Monday, March 9, 2009

Shaking the Tree

No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low.
That is you can't you know tune in but it's all right, that is I think it's not too bad.

—From “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles

The star of the PMA’s exhibition Cezanne and Beyond is, of course, Paul Cezanne, but Piet Mondrian certainly belongs in the same constellation. Born March 7, 1872, Mondrian is best known today for his mature works, such as 1942-1943’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, with the classic Mondrian geometric style of blocks of solid color. Before he reached that destination, Mondrian travelled the path first set out by Cezanne in works such as The Red Tree (above, from 1909). The Red Tree mimics the vibrant color and strong gestures of Cezanne’s tree paintings. Matisse and Picasso most often battle for the crown of top Cezannist, but no less a critic than David Sylvester called Mondrian “Cezanne’s truest heir.” Watching the evolution of Mondrian’s trees parallel the evolution of his relationship to Cezanne provides a powerfully concise study in how great artists grow and branch out from other great artists.

Two years after The Red Tree, Mondrian paints The Gray Tree (above, from 1911). Here, Mondrian sucks out all the color from the painting and concentrates on gesture itself. Cezanne saw nature as a kind of chaos that the human eye needed to organize, breaking it down into his famous categories of “cylinder, sphere, and cone.” If The Red Tree can be called remotely realistic, The Gray Tree ventures even further from nature and into abstraction. The chaos of the natural order of branches begins to give way to an order imposed by Mondrian’s eye. Mondrian, however, shapes not a static order but one full of movement and energy, thus ordering nature without killing it. Just as Cezanne’s almost vibrating brush strokes retained the life force of a landscape, Mondrian’s snaking tree branches express the spirit of the tree as a representative of the living universe itself.

Three years after The Gray Tree, Mondrian paints Composition 8 (above, from 1914), which takes the organization of the tree to its limits, erasing the even the name of tree from the title yet still keeping the natural energy and spirit. In Composition 8, Mondrian comes to final terms with Cezanne’s idea of order and reduces the tree to pure expressive line. With the gestural half of Cezanne’s legacy under his belt, Mondrian was then freed to tackle Cezanne’s use of color. Mondrian almost literally fills in the spaces of Composition 8 with pure, emotional color and finally arrives at the colored grids now synonymous with his name. Given another lifetime, Cezanne may himself have arrived at Mondrian’s style. Mondrian, however, provided Cezanne with that “extra life” to take his ideas one step further. Cezanne and Beyond drew a sort of family tree of modern art rooted in Cezanne and his work. Few branches flowered as long, as beautifully, or as uniquely as that of Mondrian.


M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M said...

Hi Bob, I just came across your blog this evening. I quite enjoyed reading this post. It makes sense that Mondrian's painting had roots (ha!) in Cezanne's style, since the latter's paintings were very geometric.

I wonder how much Mondrian was influenced by Cezanne directly, as opposed to Cezannist influence via Picasso. Any thoughts? Perhaps I will find that answer by reading something by David Sylvester?


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The style and the colors of the very first paining immediately reminded me of The Scream.