Piet Mondrian ( 1872-1944 ) had a profound belief in progress, the key to which he believed lay in man’s innate dissatisfaction with the merely “natural” world. He disliked classical representational art, for example, because he felt it simply reproduced what that world looked like, rather than seeking to go beyond it to a higher truth. For Mondrian, the “essence” of life was to be found in the perception of the fundamental structures that govern it. The pattern of his work throughout his life had, accordingly, been one of ever-increasing abstraction. He had begun his career as a painter of natural forms – trees, or the ocean, seen from the shores of his native Holland – but had gradually transformed such motifs into what he believed was a kind of universal grammar of form and colour.
With a degree of idealism almost unimaginable on the part of any artist today, Mondrian saw such pictures as blueprints, admittedly somewhat opaque , for all of the structures of man, whether they be political, urban or moral. One day, he believed, everything in the world would be conceived and shaped with the same care and attention to higher realities, the same due attention to balance, measure and construction that he had demonstrated in his pictures.
This is only the the beginning, a first step towards answering one of the most pressing questions historians have asked Mondrian’s work. How did he arrive at the stunning abstraction that his well known paintings depict?
“Mondrian was a very able landscape artist, but to paint in Van Gogh’s expressive semi-abstract style is another matter. I hypothesize that Mondrian was overtaxed. The “Grey Tree” represents the limit (now in a cubist style) of how far Mondrian could go in creating a composition that is “spontaneously” painted, with semi-improvised brush-strokes.It has been suggested that Mondrian pursued an abstract style to break with his domineering father, who was a draftsman and strict naturalist. One can always come up with some kind of Neo-Freudian speculation on another man’s mind; it seems more sensible to look for an artistic explanation, which there is, in my opinion.”
From his earliest years there was little doubt , at least in his own mind, that he would become an artist. “Born in Holland in 1872, at Amersfoort”, so begins a draft of an autobiographical statement written in Mondrian’s uncertain English. “I early did painting , conducted by my father ( amateur ) and my uncle ( painter ) and became diplomas for school and high-school drawing teaching.” These laconic phrases suppress a serious domestic conflict. Mondrian’s father, a talented draftsman, was a schoolteacher who put his artistic gifts to use in the classroom, drawing biblical scenes on the blackboard for the edification of his pupils. He wanted his son to be a schoolteacher too, but Mondrian secured two diplomas, one in 1889, the other in 1892, that entitled him to teach drawing in elementary and in secondary schools. He would teach, but he would teach art.
The compromise between art and education soon proved unworkable, but his academic training would later provide Mondrian with some unexpected gratification. His friend and biographer , Michel Seuphor, recalle seeing the two Dutch diplomas, “yellow with age and carefully folded,” in New York; Mondrian had preserved them “to prove that he also knew how to draw academically.”
His early landscapes and drawings of flowers amply demonstrate his technical competence in line and color. They also demonstrate his dependence on other painters. For years Mondrian was little more than a satellite, though a brilliant one. He made choices among available styles, from the beginning rejecting what he considered the sentiment of romanticism: