Art Movements in Art History - Mondrian and De Stijl
Art Movements > De Stijl > Mondrian and De Stijl
Mondrian and De Stijl*
Mondrian was born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan in Amersfoort in 1872. It is his pictorial
production from the late age of 39 which is of prime concern, that is his production from
Significantly, Mondrian moved to Paris in December 1911 and remained there until
December 1913 (first Paris phase). He then returned to Holland, anticipating a brief sojourn
with his ailing father, but was prevented from returning to Paris by the outbreak of the First
World War. Throughout the war years, he was exposed to Van Doesburg's thinking.
Mondrian visited Van Doesburg in Leiden in connection with the editing of his essays which
were to appear in the early issues of De Stijl. Although Mondrian benefited from Van
Doesburg's encouragement to verbalise the basis of his pictorial convictions, he chose to
return to Paris in July 1919 and did not sever ties with Van Doesburg until 1925. He stayed
in Paris until 1938 (second Paris phase), when he left for London; his final years (1940-
1944) were spent in New York.
Through Mondrian a link can be plotted between Analytical Cubism and De Stijl, this in
terms of the predominant formal direction taken by Mondrian during the first Paris phase.
During 1912 Cubism underwent a change, usually described as the move from Analytic to
Synthetic Cubism, which affirmed the Cubists' link with representation and reality.
Looking at the shift in orientation within Cubism outlined above, Mondrian's own
reaction is reflected in his statement: "Cubism ... failed to develop towards the fulfilment of
its own ambition, the expression of pure plasticity". Mondrian qualified
his belief in the following way:
"While in Cubism, from a naturalistic foundation, there sprang forcibly the use of plastic
means, still the half object, half abstract basis of pure plastic art must result in the use
of purely abstract plastic means."
Mondrian had opted for pictorial autonomy by means of "purely abstract plastic
Mondrian left Paris, and returned to Holland in December 1913. A significant creative phase
in the overall shift from Cubism to an alternative, purer, means of expression (and pictorial
autonomy) was underway by the summer of 1914 and continued until 1915. These works are
frequently referred to as the "Pier and Ocean", or "Plus and Minus" series. Concerning
them, Mondrian later recalled: "Observing sea, sky, and stars, I sought to indicate their
plastic function through a multiplicity of crossing verticals and horizontals."
The natural stimulus was still acknowledged by Mondrian at this stage. In retrospect,
and largely owing to our knowledge of Mondrian's specific source material (notably the pier
at Scheveningen), analysis of these 1914/1915 works inevitably includes some interpreta
tion based on the known subject matter. The vestiges of waves and beach piers are evoked.
Yet the identification or description of the sea was not Mondrian's intention. From the sea's
linearity, the pictorial "self-reflexivity of line" was emerging.
In a letter to Van Doesburg (c 1915) Mondrian expressed his need that
"the manner of expression (de Beelding) and not the subject matter" be understood, despite
the mutual relationship between the site and the resultant painting. In this letter, Mondrian
ited "the abstract human mind" as the tool to be used in order to gain a greater breadth of
Interpretation for these compositions in black and white, and composed only of vertical and
`orizontal lines. The reason for this purification of compositional means is conveyed in
"It took me a long time to discover that particularities of form and natural colour evoke
subjective states of feeling which obscure pure reality. The appearance of natural forms
changes, but reality remains constant."
Although derived from a natural stimulus, Mondrian did not give titles to these works
now known as the "Pier and Ocean" series. For Mondrian, they existed as numbered
compositions. Clearly, there was no turning back from research into the possibilities of this
new manner of expression, Neo-Plasticism. Such research warranted excessive experi-
mentation before the abstract condition was to prevail. The general consensus of art
historians is that Mondrian's later work, Composition in Line, 1917, was a pictorial
statement divorced from the particularities of observed reality. Joosten has
stated that this work was one of "the first paintings by Mondrian to evidence strictly
conceived, geometric configurations of lines and planes".
While living at Laren, one year before the founding of De Stijl, Mondrian's pictorial
production decreased and a personal aesthetic was formulated. The tone of this aesthetic,
though a logical extension of his work to date, owed something to the views of the various
people with whom he was in contact. At Laren, Mondrian associated with the painter Bart
van der Leck. Both men were in touch with Van Doesburg, who in turn had communicated
with Huszar, Oud and Kok. In addition, it was at Laren that Mondrian was exposed to the
ideas of the philosopher, Dr MHJ Schoenmaekers. This contact has been assigned various
degrees of significance by authorities on De Stijl. Jaffe allows ten pages on
this influence alone and states:
"Schoenmaekers' philosophy was more than the mere source of Mondrian's terminology.
It was - probably without Van Doesburg's knowledge -- one of the catalysing factors
which helped to weld the various tendencies into one distinct form: De Stijl "
A connection can be made between Dr MHJ Schoenmaekers, and Mondrian's neoplastic
theory. As has been said, Mondrian had virtually stopped painting about the year 1916,
intent on his theoretical stance. During 1916, Mondrian and Schoenmaekers both lived,
worked and met in Laren. In 1915, Schoenmaekers' book The new image of the world, had
been published. The following is an extract:
"Is the expression of positive mysticism foreign to art? Not in the least. In art, it creates
what we call in the strictest sense "style". Style in art is: the general in spite of the
particular. By style, art is integrated in general, cultural life."
The emphasis on "style" is notable. It should be remembered that while Mondrian was
influenced by Schoenmaekers's philosophical notions, Schoenmaekers must similarly have
been familiar with Mondrian's "plus-minus" works.
In 1916, Schoenmaekers's second book was published, The principles of plastic
mathematics (Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde), in which a relationship was
established between "plastic mathematics" and "positive mysticism". The word
"plastic" was gaining prominence in the new terminology. Balieu has pointed out that
"beeld" and its derivations are nearer to the German "gestalt" rather than to the English
"image": that is the emphasis lies in the idea of creating form, or "form-giving". The notion
of neoplasticism was accelerated at Laren through the mutual relationship between
Mondrian and Dr Schoenmaekers. In turn, Mondrian's conviction in the matter of
"abstract plastic means" was naturally interwoven into the De Stijl doctrine, owing to
the fact that it was Van Doesburg who edited Mondrian's formative essay, written at Laren,
and entitled "De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkundst". This essay was published in the
first issues of De Stijl in 1917 and the underlying intention was to gain universal
intelligibility for both the theory and practice of art. This urge for "universal intelligibility"
was simultaneously being verbalised by Van Doesburg. In 1916, a theoretical pamphlet
Qntitled "The New Movement in Painting" (De Nieuwe Beweging in de Schilderkunst) had
The similar line of thought between the three men is striking. Phrases such as "pure
plastic art" and "new/neo-plasticism" were to be recurrent in the De Stijl doctrine of
nonobjectivity. We should pause here to note that the word "plastic" is awkward and
deserves some clarification. The following points are general only, and it is essential that the
connotations surrounding the term be placed firmly in context by reading Mondrian's
* Drawn from notes compiled by R. Becker for the University of South Africa