Piet Mondrian
Year, Birthplace 1872, Netherlands
Year, Place of death 1944, United States
Piet Mondrian’s first drawing classes were given by his father, a headmaster. Later he was taught by his uncle, Frits Mondriaan, a painter (in 1912, Piet changed his surname to distinguish himself from Frits). In 1889 he obtained a teaching diploma and began work. He decided to become a painter, however, and from 1892 to 1897 he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, while continuing to make his living through teaching. He began to exhibit in 1897. He concentrated largely on depicting the landscape surrounding Amsterdam, in the spirit of the Hague School and, from 1903, the landscape of the Dutch Brabant, where he lived for a time. He didn’t have great success with his naturalist painting and he supported himself by painting portraits, copies, biology drawings and by continuing to give classes. The first evidence of his development came in 1907, when he discovered the fauvist works of Van Dongen and Jan Sluyters, who had returned from Paris. The influence of Vincent Van Gogh can be seen. In 1908, influenced by Jan Toorop, he began to use bright colours in his painting, in accordance with the technique of divisionism. Edvard Munch’s painting also had a great impact. An exhibition with Cornelis Spoor and Sluyters at the Municipal Museum in Amsterdam, in 1909, in which he combined fauvism and the modern style was greeted with irony by the critics. Reflecting his interest in the doctrines of Theosophy (Devotion, 1908; Evolution, 1910-11) and the search for a universal language, he painted increasingly stark landscapes – using simpler lines and a light palette – depicting dunes, windmills, churches or towers. With his friends Toorop, Sluyters and Conrad Kickert, he founded the Modern Art Circle (Moderne Kunstkring) which in 1912 exhibited Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Auguste Herbin, Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain and Henri Le Fauconnier at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He exhibited for the first time in Paris, in 1911, at the Salon des Indépendants. At this time he discovered the cubist explorations of Braque and Picasso. Contact with Paris became essential. He moved there at the beginning of 1912 and experimented further with cubism, while always keeping his distance. As a result, he refused to meet Picasso, despite his profound admiration for this artist. Through his studies of a tree or a still life with a pot of ginger, we witness the progression of a painter whose focus on extreme simplification and austere approach resulted in a network of lines against a neutral background; a grid within which the object disappears. His move to abstraction took place in 1913, with his oval compositions. Some titles still make reference to the initial subject matter (scaffold and church, for example). He returned to Amsterdam in 1914 and his stay was prolonged by the war and the need to care for his bedridden father. His large drawings of the sea were pretexts for abstract variations of marks and then colours. In 1916, he was contacted by the painter Theo van Doesburg, who was greatly impressed by his work. Van Doesburg suggested they found the De Stijl magazine. That same year, Mondrian had long theoretical discussions with Bart Van der Leck. He read the work of the theosophist Mathieu Schoenmaekers (The New Image of the World). Neoplasticism, which he referred to as the ‘general principle of plastic equivalence’ was born. In addition to the theoretical articles he published in De Stijl magazine, in 1920 he published a brochure with Léonce Rosenberg at the Galerie de l’Effort Moderne titled Le Néo-plasticisme, which he dedicated to the ‘men of the future’. Mondrian would remain faithful to these principles until he died, despite the challenges of daily life. In 1919 he returned to Paris, where he stayed until the first signs of war emerged in 1938. Architects, painters and sculptors – who in both Europe and the United States continued to follow the paths of abstraction, futurism and constructivism – flocked like pilgrims to his Montparnasse studio during the interwar years. His first tilted squares with a checkerboard grid date from 1919. The first paintings which consisted only of a few black lines and flat areas of primary colour emerged in 1921. He participated in every initiative of the European avant-garde, in particular the groups Cercle et Carré (1929) and Abstraction-Création (1931). He continued with his neoplastic investigations and incorporated the idea of rhythm after discovering jazz, restricting and then emphasising the role of colour. In 1940, Mondrian moved to New York, where he found great fame, mixed with other artists in exile and exhibited at the Valentine Dudensing gallery. The city made a great impression on him and his black lines were replaced by coloured lines. On his death, he left a final unfinished Victory Boogie-Woogie. A retrospective was dedicated to him in New York, in 1945, and another in Amsterdam, in 1946. The first retrospective of his work in France took place in 1949, at the Musée de l’Orangerie, in Paris. AC