935
Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 70 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Whereas Mondrian was still working with two primary colours in Composition with yellow and blue, in his painting Composition with double line and blue he reduced these to just one. Moreover, the proximity of the two black lines running parallel across the lower section of the picture awakens us to the new idea of also interpreting the white plane between them as a dynamic strip. A stepped frame provides the transition from picture to wall.

Picture No. III, 1938
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Currently exhibited at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

Piet Mondrian
Picture No. III, 1938

Oil on canvas, sides: 100.5 cm, diagonals: 141.5 cm
Photo: Peter Schibli, Basel

The pictorial square, floating at an angle of 45º, radiates a flawless clarity and at the same time conveys something of a sublime, moving secret. Mondrian created ‘lozenge’ paintings regularly from the 1910s onwards. They were important to him initially not least because they allowed him to consign the ‘empty corners’ of Cubist pictures to the wall. In this late painting in the Fondation’s collection, this ‘emptiness’ is now overcome in consummate fashion by invoking the idea that the vertical and horizontal lines can be imagined meeting ‘outside’ the picture. Within Mondrian’s aesthetic system, the fact that only the edges of the canvas are diagonal, and not the lines inside the picture, is crucial. It becomes possible to comprehend the picture in a new way, namely as an object on the wall capable of providing a glimpse of an ultimately infinite harmony.

Piet Mondrian

1872, Amersfoort – 1944, New York

While his early work was somewhat esoteric, Mondrian began to move away from (representational) Cubism towards abstraction in 1911. The Dutch painter lived in Paris from 1912 to 1914 and from 1919 to 1938. From 1916 onwards he devoted himself almost entirely to abstraction. In 1917 he co-founded the De Stijl journal with its associated group of artists, and is widely regarded as the theoretical initiator of this key art-historical movement. The period after 1920 was described by Mondrian as his ‘Neo-plasticist’ phase. At this time he sought an autonomous order of art: based upon fundamental laws of asymmetry, right-angled geometric forms and the use of primary colours only (plus black and white), the aim was to evoke an equilibrium within the picture that reflected the balance of the cosmos. After two years in London, he emigrated to New York in 1940. Mondrian’s art is of enormous importance for the emergence of modernism, whereby the critical reception of his work tends to emphasize form rather than content.

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