Mondrian ‘Everything was spotless white, like a laboratory. In a light smock, with his clean-shaven face, taciturn, wearing his heavy glasses, Mondrian seemed more a scientist or priest than an artist. The only relief to all the white were large matboards, rectangles in yellow, red and blue, hung in asymmetric arrangements on all the walls. Peering at me through his glasses, he noticed my glance and said: I’ve arranged these to make it more cheerful.’ Thus Charmion von Wiegand on Mondrian’s New York studio. In his Paris studio he had used flowers to make it more cheerful.
One tulip in a vase, an artificial one, its leaves painted white. As Mondrian was probably incapable of irony, the tulip was unlikely to be a wry joke about his having had to produce flowerpieces between 1922 and 1925 when he no longer wanted to because there were no buyers for his abstracts. It could, of course, have been a revenge for the agony a compromise of that sort must have cost him. More likely, it was simply a part of the general revulsion against green and growth which made him, when seated at a table beside a window through which trees were visible to him, persuade someone to change places. The artificial tulip fitted in, of course, with the legend of the studio as laboratory or cell, the artist as scientist or anchorite.
Mondrian felt it mattered that an artist should present himself in a manner appropriate to his artistic aims. A photograph of him taken in 1908 shows a bearded floppy-haired Victorian man of sensibility. A photograph of 1911 shows a twentieth-century technologist, cleanshaven with centre parting and brilliantined hair; the spectacles were an inevitable accessory. Soft and hairy becomes hard and smooth; one of the great landscape-painters of his generation, one of the great flower-painters of his generation, comes to find trees monstrous, green fields intolerable. The loneliness of the artificial tulip with its painted leaves might seem to suggest that flora were admitted grudgingly, one plant being the next best thing to none.
But it probably meant the opposite of that – was probably a sign, not of Mondrian’s having become a different person, but of his having remained the same. When Mondrian had painted flowers, he almost invariably painted one chrysanthemum, one amaryllis, one tiger lily. His most personal paintings of trees are paintings of one tree; of architecture, are paintings of a lighthouse or a single windmill or an isolated church – a solitary tower, often with its entrances as if blocked, like a fortress, refusing disruption of its monolithic intactness, its immaculate otherness, its self-sufficient singularity. Likewise the early romantic landscapes are rarely at all panoramic: they usually take in something like a couple of cows and a tree, three or four trees in a row, a group of farmhouses. And the tendency to concentrate attention inwards persists into the paintings and drawings of the sea Of 1914-15: half of them are of a Pier and Ocean.
The ocean is not oceanic, consuming, illimitable: it radiates from a vertical motif representing a man-made projection – like the towers jutting into the sky. Only the composition is no longer centripetal. The pluses and minuses of the sea don’t converge upon the pier: they do radiate outwards, are then checked by the containing oval within the rectangle of the page or canvas. These works are, of course, among the key transitional pieces between figuration and non-figuration in Mondrian. In the tensions they exhibit between centripetal and centrifugal, they are also representative of his transition from centripetal to centrifugal design.
In Mondrian figuration is equated with the centripetal, nonfiguration with the centrifugal. (It is interesting that an artist so exceptionally given to symmetry in his early days should so rigorously exclude it in his maturity.) Focusing inwards is rejected by Mondrian when the object is rejected. Focusing inwards is involvement. Involvement with objects entails suffering. In the paintings of chrysanthemums – that most centripetal of flowers – there is a sense of concentration that is agonising. It is as if the artist were trying to hypnotise himself by gazing into this flower and as if he were trying to hypnotise the flower into suspending its process of growth, the process that will make the petals fall away, the flowers wilt and die (as it is seen to do in two of the paintings in the series).
The rapt quality of the image seems to embody a longing to deny time, the flower is held together with a sort of desperation. In the series of images of trees that followed, the forces of growth can no longer be held in. Growth is seen as an irresistible force moving through the tree – a river of life, spreading, demanding space into which it can expand. Pictures such as The Red Tree reflect not simply a tree seen now, but the way it has evolved, has lived, has been formed, is still in formation, will wither and die. In pictures such as The Blue Tree the urgency of the need to grow is such that it is as if the whole growth were telescoped into one explosive moment like a shellburst.
Coursing with life, the trees are twisted images of torment and despair. Intense involvement with living things is involvement with death. If you follow nature, wrote Mondrian in 1920, you have to accept ‘whatever is capricious and twisted in nature’. If the capricious is beautiful, it is also tragic: ‘If you follow nature you will not be able to vanquish the tragic to any real degree in your art. It is certainly true that naturalistic painting makes us feel a harmony which is beyond the tragic, but it does not express this in a clear and definite way, since it is not confined to expressing relations of equilibrium.
Let us recognise the fact once and for all: the natural appearance, natural form, natural colour, natural rhythm, natural relations most often express the tragic . . . We must free ourselves from our attachment to the external, for only then do we transcend the tragic, and are enabled consciously to contemplate the repose which is within all things.’ Mondrian could find a repose to contemplate in natural things so long as he could see them with their energy held in check, as with the chrysanthemums. The object was tolerated so long as it seemed to contain its energy.
Looking at the trees, he recognised the forces flowing out of them – so that the tendency towards the centrifugal first appears among these images – felt the need to release those forces from objects and objectify them in another way. Attachment had to be transferred from natural objects to things not subject to death. To an artificial tulip, which would be everlasting. To lines which were not lines tracing the growth in space of a tree but were lines not matched in nature, lines proper to art, lines echoing the bounding lines of the canvas itself. The lines which had followed the lines of the boughs and branches and twigs of the trees gave way in 1912 to lines derived from the scaffolding in space of Analytical Cubism. Geometric abstraction by and large has its origin in the flat shapes of Synthetic Cubism, a mode completely foreign to Mondrian.
One imagines, in the first place, that he must have disapproved of the fact that Picasso and Braque, having evolved with exquisite logic for four years from the Estaque and Horta landscapes to the shattered luminosity of the hermetic period, suddenly took a capricious sideways leap into the arbitrary improvisations of papier coll. It is known that he disapproved of the fact that, having attained a sublime level of abstraction from nature, they used papier coll to let reality – in all its banality and all its subjection to time – in through the back door – a recourse to nostalgia and materialism. It is evident that he could accept no form of assemblage as a solution. The assembled shapes of Synthetic Cubism ultimately derived from the flat separate shapes of Gauguin. Mondrian’s allegiance belonged to Impressionism and Seurat, to their concern with translating a sensation into a mesh of brushmarks. Mondrian’s neo-Impressionist brushmarks of 1908-10 were elongated into the short lines of the seascapes and faades of 1914-15 which in turn were elongated into lines extending from side to side of the canvas and seemingly beyond.
A painting by Malevich or Van Doesburg or Kupka is an assemblage of shapes. A Mondrian does not consist of blue rectangles and red rectangles and yellow rectangles and white rectangles. It is conceived – as is abundantly clear from the unfinished canvases – in terms of lines – lines that can move with the force of a thunderclap or the delicacy of a cat. Mondrian wanted the infinite, and shape is finite. A straight line is infinitely extendable, and the open-ended space between two parallel straight lines is infinitely extendable.
A Mondrian abstract is the most compact imaginable pictorial harmony, the most self-sufficient of painted surfaces (besides being as intimate as a Dutch interior). At the same time it stretches far beyond its borders so that it seems a fragment of a larger cosmos or so that, getting a kind of feedback from the space which it rules beyond its boundaries, it acquires a second, illusory, scale by which the distances between points on the canvas seem measurable in miles. ‘The positive and the negative are the causes of all action .. The positive and the negative break up oneness, they are the cause of all unhappiness. The union of the positive and the negative is happiness.’ The palpable oneness of the solitary flower or tower, being subject to time and change, had to give way to the subliminal oneness of a vivid equilibrium. Arts and Paintings.