The great modern painter Piet Mondrian was born on this day, March 7th, in 1872.
Mondrian (born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan) is perhaps most closely associated with the De Stijl movement of the 1910’s and 20’s in his native Netherlands, and with ‘mod’ French fashion design of the 1960’s (see Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Mondrian dresses). But the time and place which had the most profound influence on Mondrian may have been Greenwich Village in the 1940’s.
In fact, some might say that Greenwich Village saved Piet Mondrian.
Mondrian’s first paintings from the 1890’s and early 1900’s were largely naturalistic and impressionistic, including painted landscapes, windmills, and other representational images of his surroundings. These early works gave few hints of the revolutionary style Mondrian would pioneer just a few years later.
After spending time in Paris in the early 1910’s, Mondrian’s paintings showed a greater influence of cubism, with more abstracted and geometric forms. However they were still largely derivative of the work of other painters like Picasso and Cezanne, breaking little new ground.
But in 1914 World War I broke out just as Mondrian returned home to his native Netherlands, forcing him to remain in his neutral homeland for the next four years. There he became close to other Dutch artists of the emerging De Stijl (“the sytle”) movement, who promoted abstraction in painting, furniture design, and architecture.
Spurred on by the disaster and devastation of the First World War, which lay waste to countries and empires which had lasted for centuries, De Stijl and other revolutionary art movements of the time called into question the fundamental viability and wisdom of the long-standing European order.
Instead, De Stijl sought to wash away all the tainted and corrupted forms of the past, and create a new language based upon the most basic visual elements.
This became evident in Mondrian’s paintings, which had evolved from colorful landscapes, to geometric representations, to the form for which Mondrian became most famous — white or neutral backgrounds with a few simple black lines at right angles, with empty space punctuated only by squares of primary colors.
Mondrian’s paintings wiped the slate entirely clean, and started everything all over again. He sought to boil his images down to the most fundamental and universal essences of what we saw, and how form and color interacted — the difference between solid and void, black and white, neutral and the most basic elements of color.
His simple, stark paintings propelled him to fame in Paris in the interwar years, where his groundbreaking and revolutionary style was embraced by the ‘Lost Generation.’
For most of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Mondrian’s paintings worked with this very limited vocabulary, with the sole variations how the straight black lines and primary colors were placed, whether or not the lines extended to the edge of the paintings, and whether the painting lay squarely within the frame or at a 45 degree angle.
Mondrian spent the entire two decades of the interwar years painting within this proscribed palate. Perhaps he had discovered the most basic, universal elements of painting; but once discovered, what could he do with them? Mondrian arguably painted himself into an artistic cul-de-sac.
Around this time the storm clouds of a new war were gathering, and in 1938 Mondrian left Paris for London. After his native Netherlands and then France fell to the Nazis, and as the London Blitz began, Mondrian fled further, to New York City.
There, as the world he left behind fell ever deeper into the abyss of war and occupation, he came to know more intimately the new world. He particularly immersed himself in that great American art form, jazz.
In spite of the devastation in Europe and the Pacific, Mondrian’s paintings, once stripped down to the barest of essentials, took on a new life and vibrancy.
In New York, said Alan Riding in the New York Times, Mondrian finally “freed himself, in his words, ‘from the captivity of black lines.’ In their place came colored lines and even the suggestion of depth…by all accounts, he was also happy in New York, satisfying his passion for jazz in Greenwich Village cafes …”
In fact, in spite of the unprecedented devastation taking place in Europe and the occupation of his former homeland by the Nazis, Mondrian’s paintings displayed a hopefulness and vitality hitherto unseen.
Inspired by the jazz he loved to hear in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in New York, and spurred onward by the progress of the allies in Europe, Mondrian’s paintings — previously so restrained and disciplined — took on an almost giddy exuberance. Building upon the style he had created consisting of geometric lines and blocks of primary colors, his paintings were no longer cerebral abstractions of the world, but vibrant engagements of it. While his paintings remained formally abstract, one could begin to see recognizable elements of the world in them again, albeit through the lens of his abstracted style.
His final paintings, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-43) and the great, unfinished Victory Boogie-Woogie (1943-44) not only reference the syncopated rhythms of jazz in their titles, but in their movement and use of color as well. Rather than simply displaying basic geometries, these paintings conjure images of swing dancing, Times Square, street cars and city lights.
By the time of his death in February of 1944, Mondrian, who spent decades creating paintings which seemed to view the world from a great distance, in the most abstracted of forms, finally seemed again ready touch, engage, and be a part of the new world around him — a world that included music, lights, and apparently, Greenwich Village.