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Piet Mondrian: Biography, Paintings & Art

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the art, style, and influence of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Learn about his approach to Abstract Expressionism and Cubism, connections with other Modern artists, and impact on minimalist art and architecture.

Going Dutch

Don't let the mustache fool you. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was a cultural esthete and avant-garde intellectual. Mondrian (born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan) was a Dutch painter who gained fame in the art world through participation in the art group De Stijl and his innovative Cubist style.

Photograph of Piet Mondrian (1922)
mondrian

Artistic Beginnings

Mondrian was born and raised in the Netherlands to a family in which education and art were important. His earlier work was influenced by impressionism, a contemporary movement that valued naturalism and the reflection of emotional characteristics on the landscape. Mondrian's early work was also influenced by his interest in spiritualism and philosophy, most notably the popular late nineteenth century movements of Theosophy and Anthrosophy.

Abstract Expressionism

By the 1930s, Mondrian had adopted an artistic style situated firmly in abstract expressionism. Abstract Expressionism is a movement as well as a style of art that first became popular in the early twentieth century, a reflection on the social and cultural upheavals entangled with the circumstances of the first World War. The style grew out of artists overwhelmed by existential crisis, subjectivity, and the artificiality of mechanical reproduction (in photography and mass industrial production, for example).

Abstract Expressionism takes an approach called non-representation, which rejects the idea that paintings can or even should attempt to reflect the lived, visible world. Instead, non-representational art excels at expressing the inner feeling, desire, and mood of an artist reflected through composition.

In Cubism, non-representational style makes use of geometric form and primary colors. Cubism was an art movement within the broader trend of abstract expressionism in the early twentieth century, alongside contemporary movements in Vorticism, Dadaism, and Conceptual art such as Duchamp's Readymades. Cubism was characterized by many of the same qualities as Expressionism, with particular emphasis on geometrical forms and lines to create asymmetrical compositions.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930)
mondrian Cubism

While the titles of Mondrian's paintings sometimes referred to concrete objects, such as trees and landscapes, the paintings themselves were constructed from abstract geometric forms and primary colors. As an experiment in Cubism, Mondrian produced a series of paintings around the graphic composition of the tree. The series began with the depiction of a recognizable tree and degraded across compositions into an entirely cubist composition composed entirely of lines and geometric forms.

As the paintings in the series became more abstract, the viewer notices the correspondence as the compositions refer back to the first, representational tree. In a sense, the series was an experiment to see how minimal the composition could become while still retaining meaning and correspondence to a representational object. Compare Gray Tree (1911) with Composition No. XVI (1912/13). This type of probing into minimalism is characteristic of much of the work that came after, particularly its engagement with non-representation and abstract form.

Gray Tree (1911)
tree

Composition No. XVI (1912/13)
mondrian tree

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