Abstract Art has often found itself alienating the public and accused of impenetrability. Yet its origins in the early 20th century, through the pioneering vision of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, were motivated by profound ideals about the human spirit and its relationship to the modern world. Mondrian’s was a radical project that severed the age-old link between art and representation in pursuit of a near-religious belief in universal unity. It created not only one of the 20th century’s most exuberant artistic explorations of the modern age, but among its most important bodies of work.
In 1909, as a young painter from a conservative Dutch family working in Amsterdam, Mondrian became deeply involved in the Theosophical Society’s ideas of universal enlightenment. Theosophism was an important philosophy for other abstract pioneers of the time, including Wassily Kandinsky, and, for Mondrian, it inspired a new theoretical approach to his work.
By the early 1910s, drawn to Picasso and Braque’s ideas of Cubism, he had moved away from the Symbolism of his early work and relocated to Paris in 1912. There he began pushing Cubism to new geometric extremes with paintings such as Composition VII (1913) — a work in which the hallmark gridlines of his iconic later style can be seen emerging.
Mondrian would continue to develop his ideas through writing as much as painting and, by the 1920s, in essays such as Le Néo-Plasticisme (1920) had developed an extraordinary amalgamation of spiritualism, art theory and exuberant exaltation of modern life. He found jazz’s improvisatory, rhythmic qualities enthralling, and jazz would come to inspire many of his greatest masterpieces, such as Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-3). From 1917 onwards he was a leading force in the De Stjil movement, and by 1918 had settled on the bold grid-work paintings that would come to define his achievements — Tableau 2 (1922) being a beautiful example. Cubism had abstracted representation, but Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, as he called it, was pure abstraction — a complete purging of representation from the canvas in his quest for a superior, transcendental reality.
The threat of Nazism forced Mondrian to London in 1938. With the coming of the Blitz he then moved to New York in 1940, where he died of pneumonia in 1944, aged 71.
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