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Master of Abstraction: Piet Mondrian

Mondrian’s graphic lines and bold use of color have inspired artists and designers for nearly 100 years

The work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian is among the most recognizable and influential art of the early 20th century. Best known by his nickname Piet, the artist was born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan on this day in 1872 in Amersfoort, Netherlands. The subject of a strict Protestant upbringing, Piet initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a teacher, and practiced painting in his free time. Piet learned to paint from his uncle, a professional artist, and his father taught him how to draw. In stark contrast to the graphic style for which he later became famous, Mondrian’s early work reflects the pastoral setting in which he was raised and follows the spirit of Dutch Impressionism.

“Field Bordered by Trees.” Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944). Charcoal on paper. 28 1/2 x 37 1/2 in., ca. 1907-8. Gift of Stephen Mazoh & Co., Inc., 2005 2005.480

In his early 20s, Mondrian enrolled in the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten to formally pursue a career in the arts. After completing his education, he decided to move to Paris—Europe’s center of the visual arts and culture at the time. Though his time in the French capital was cut short by World War I, the art and artists Mondrian encountered there would prove influential in later years to the development of his De Stijl principles.

Mondrian happened to be visiting the Netherlands in 1914 when war was declared, and was forced to remain in his native land. Cut off from the vibrant influence of Paris, Mondrian moved to the Laren artists’ colony, where he made the acquaintance of Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. Both artists were exploring geometric abstraction, and together, the three artists inspired one another to continue pushing abstraction’s boundaries.

An example of a Cubist artwork created in Paris while Mondrian lived there. “Fruit Dish and Glass.” Georges Braque (French, 1882–1963), Charcoal and cut-and-pasted printed wallpaper with gouache on white laid paper, subsequently mounted on paperboard; 24 3/4 × 18 in.; 1912. Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection, Gift of Leonard A. Lauder, 2016 2016.237.33 © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Their work was a reaction to and further evolution of Cubism, which had reached its peak just a few years earlier, and to which Mondrian had been exposed in Paris. While Cubism deconstructed objects and physical forms to create flatness that only alluded to representational compositions, the three artists worked to develop a unique style centered around pure abstraction as a representation of both the spiritual world and the underlying, unifying structure of the physical world.

Together with Van Doesberg, Mondrian formalized De Stijl, Dutch for “the style.” De Stijl was an artistic theory that Mondrian later published in 12 installments from 1917–18 as “De Nieuwe Beelding in de schilderkunst” (“The New Plastic in Painting”). In this theory, De Stijl or Neoplasticism no longer required a physical object, person, or sense of space and strove instead to convey “absolute reality” through pure geometric forms and color.

“Composition.” Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944). Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 19 1/2 in., 1921. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 1999.363.57

Unlike other art movements of the period, De Stijl was a joint project by its participants—artists and architects—who were encouraged to develop their own approach to the aesthetic, both from a visual and conceptual standpoint. In architecture in particular, De Stijl was a radical departure from the principles of the Amsterdam School, which popularized expressionist architecture throughout Germany and the Netherlands.

“A Corner of Mondrian’s Studio with Bed, Stool, Curtain, and Mirrors” photographed by André Kertész (American (born Hungary), 1894–1985) Gelatin silver print, 4 5/16 x 3 1/8 in., 1926. Gift of Harry Holtzman, 1986 1986.1225.2 © The Estate of André Kertész / Higher Pictures

The De Stijl artistic principles of straight horizontal or vertical lines, the use of primary and non-colors (black, gray, and white), and the importance of asymmetry (or balance by opposition), would become Mondrian’s sole artistic focus until his death in 1944. In Mondrian’s later years, even his studio looked like his paintings—with graphic furniture (often made by the artist himself using found materials) painted his signature primary color palette.

Honor Mondrian’s March 7 birthday (and embrace his unmistakable style) by shopping our interpretations of his work in The Met Store.

 

This hat by Sally Victor demonstrates the lasting influence of Mondrian. “Mondrian” hat by Sally Victor (American, 1905–1977) ca. 1962. Wool and silk. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the artist, 1964.

Mondrian Composition Watch, $48.

Mondrian Composition Scarf, $30

Mondrian Composition Crossbody Bag, $118

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