Tim Sandys is an artist in Glasgow, Scotland
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Piet Mondrian: Pier and Ocean


Compositie 10 in Zwart Wit (Composition 10 in Black and White) - Pier and Ocean
Piet Mondrian - 1915

Guillaume Apollinaire described Piet Mondrian’s output as having a ‘sensitive intellectualism’. Wijsenbeek’s anecdotal accounts describe his passionate but controlled dancing, simple and crisp dress, his immaculate and sparse studio fashioned for the surgical precision his painting output required. These facets marry with our expectations of the man who created such a famously cerebral form of abstract painting. His extensive output is most closely associated with the primary colour / line compositions of his ‘Neo Plasticism‘ - so much so that it is easy to neglect the formative works that led to these exercises in intuitive precision. Like others in the short-live De Stijl movement, Mondrian was approaching abstraction through experiment prompted by the efforts of Picasso and Braque. Like his associate, Theo van Doesburg, Mondrian was progressing from his outset as a representational artist towards an abstraction informed by De Stijl’s utopian ideals. With nods to Cubism, Russian constructivism and the strict adherence to linear form, Mondrian’s ‘Pier and Ocean’ series is vitally important to his developments in abstraction.This discussion will show through analysis of this series’ culmination, Compositie 10 in Zwart Wit (Composition 10 in Black and White) that this was the dominant developmental flashpoint of his career.

Like the precursors in this series, the image presents as a diffuse oval containing detail. This is a common mechanism employed by Mondrian in the period 1913 to 1916 and although portrait formats such as his previous cathedral façade series also manifest a sparse or blank periphery, the landscape formats serve as portals to visual acuity by representation; Mondrian wants us to ‘see’ what he does. Not just look at a scene. Rather, we are not observing a vista rendered in two dimensions. We are instead presented with Mondrian’s own retinal perception; his own experience. We also note that the marks towards this perceptual boundary fade deliberately but seamlessly. Rather than create an analogue of tunnel-vision, Mondrian acknowledges the vague nature of our peripheral vision in a manner that can be inspected at close-quarters. It is at once illusion and allusion. This artistry also shares common ground with a more cognitive explanation of visual perception but is at odds with such analyses when one scrutinizes the marks themselves.

Unlike the many drawings that share parentage, this painting is clearly intended as a summation; a crystallizing of recurring subject matter. We know this because each mark is no longer merely dense charcoal line as in previous hasty studies, but instead a rectangle, sensitively and precisely established. Each mark represents length alone and does not diminish in width as they recede to the vanishing point. This use of the mark to represent one dimension, one variable, is fundamentally mathematical in incept. It is a reasoned response to the need to remove that which is not essential to the structure of the image. It is also a harbinger of Mondrian’s reductionism and efficiencies in the later paintings of Neo Plasticism. That the image represents a clear effect of perspective is of course the over-riding effect of the composition. The image’s potency relies on the clash between rigid, quantitative mark-making and the resulting serenity of the seascape. Sentimentality is eliminated by devotion to the linear forms but yet the satisfying representational nature of the image is maintained by implied perspective alone. Again, the drive for calm efficiency is paramount. The field of vision is unified.

By further dissecting Mondrian’s choice of mark-making, we can more clearly comprehend the intent to produce a pure and comprehensive visual language.

 


Figure 1. Vertical Marks

From the vertical marks in isolation, the recession of perspective is not so apparent. Rather, the influences of Mondrian’s earlier (tree) paintings seem to be at work here. Regardless, the profusion of smaller marks at denser intervals towards the top or ‘vanishing point’ of the image clearly show his intent to draw the eye up to a perspective boundary. Indeed, the obvious accentuation of the central vertical marks or ‘pier’ actively promote the viewer’s gaze to a dynamic conclusion; a forward path in the centre of the composition. Notably, the presence of the base of the pier also encourages the viewer to intuit their own feet standing at a precise spot, to experience Mondrian’s ‘view’ rather than a ‘scene’.


Figure 2. Horizontal Marks

The horizontal lines perhaps represent water by default. One suspects that the presence of a spatial plane is intended solely. Interestingly, the illusion of perspective depth is not employed from the base of the pier. Apparently, the recession of mark length only occurs from the vertical midpoint upwards. To include more lengthy marks near the base of the image would perhaps render the field less diffuse and thus more contrived. Mondrian is walking a fine line between the absolute abstraction that he would later attain and the impression of the representational he was graduating from. Although the overall effect of Mondrian’s choice of mark making is a sense of diffusion, we can conclude from this dissection of the horizontal and the vertical that there was greater precision and focused intent than at first apparent. We know this because when isolating the horizontal and vertical in this manner one would normally expect that the distribution of lines evinces a ‘randomness’ in both planes. Could one plane have been laid down, the canvas turned through ninety degrees, and then the composition completed with more seemingly random marks? Closer inspection shows this not to be the case. Although lines cross at right angles, there are numerous incidences within the composition where we see a long horizontal ‘capped’ at either end by small vertical marks. Evidently, Mondrian could not bring himself to allow ‘randomness’ to hold sway. We see a constructivist dogmatism insisting itself, despite Mondrian’s apparent dedication to spiritual intuition - there is more deliberation apparent. The observation of natural elements may have conceived this image, but the ‘sensitive intellect’ that Apollinaire spoke of has held the composition in check. We picture Mondrian, selecting, editing and even sacrificing marks - reigning in nature and insisting an intuition to arrive at a satisfying, unified conclusion.

One may consider, were the titles of this series intentional or added as afterthought? Was Mondrian merely investigating dynamic abstraction through the use of implied perspective? Is the similarity of the named elements responsible for the title? Anecdotal evidence from A. M. Hammacher clearly demonstrates that Mondrian was using nature and experience as his guide. This apparent obsession with surgically neat marks is borne of the sketchbook (“On a walk beside the ocean…he took a tiny sketchbook out of his pocket…”) - it is quickly recorded, extrapolated and finalised into this image.

Regardless of title, the notion of the pier is poignant in this artist’s poetic. The obvious dynamic properties provoke the impressions of movement, serenity, contemplation and most importantly an existential setting that Mondrian shares unsentimentally with the viewer. We picture a central figure, standing solo at the base of a pier. Is this individual walking toward the ‘ocean’, perhaps to be absorbed by the expanse of abstracted oblivion? Perhaps this image also metaphorically describes the turning point in Mondrian’s body of work. As it is arguably his last work that permits representational intent, It can be seen as a metaphor for his own exploration; a lone figure perhaps stranded by conflict about to leave the solid and sure-footed world and, after lengthy observation, jump from the pier and explore the unknown through abstraction - albeit abstraction firmly rooted in formal structures and decisive line. His delicate sensibilities are apparent here as much as his Paris / London / New York output. We see structure, mathematics, existential exploration, rhythm, precision, and a desire to seek alternatives.

No analysis of the intuitive nature of Mondrian's abstractions can be complete without some acknowledgement of his superstitious or spiritual leanings. Ill-formed, nebulous and incoherent as it was, the superstitious notions of theosophy clearly hold much influence over Mondrian's choices, either in incept or edit. A spiritual ideal became more apparent in this period of his work. Perhaps the enforced sense of confinement that resulted from him being restricted to the Netherlands during these wartime years finally pushed his works towards something with higher pretensions than mere art. The notion that art could somehow heal humanity was neither new then or now but it is not difficult to imagine this man of ‘sensitive intellectualism’ pushing to create, as he wrote, 'in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness'. His writings as to the spiritual in art as recognised by those within the De Stijl movement express the zeal common with those held sway by magical thinking. Despite this, his utopian idealism was shown to be pragmatic as one would expect of him. His treatise on ‘Pure Plastic Art’ expressed that art could only be a ‘”substitute” so long as the beauty of life is deficient’. A contemporary artist today can only imagine what their practice might aim to achieve were it punctuated by the horrors of two world wars.

That Pier and Ocean struggles to balance the representational with the abstract indicates that Mondrian could not yet reconcile the clash between the mathematical / structural choices of his marks with his intuitive leanings to beauty or at least a serene clarity. We
can calibrate his experiment by comparison with the joy sensed in his late paintings. Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), for example, transcends Pier and Ocean's attempts to convey 'beauty' or 'awareness' through a simpler vitality and allusion to the rhythmic and melodic gymnastics of the jazz music he loved. We can contrast dramatically the Mondrian of 1915 (trapped in wartime Europe, struggling with new painting and the profound stirrings of spiritual blossoming) and the Mondrian of 1942 - in New York, having the intervening years to control and refine his efforts despite observing the world raging in armed conflict again.

Few 20th century painters have shown so marked a personal journey as Piet Mondrian. Many of his contemporaries were intellectually gravitating to abstraction during this time but Mondrian's progress is marked by this peculiar combination of dogmatic use of line, intuitive mark-making, existential awareness and spiritual idealism. The Pier and Ocean compositions mark a decisive turning point; a fulcrum in his poetic that would allow him to develop the truly original later works that define his legacy.

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References:

Wijsenbeek. L. J. F. (1968) Mondrian, Germany, Verlag Aurel Bongers Recklinghausen

Bois Y. A, Joosten. J, Zander Rudenstein. A, Janssen. H (1994) Piet Mondrian, New York, Bullfinch Press

Hughes. R. (1991) The Shock Of The New, London, Thames & Hudson

Morris. F (2006) Tate Modern - The Handbook, London, Tate Publishing

 

 

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