modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

mondrian & de stijl


people, terms, and concepts: primary colors, primary values, realism, formalism, social agency, Theosophy

Know the elements of De Stijl: horizontal and vertical lines, primary colors (red, yellow & blue) and primary values (black & white). Recall how Mondrian arrived at these elements:  not suddenly and on a whim, but rather after almost a decade of careful study of nature:  

Question: But I still don't understand why you favor the straight line and have come entirely to exclude the curved.

Mondrian: ... Because all curvature resolves into the straight, no place remains for the curved.

Question: Did you come to this conclusion suddenly?

Mondrian: No, very gradually. First I abstracted the capricious, then the freely curved, and finally the mathematically curved.

Question: So it was through this abstracting that you came to exclude all naturalistic representation and subject-matter?

Mondrian: That's right, through the work itself. The theories I just mentioned concerning these exclusions came afterward ... .

Why did Mondrian use these and only these elements?  Why not orange or diagonal lines, for example?  In what sense can the elements of De Stijl be called the “essence of everything in the universe”?  Why does Mondrian call this DE Stijl, THE style, not just “a” style, or “my” style?  In what sense is this aspect of Mondrian’s work fundamentally realistic (an objective truth of nature), even though it is totally abstract?  

Another aspect of Mondrian’s work is more formalist:  once he discovered these elements by abstracting from natural objects, he began to create pure-abstract works, attempting to arrange them in ways that are totally harmonious and balanced.  However, even there the aim was not “merely” sensual, decorative beauty like the Fauves, but rather a totally pure and harmonious work that he thought of ultimately as spiritual.  Which brings us to:  

The Social Agency of De Stijl

Like Kandinsky, and influenced by Theosophy, Mondrian believed that human evolution was close to making a “mutation-like leap” toward pure spirituality, and he hoped his art would help to lead the way there. He ultimately wanted his style to be applied to entire environments, not just to isolated works of art.  Living in a De Stijl environment like Rietveld's Schröder House, below, would help lead the inhabitant away from the particularity, constant change, subjectivity, and aesthetic ugliness of the material world, and toward the universality, objectivity, truth, and beauty of the spiritual world.

* Note:  there are lots of similarities between  Mondrian and the Purists, including the quest for “purity,” the use of geometry, the idea that aesthetics is a matter of universal law and not individual or cultural taste, and the desire to create whole environments, not just isolated objects.  Know these similarities -- but don’t equate the two movements.  Mondrian had no special interest in machinery or modernity, and the Purists had no interest in spirituality ... .

Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911

Mondrian, Flowering Appletree, 1912

Mondrian, Composition in Yellow, Red, and Blue, 1927

Rietveld, Schroder House, 1924