Friday, March 7, 2008

Reading Between the Lines

“I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.” Piet Mondrian wrote those words in 1914 while still searching for the style that he made so uniquely his own. Born March 7, 1872, Mondrian’s distinctive works, such as the early Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (above, from 1921) led to no school of imitators. The school of Neo-Plasticism is, at least in mainstream culture, a school of one. With the three primary colors and a series of simple black lines, Mondrian developed an entire visual language of expression amazingly full of personality and emotion.

In 1917, along with Theo van Doesburg and others, Mondrian helped found De Stijl (The Style), a multimedia group of artists all searching for a new brand of abstraction that would express the harmony so sorely needed in the wake of World War I. I’ve always thought of the straight, bold, black lines of Mondrian’s works as the mark of a control freak striving to impose some sense of order upon his world. While Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red seeks harmony in peacetime, with its use of multiple colors to represent the vibrant world reawakening after war, Mondrian’s Vertical Composition with Blue and White (above, from 1936) starkly employs only blue among the black lines and white spaces to represent the encroaching disorder of World War II and fascism in Europe. Mondrian scales back the colors of his world as the armies march forward toward conflict. The control freak gets more and more desperate and the lines he uses to contain the chaos threaten to break.

Fleeing to the safety of America, Mondrian found a whole new world of color to be expressed in his personal style. His most famous work, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (above, from 1942–1943) mimics both the famous New York City traffic gridlock as well as the rhythms of the popular dance music of the time. The controlling black lines disappear as the small blocks of primary colors literally dance for joy over their newfound freedom. Of course, each of these works also succeed as paintings free of biographical details, but I find it fascinating to read between the lines, as it were, and find the personality of Mondrian in these seemingly personless arrangements of colors and lines. In such readings we replicate the “high intuition” Mondrian used in creating these paintings and find the beauty within them.

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