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The New Criterion

America’s leading review of the arts and intellectual life
- Harry Mount, the London Telegraph


September 1995

Mondrian & mysticism: “My long search is over”

by Hilton Kramer

On “Piet Mondrian: 1872–1944” seen first at the Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (December 18, 1994–April 30, 1995), then at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (June 11–September 4, 1995) and on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from October 1, 1995, through January 23, 1996.

The irrational bears the same relation to the rational that the unknown bears to the known. In an age as harsh as it is intelligent, phrases about the unknown are quickly dismissed. I do not for a moment mean to indulge in mystical rhetoric, since, for my part, I have no patience with that sort of thing. That the unknown as the source of knowledge, as the object of thought, is part of the dynamics of the known does not permit of denial… . We accept the unknown even when we are most skeptical. We may resent the consideration of it by any except the most lucid mind; but when so considered, it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known.
—Wallace Stevens, circa 1937

What was the nature of the quest that moved the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) to abandon the representation of nature in favor of an art of pure abstraction? What, exactly, did Mondrian believe that he had achieved? In any attempt to address this question, we are obliged to deal with the fact that abstract art—and not only Mondrian’s—was born of an alliance of aesthetics and mysticism. We are obliged to examine the ideas that shaped the artist’s search for the absolute in art. Ideas, of course, are no substitute for the experience of art, and in Mondrian’s case are certainly not to be taken to be the “subject matter” of his painting. Yet without some grasp of the intellectual history that led the artist to make his fateful leap into abstraction, the spiritual imperative that governed Mondrian’s art is unlikely to be understood. This is a subject that takes us into the mind of modernism at one of the key turning points of its history. It therefore seems an appropriate subject to explore on the occasion of the great Mondrian exhibition that opens next month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—and all the more so since the exhibition itself, as it was presented at the National Gallery in Washington this summer, gave the subject scant attention. In Professor Yve-Alain Bois’s essay for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, for example, the author seems vaguely embarrassed that an artist of Mondrian’s stature might be seen to be seriously implicated in a system of ideas and beliefs which for most of us cannot claim a very persuasive intellectual provenance.

It won’t do to dismiss the issue with condescending references to Madame Blavatsky or attempts to substitute the ideas of more respectable thinkers like Goethe and Hegel in examining the intellectual origins of abstraction. For the problem posed by the relation that obtains between mystical belief and artistic innovation in the creation of abstraction is one that goes beyond Mondrian himself. In the period that saw the genesis of abstract art—roughly the decade beginning in 1910—what is particularly striking about the outlook of the artists primarily responsible for creating abstraction is their espousal of occult doctrine. So prevalent was a steadfast belief in the occult among the pioneers of abstract art—not only Mondrian but also Kandinsky, Malevich, and a good many of their disciples— that we have no alternative but to regard such doctrine as a basic component of their artistic vision.

It should be understood, however, that the particular school of mystical thought that exerted the greatest influence on the creation of abstract art—the system of occult belief generally known as theosophy— was in this period a widely established component of Western cultural life. While deliberately esoteric and by no means a popular creed, theosophy was not an interest limited to coteries of avant-garde painters and sculptors. Still less was it an interest confined to a circle of intellectual cranks and charlatans, though it did indeed attract a large number of crackpots and crazies. (It still does.) As Wallace Stevens was to observe some years later, “There are, naturally, charlatans of the irrational. That, however, does not require us to identify the irrational with the charlatans.”

Still, it was an odd group of savants and mystagogues that shaped the course of modern theosophical thought, thereby exerting a decisive influence not only on the origins of abstract art but on other key developments in twentieth-century art and culture. The high priestess of the movement was indeed the Ukrainian-born adventuress Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), known to her followers the world over as H. P. B. She was said to have commanded occult powers from an early age. She certainly possessed a magnetic personality, making her way in the world—which in Blavatsky’s case meant Europe, America, and Asia—as an emancipated woman without apparent means, yet always attracting (it seems) a circle of admiring men and women who believed in her spiritual gifts, supported her occult endeavors, propagated her theosophical doctrines, and remained undaunted by her scandalous reputation.

In New York, in 1875, H. P. B. founded the Theosophical Society, and promptly produced two large tomes—Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888)—that became the sacred scriptures of the movement. The claim advanced by this movement, which came to be called the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, was that theosophy had triumphantly resolved the conflict between science and religion caused by the Darwinian theory of evolution. “It was the genius of H. P. B.,” writes the historian James Webb in The Occult Underground, “to apply Darwin’s theory to produce a hopeful resolution to the human condition.” Webb continues:

Whereas others saw only the destruction of the sustaining myth of man’s divine origins, H. P. B. discovered that evolution could apply also to the “spiritual” aspects of existence. Man had evolved from apes—perhaps; but he had a noble destiny. Just as homo sapiens had evolved from a lower form of animal life, and that form in its turn from a lower—a vegetable, protoplastic, or unicellular existence— man as at present constituted was on his way to higher and better things. Evolution continued on a cosmic scale, with each individual born and reborn thousands of times until he had achieved earthly perfection.

To achieve the exalted goals that theosophy now invoked as a spiritual imperative for art, it was nonetheless necessary for art itself to remain firmly within the realm of aesthetic experience. An art born of an alliance of aesthetics and mysticism was still obliged to traffic in material objects, and thus remain accessible to visual perception, if its spiritual function were to be realized. It could not—or not yet, anyway—so completely dematerialize itself as to become invisible if it were to continue to function as art. When the Epoch of the Great Spiritual was finally attained in some faraway future existence, no doubt this last concession to material contingency would be dispensed with; and art, too—to the extent that it continued to be needed—would become pure spirit.

But meanwhile, in the spiritually imperfect present, an art that aspired to make itself the instrument of pure spirit—to align itself with what Kandinsky described in On the Spiritual in Art as “the struggle toward the non-naturalistic, the abstract, toward inner nature”—had no alternative but to make its case as an earthly cultural enterprise. It thus remained subject, in this respect, to the “laws” and conventions and material conditions governing the medium in which the artist worked. It was for this reason that even the most mystical of the pioneer creators of abstract art found themselves engaged in a dialectic that embraced two very different aspirations—on the one hand, that of advanced artistic thought, with its headlong drive to discover new modalities of pictorial expression, and, on the other, that of a spiritual ideal that looked upon art as a means to an end that transcended art itself.

For observers who mistakenly tend to identify mysticism with a retreat from the practical affairs of the world, it must sometimes seem a paradox, if not an outright contradiction, that artists of a mystical temperament are perfectly capable of pursuing their worldly ambitions with the kind of uncompromising zeal that we observe in the careers of the early abstractionists. But the truth is that in every realm of high endeavor in which we find mysticism serving as a spur and an ideal—in movements of political revolution and campaigns for sexual emancipation, for example, no less than in avant-garde art movements—this loyalty to occult doctrine has proven to be a powerful incentive to practical achievement. Within the imaginative faculties there is nothing that so stirs the will to accomplish extraordinary things as the conviction that one is possessed of absolute knowledge about the ultimate destiny of human affairs. This was precisely the kind of mystical conviction that the pioneer creators of abstraction brought not only to their own innovations as artists but to the formation of avant-garde movements that changed the direction of modernist art and greatly expanded the place it would come to occupy in modern cultural life.

It is this belief in the absolute that accounts for the speed as well as the confidence which the pioneers of abstraction brought to their break with what they saw as the last vestiges of representation in art, and for the success they achieved in winning converts to their radical view of artistic expression. These artist-acolytes of the occult really did believe they were fulfilling a unique spiritual mission in this fateful act of artistic innovation, and they persuaded a great many others to join them in that belief. Theirs was, in this sense, a religious movement as well as an artistic one, and they brought to it the kind of intensely felt faith that we associate with spiritual yearning and religious conversion.

Yet it was as artists first of all, and only secondarily as exponents of the occult, that they exerted their deepest influence on art itself. In the latest developments of the art of their time, which in the case of Cubism had already brought painting to the very verge of abandoning representation, they shrewdly discerned a “logic” that cried out for completion. This gave to abstraction a powerful sense of purpose—a kind of ontological imperative—that was all the more compelling when combined with the promise of a spiritual vocation. As artists, the pioneers of abstraction had largely mastered in their earlier paintings the rapid succession of styles that had moved from Realism and Impressionism to the Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, Expressionist, and Cubist art which dominated the European avant-garde in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. Because it was from inside this fast-paced arena of pictorial revision that Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich made their historic assault on what remained of traditional representation in art, their views as well as their example carried a special authority—particularly for the younger members of the avant-garde who harbored an intense appetite for the absolute and a headlong impatience to see it realized. For them, everything that had occurred in the history of painting from Courbet to Picasso was suddenly relegated to the past by this unexpected leap into abstraction. In their very different ways—for Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich, despite similar convictions about abstraction and the occult, were distinct individualists with quite separate programs for their art—the pioneers of abstraction opened up a new artistic world to their contemporaries. It was a world vastly different in its metaphysical and artistic outlook from that of the avant-garde movements which immediately preceded the emergence of abstraction.

Indeed, from the perspective of the modernist movement in Paris, where the prehistory of pictorial abstraction had largely taken place and which continued to command an unrivaled authority and influence as the capital of the international avant-garde, the new abstractionists signified something alien and suspect. The modernism of the School of Paris had been anything but monolithic, of course. Its cosmopolitanism was legendary, and it was justly famous for its receptivity to a wide range of advanced ideas and personalities. Theosophy and other theories of the occult were well-known there, too, though they did not lead to a movement advocating abstraction. In fact, none of the ideas contending for attention in the world of the Paris avant-garde openly advocated as a matter of principle the total rupture with representation then beginning to be championed by the pioneers of abstraction. Parisian modernism was, by and large, far too attached to the things of this world to forgo their pictorial representation as a permanent imperative. The Paris avant-garde was, in this respect, invincibly materialist in its outlook on life—still closely tied to observable sensation, and thus ineluctably earthbound in its basic character. However hermetic its allusions to the things of this world might at times become, Parisian modernism was nonetheless steadfast in its allegiance to them as an indispensable point of departure.

It was this allegiance to the things of this world that the mystagogic convictions of the new abstractionists now put into question for the first time, and it was for this reason, above all, that they were either ignored, rejected, or consigned to a marginal status by the Parisian avant-garde. (Even the quintessentially French color abstractions of Robert Delaunay, which the poet Apollinaire dubbed “Orphic Cubism” and which derived from the color theories of the Neo-Impressionists, were more sympathetically received in Germany than in Paris.) The doctrinaire abstraction that was rooted in theosophical ideas was therefore seen to constitute, in the early years of its development, a counter-avant-garde opposed to the mainstream artistic interests of the School of Paris. It was, as far as Paris was concerned, virtually an underground movement that did not enjoy the critical acclaim, or even the kind of critical scandal, that had marked the emergence of Fauvism and Cubism before the First World War and would again mark the emergence of Dada and Surrealism in the years following the war.

It was in advanced artistic circles outside of Paris—in Russia, Germany, and the Netherlands—that the new vision of the pioneer abstractionists met with the most combustible and consequential response. Of the vanguard figures who set out to create an abstract art based on a visionary synthesis of aesthetics and mysticism, only Mondrian lived and worked in Paris for extended periods of his development, first in the years between 1912 and 1914 and then again from 1919 to 1938. It was in the first of these periods, when he remained virtually unknown to the Paris avant-garde, that Mondrian created his earliest abstract paintings.

Mondrian had made the decision to dedicate his life to art long before he turned to the occult, but it was as a dedicated theosophist that he created his first abstractions. After a strict Dutch Calvinist upbringing, he found in theosophy a refuge from the religious turmoil of his youth and early manhood. For a time he even kept a portrait of Madame Blavatsky on the wall of his studio—an icon of his spiritualist endeavors. (As Yeats later recalled, “To [Madame Blavatsky’s] devout followers she was more than a human being.”) In later life Mondrian’s friends often spoke of his “priestly air,” and there was no question but that for him the artistic vocation would never be entirely separable from his intense religious feelings.

Born in Amersfoort, Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1872, Mondrian was educated at the Calvinist Primary School in Winterswijk, where his father—a stern disciplinarian—was headmaster. This was the only formal schooling Mondrian received before enrolling in the Academy of Art, in Amsterdam, in 1892. In his adolescence he was given some informal art instruction by his father, an amateur draftsman, and by an uncle, who was a professional painter in The Hague. His own development as a draftsman was sufficient to enable him to qualify, at the age of twenty, for the modest post of teacher of secondary-school drawing. This was his situation when he entered the Academy.

Nothing in Mondrian’s early life as an art student or as a young exhibiting artist gives us any hint of the gifts that would one day make him a leader of the international avant-garde. He was anything but precocious. He attended the Academy off and on until 1896, and began exhibiting in Amsterdam the following year. But the pictures he then produced—at a time, it should be remembered, when Van Gogh and Seurat had already completed their work, when Cézanne was painting some of the greatest pictures of his late period, and Art Nouveau was the fashion—still consisted of naturalistic landscapes and still lifes in the Dutch academic tradition. Even by provincial academic standards, moreover, Mondrian’s early career was anything but promising. In 1901, at the age twenty-nine, he failed to qualify for the Dutch Prix de Rome, owing to a lack of proficiency in rendering the figure. Henceforth, until his turn to abstraction, Mondrian’s principal subject matter was landscape. He was also devoted to painting flowers, a practice that provided him with a living of sorts even after he had turned to abstraction.

Following the Prix de Rome fiasco, nearly a decade elapsed before any significant trace of modernist influence made itself felt in Mondrian’s landscape painting. This was slow in coming for several reasons. Holland in the nineteenth century had remained something of an artistic backwater as far as modern painting was concerned. News of avant-garde developments in Paris and other cosmopolitan capitals did not easily penetrate the provincial art life of Amsterdam in Mondrian’s student days. (“Van Gogh was dead,” wrote Michel Seuphor of this period in Amsterdam, “but still unknown.”) Shut off from such developments in a very conservative cultural milieu, Mondrian himself did not awaken to the implications of modernism until he was well into his thirties. This awakening occurred, as it happened, coincidentally with his formal commitment to theosophy.

It was thus around 1909—the year that Mondrian officially joined the Theosophical Society of Amsterdam, with a certificate of membership signed by Annie Besant—that he belatedly developed the rudiments of a modernist pictorial style. It began with a modified version of Seurat’s Pointillist method, combined with a Symbolist attitude toward color, that was applied to the rendering of Dutch landscape motifs—haystacks, windmills, tree forms, and seaside dunes. This initial approach to an independent style was already a step in the direction of abstraction, for nature was not so much described in these pictures of haystacks and dunes as made the point of departure for more emphatically articulated pictorial structures that relegated their subjects to a secondary status. Such pictures were, in any case, quickly succeeded by the artist’s determination to submit these same landscape motifs to the even more radical Cubist innovations of Braque and Picasso, a few examples of which Mondrian saw for the first time in an Amsterdam exhibition in the fall of 1911. Those few proved to be enough to change everything.

Mondrian’s encounter with Cubism was clearly the critical turning point of his artistic development. While it would be another year or two before he finally expunged the last traces of traditional representation from his painting, what can only be called his conversion to Cubism—now abetted by the anti-materialist imperatives of his theosophical faith—put Mondrian’s life as an artist on an entirely new footing. Approaching his fortieth birthday, released at last from the tethers of academic tradition, philistine taste, and the provincial culture of his youth, Mondrian was ready to enter the ranks of the avant-garde. Artistically and spiritually, the obscure Dutch artist who finally quit Amsterdam for Paris in the last days of December 1911 was on his way to a new life—a life that in the coming decade would change the face of Western art.

“We may say,” wrote Michel Seuphor in his study of Mondrian, “that it was in Paris in 1912 … that the life of the great painter began.” It was, from the outset, a life of personal isolation, artistic dedication, and mystical reflection. The evidence suggests that it was also a life devoid of erotic engagement. Upon his arrival in Paris, where he lived and worked in a studio borrowed from a Dutch acquaintance, Mondrian had few friends, knew little French, and allowed himself almost no distractions. His first— indeed, his sole—priority was to come to terms with the Cubist ideas he had only just discovered.

To this task he now brought a sense of purpose that was entirely new to him. Quickly mastering the ambiguities that were central to the Cubist aesthetic—ambiguities that set the need for a recognizable motif dialectically at odds with a method of pictorial composition designed to eliminate its distinctive features—Mondrian painted with a confidence and drive he had never before enjoyed. His mission was at once exalted and implacable. Cubism became the battleground on which the artist who had been nurtured on the specifications of Dutch landscape painting fought his last protracted conflict with nature. In this struggle, Mondrian produced his first masterpieces—the series of Compositions based on tree forms in which the last remnants of naturalistic detail are no sooner evoked than all but extinguished in favor of pure painting.

Technically, Mondrian’s tree Compositions of 1912–13 may not qualify as pure abstractions, for the presence of the fractured motif, while diminished almost to the point of extinction, is still minimally discernible. (This tends to be true of nearly all the earliest abstractions.) Yet aesthetically, in the way such pictures are experienced as integrated structures of pictorial form, they have unquestionably crossed the boundary separating abstraction from representation. And during the remainder of this first period of residence in Paris, Mondrian eliminated virtually all association with nature from his pictorial vocabulary. By imposing upon each successive painterly composition of soft-edged Cubist forms an increasingly insistent network of hard vertical and horizontal lines, he left no trace of—and finally no space for—an observed object or remembered motif.

The result was a series of paintings dominated by an irregular, improvised, and as yet unsystematic version of the abstract “grid” that, a few years hence, would become a compelling principle in Mondrian’s classic geometrical abstractions. These first abstractions were not yet governed by any kind of absolute rule. They were not painted according to a theory. Mondrian was following the dictates of his sensibility —a sensibility that was then more confident, perhaps, about what it wished to eliminate than about what it wished to retain for painting—as he worked his way toward what he took to be “the logical consequences” of Cubism. Still, the artist who reluctantly returned to the Netherlands in the summer of 1914, on the eve of the First World War, had nonetheless succeeded in transforming the “logic” of Cubism into an art of abstraction. If he was not yet a recognized leader of the avant-garde—for abstraction was not itself a widely recognized artistic “cause”—he was already producing the kind of art that would serve as a foundation for a new movement. As Theo van Doesburg, the ideological leader of De Stijl, afterwards acknowledged: “Mondrian was the first to realize, in 1913, by a consistent elaboration of Cubism, this new plasticism as a painting.”

What role did Mondrian’s belief in the occult play in this headlong pursuit of abstraction? The notebooks in which he began, in 1914, to keep a record of his ideas about “Art and Reality” clearly establish the centrality of his quest for “the spiritual” in all of his artistic endeavors at the time. This is the key passage:

Art and Reality. Art is higher than reality, and has no direct relation to reality. Between the physical sphere and the ethereal sphere there is a frontier where our senses stop functioning. Nevertheless, the ether penetrates the physical sphere and acts upon it. Thus the spiritual penetrates the real. But for our senses these are two different things—the spiritual and the material. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. Thus the use of elementary forms is logically accounted for. These forms being abstract, we find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art.

Careful attention must be paid to the way Mondrian invokes the concept of “reality” in his writings, for in a very short time it would come to signify something very different—the exact opposite, in fact—from his identification of reality, in this passage, with the material world of “our senses.” This is, of course, what most of us mean by reality. As he refined his philosophy of art, however, bringing it into stricter alignment with occult doctrine, “reality” became a term wholly reserved in Mondrian’s later writings for the realm of “the spiritual.” But this terminological revision does not reflect any change in the essential direction of his thought about abstract art. Fundamental to its creation, in his case, was a steadfast metaphysical belief in the division that separated “the spiritual and the material,” and, as an artistic corollary to this, a further belief—which he was not yet ready to act upon to the fullest degree—in “the use of elementary forms” as the most expeditious means of achieving “the spiritual” in art.

We cannot know what immediate course Mondrian’s painting—as distinct from his ideas about painting—would have followed if the war had not disrupted his artistic pursuits in the summer of 1914. Summoned to his father’s bedside in July of that fateful year, he was not expecting this duty visit to his family to amount to anything more than a brief interlude. As it happened, of course, he soon found himself trapped in the Netherlands for the duration of the war. As the country was neutral in the war, Mondrian was never in any danger from the military operations that were devastating other parts of Europe. Yet he felt painfully cut off from the important work he had started. Separated from his paintings, which had been left behind in Paris, and from the milieu in which they had been produced, Mondrian lost some of his artistic momentum. Nevertheless, in this period of enforced repatriation he devoted a great deal of thought to formulating his future artistic program.

In this pursuit he soon discovered that he was by no means as isolated in his new artistic and philosophical outlook as he had believed himself to be. “The war,” writes the Dutch historian H. L. C. Jaffé, “had brought many Dutch artists who had been working abroad, back to their native country and these came back to the Netherlands charged with the results of their studies and full of new and promising ideas. In the Netherlands they found an atmosphere of spiritual tension, generated by the fact of the country’s being a neutral enclave, an oasis in a continent at war.” It was thus in the war years that Mondrian came to know, among others, the painters Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck, the architects J. J. P. Oud and Robert van’t Hoff, the designers Vilmos Huszar and Gerrit Rietveld, and the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo—the artists who, with Mondrian, founded in 1917 the avant-garde movement called De Stijl (the Style). This was to have an immense influence not only on the future of abstract art throughout the Western world but also on modern architecture and design and on the aesthetic, social, and pedagogical theories that supported them.

De Stijl was, from the outset, something more than an art movement. It was a social and cultural program, based on a visionary amalgam of idealist aesthetics, industrial mechanics, and utopian politics. Its ambition was to redesign the world by imposing straight lines, primary colors, and geometric form—and thus an ideal of impersonal order and rationality—upon the production of every man-made object essential to the modern human environment. Rejecting tradition, it envisioned the rebirth of the world as a kind of technological Eden from which all trace of individualism and the conflicts it generates would be permanently banished. Its goal was to liberate European culture from the “archaistic confusion” of its past in order to create an entirely new and completely harmonious civilization.

In this ambition, notwithstanding its rationalist claims, a belief in the occult was to play an important role. In 1915, the Dutch writer M. H. J. Schoenmaekers published a treatise called The New Image of the World, described by its author as a work of “positive mysticism.” This and a subsequent volume, Plastic Mathematics (1916), exerted a crucial influence on Mondrian and the other founders of De Stijl. According to Jaffé, “Both Mondrian and Schoenmaekers lived, at the time, in Laren and … saw each other frequently and had long and animated discussions.” Schoenmaekers’s ideas were directly incorporated into the De Stijl program, from 1917 onward, as well as into Mondrian’s later theoretical writings. The very term that Mondrian adopted for the geometrical abstractions of his later years —Neo-Plasticism—was borrowed from Schoenmaekers’s wartime writings.

Schoenmaekers was a Neo-Platonist in quest of a reality more absolute than any that could be discerned in the natural world without the aid of mystical illumination. Nature, from the perspective of this “positive mysticism,” was looked upon as a mystery to be scrutinized and penetrated—a view that was more or less in accord with theosophical doctrine, and that also bore a distinct resemblance to the Symbolist philosophy of Mallarmé. Truth was defined as the reduction of “the relativity of natural facts to the absolute, in order to recover the absolute in natural facts.” What was especially important in this theory was that art, if sufficiently awakened to its mystical role, was accorded a central place in the metaphysical process. “In art,” Schoenmaekers wrote, mysticism “creates what we call, in the strictest sense, ‘style.’” Style in art is characterized as “the general in spite of the particular” and the means by which “art is integrated in general cultural life.” Thus the joint task of the artist and the mystic is “to penetrate nature in such a way that the inner construction of reality is revealed to us.”

It was not only for its philosophical affirmation of the mystical view of “reality,” moreover, nor for the role it envisioned for art in divining its “inner construction,” that Schoenmaekers’s theories were important for Mondrian in his thinking about abstraction. Schoenmaekers also specified the nature of the forms (rectilinear structures of the horizontal and the vertical) and the colors (the primaries: red, yellow, and blue) to be used in this artistic quest for the absolute, and then elaborated upon their cosmic significance. “This new plastic expression,” Schoenmaekers wrote in The New Image of the World, “is of this world… . But it is a new earthiness, an earthly heaven.” And an “earthly heaven,” or some artistic analogue thereof, was indeed what the artists of the De Stijl group, Mondrian most conspicuously, were determined to create in their abstract art.

It must not be supposed, however, that Schoenmaekers’s ideas triggered an abrupt or immediate break in Mondrian’s pictorial practice. The purely geometrical, or Neo-Plasticist, abstractions with which Mondrian came ultimately to be identified, were never painted according to a theoretical formula, and there was certainly no sudden conversion to the purely geometrical as the result of his response to Schoenmaekers’s philosophy. On the contrary, Mondrian seemed at first somewhat daunted by the vision of an art that might jettison all the variations in tone and contour that had remained a staple of his painting even when he abandoned conventional representation in the most highly developed of his “Cubist” abstractions. In later years, with his painting confidently entrenched in Neo-Plasticist principles, he might dismiss such residual signs of painterly tradition as a throwback to “Impressionism” or even naturalism; but during this difficult period of transition to a more absolute mode of abstraction, when every mark on the canvas was an exploration of the unknown, Mondrian nonetheless held fast to such vestiges of tradition even as he was inching his way toward a conception of painting that would finally do without them.

Thus, the pictorial means traditionally associated with the depiction of observable objects and the space they occupy—shifts of tone and color value, and the variations in drawing that serve to hold them in place— survived a while longer in Mondrian’s painting even when their representational function had already been forfeited. Clearly it was not an easy matter for a painter of Mondrian’s background and experience, even at this relatively advanced stage of his development, to bid an irrevocable farewell to such a fundamental pictorial practice. The depth of the perturbation caused by this radical option may be inferred from the fact that only one painting by the artist survives from the year 1916. This was the crucial period in which Mondrian was struggling to reconcile the demands of his art with the appeal of Schoenmaekers’s ideas. The abstraction that he produced that year —Composition: 1916, now in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum—is at once a summation of the “old” painting and a partial preview of the new. Its forms are predominantly rectilinear but still soft-edged, “open,” and irregular. Its black lines hold firmly to right-angled verticals and horizontals, but at the side edges of the painting they shade off into veiled grays. Its colors—blues and blueish grays, pinks and grayish pinks, yellowish ochres that in places turn brown—are cousin to the primaries, but remain equivocal, impure, and atmospheric. There is no discernible subject in Composition: 1916, but for anyone who knows the Pier and Ocean drawings by Mondrian that preceded it there is an unmistakable visual echo, or memory, in its fragmented grid structure. This is painting with a pronounced appetite for an absolute it does not yet command the means of realizing.

The breakthrough came the very next year. “For the moment at least,” Mondrian wrote to a friend in September 1917, “my long search is over.” While he had produced little new painting during the previous year, he had devoted much time and thought to the writing of a treatise of his own—“The New Plastic in Painting”—which Van Doesburg began serializing in the inaugural issues of De Stijl, the magazine founded in 1917 to launch the new movement. At the same time, Mondrian painted his first geometrical abstractions—the series of pictures entitled Compositions in Color or Compositions with Color Planes. These “flat” pictorial compositions of rectangles in primary colors on a gray ground closed the door on the kind of illusionistic space—the space of representation—that the artist had been struggling to transcend since his first encounter with Cubism six years earlier. In 1917, Mondrian had at last brought both the theory and the practice of pure abstraction into a satisfactory alignment.

“The New Plastic in Painting” owed a good deal to Schoenmaekers’s mystical philosophy, of course, but it was more directly addressed to the problems of painting. It was at once a manifesto for a new pictorial aesthetic—an aesthetic of pure abstraction —and a restatement of the occult, anti-materialist doctrines that supported its creation. “The new plastic,” Mondrian wrote in the introduction to this historic treatise, “cannot be cloaked in what is characteristic of the particular, natural form and color, but must be expressed by the abstraction of form and color—by means of the straight line and determinate primary color.” What is remarkable about “The New Plastic in Painting” is not only its triumphal affirmation of pure abstraction as an aesthetic “absolute”—a word that was repeatedly sounded throughout the manifesto—but the anxious attention that is lavished on the need to emancipate painting from the thralldom of what is variously called “nature’s appearance,” “naturalistic representation,” “naturalistic form,” “naturalistic color,” and so on. Nature haunts the pages of “The New Plastic in Painting” like a specter that can be neither exorcised nor appeased. It can only be resisted by an act of transcendent artistic conscience that makes the pursuit of the “universal” a quest so absolute that all the contingencies of nature are stripped of their importance.

Implicit in this view of what Mondrian also called “the style of the future” was an idea of evolution—the evolution of art in the service of the evolution of spirit—akin to the theosophical doctrines of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. According to this conception of evolution, mankind had once “lived in harmony with nature’s rhythm.” With the development of human consciousness, however, “there automatically ensued a disharmony between man and nature.” It was thus to be the function of the new abstraction, or what Mondrian sometimes called “abstract-real painting,” to give us “the image of this regained harmony.” This was to be achieved, Mondrian avowed, by the creation of a pictorial composition “more mathematical than naturalistic,” an art of “pure relationships” that eschewed “all that was capricious” in nature in order to achieve “the most constant, the most determinate plastic expression of equilibrated relationship—composition in rectangular planes.” (The emphasis is Mondrian’s.) Hence the Compositions with Color Planes that set him on his new course in 1917.

“The New Plastic in Painting” concludes by celebrating the emergence of “a purer and purer mode of expression in art” as a triumph of the modern era, and Mondrian was himself to live by this artistic faith for the rest of his life and make it a source of inspiration for others. All the same, an existential uncertainty about the role of nature —in art and in life—remained a vexing issue for Mondrian, and his philosophy of abstraction cannot be fully comprehended in isolation from it. Toward the end of “The New Plastic in Painting,” his ruminations on nature suddenly take the form of an arcane discussion of the male and female principles transposed to the realm of mystical archetypes. Identifying nature with the female principle and spirit with the male, he concludes that “The female and male elements, nature and spirit, then find their pure expression, true unity, only in the abstract.” (Again, the emphasis is Mondrian’s.) This is clearly the sheerest mysticism, and more the expression of a lingering anxiety about nature than a resolution of the problem it posed for a sensibility nurtured on the occult. Yet it was upon such an uneasy mystical foundation that Mondrian’s absolutist aesthetic of abstraction finally came to rest.

In this amalgam of mysticism, anxiety, abstraction, and a search for the absolute, we are reminded, as we often are with Mondrian, of Mallarmé—especially of that passage in Mallarmé’s prose in which the poet speaks so poignantly of “isolating oneself, disdainfully, in the serenity of abstraction.” “Serenity appears as a quality both of the effect of the finished work,” wrote one of Mallarmé’s commentators, D. J. Mossop, “and of the artist’s feelings during the act of composition. It is, in turn, inseparable from the idea of harmony. The poet achieves harmony and serenity in himself and in his work by withdrawing from too active a participation in the passions of his theme so as to abstract a perfect order from the disorder common to the impressions made by normal experience and the feelings of lyrical inspiration.”

Such was Mondrian’s outlook on art and life, too, as he finally achieved “the serenity of abstraction” and embarked upon the work that would shape the course of abstract art for decades to come.


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  1. “Piet Mondrian: 1872–1944” was seen first at the Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (December 18, 1994–April 30, 1995), then at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (June 11–September 4, 1995). It will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from October 1, 1995, through January 23, 1996. A catalogue has been published by Leonardo Arte and Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown (400 pages, $75; $32 paper). Go back to the text.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 September 1995, on page 4

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