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Gray Tree (1911): Piet Mondrian’s Early Experiments with Cubism

Gray Tree is an early artwork by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. The stark, monochromatic piece is almost unrecognizable as a Mondrian artwork; it certainly does not encapsulate the bold lines and primary colors that became his legacy. However, Gray Tree shows us Mondrian’s early experiments with cubism. In this article, Singulart looks at Mondrian’s brief but influential dalliance with cubism, examines the composition of Gray Tree, and explores Mondrian’s belief that spirituality was intrinsically tied to nature. 

Mondrian and cubism

Piet Mondrian, Paris 1926 by André Kertész
Piet Mondrian, Paris 1926 by André Kertész

The Moderne Kunstkring show, exhibited in Holland in 1911, was a revelation for Mondrian, as it was the first time he had seen the cubist style displayed so prominently.  Mondrian began experimenting with analytic cubism after moving to Paris in 1912. He was inspired by the works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques, but while they were more interested in painting still lifes, Mondrian drew inspiration from nature. 

However, Mondrian’s use of cubism differed from his contemporaries. Although he depicted recognizable objects in his work, they were still more abstract than the work of Picasso and Braques. He avoided using the suggestion of volume, and his subjects do not seem to be rooted by gravity, instead fading away at the edges of the artworks.

Mondrian would eventually abandon the cubism movement, as it did not reflect the spirituality that he was attempting to portray through his work. He stated:

“Gradually I became aware that cubism did not present the logical consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction towards its ultimate goal: the expression of true reality.” 

Gray Tree

Piet Mondrian, Gray Tree (1911)
Piet Mondrian, Gray Tree (1911)

Gray Tree is generally believed to be Mondrian’s first foray into cubism. Like Picasso, he employs an oval shape for the tree, which is rendered in curved, broad dark strokes. The background of the piece is gray, with abstract cube shapes apparent. While the painting can still be seen as representational- the form of the tree is still evident- it still embodies the principles of cubism. The tree has an oval shape, an idea that Mondrian borrowed from Picasso. 

Mondrian reduces the tree’s form to something flat and two-dimensional. The tree’s form has been radically simplified, even when compared to artworks such as The Red Tree, painted just four years prior. While both pieces, along with The Flowering Apple Tree, came from the same initial sketch, the three paintings show the increasing influence of cubism on Mondrian’s work. While The Red Tree and Gray Tree still represent the basic form of a tree, The Flowering Apple Tree is completely devoid of a recognizable tree shape, reduced to lines and shades of green, gray and purple. 

Piet Mondrian, The Red Tree (1908)
Piet Mondrian, The Red Tree (1908)

Gray Tree still reduces the tree down to a bare essence, though not quite to the extent of The Flowering Apple Tree. The tree appears to be separate from the rest of nature, in a lonely, bleak landscape, appearing as an organic object. Similarly to his other cubist works, the edges of the artwork appear almost unfinished; they are left bare, with the viewer’s attention being drawn to the central figure of the tree. 

Piet Mondrian, The Flowering Apple Tree (1912)
Piet Mondrian, The Flowering Apple Tree (1912)

Spirituality and nature

Through his art, Mondrian aimed “to articulate a mystic conception of cosmic harmony that lay behind the surfaces of humanity.” His goal was to portray the relationship between spirituality and nature. Mondrian was a believer in theosophy, which is a movement that believes in divine ethics, or that divine knowledge will give access to the mysteries of mankind. Theosophy influenced Mondrian’s work in the sense that he moved away from portraying the realistic and the naturalistic. He wrote, “To approach the spiritual in art, one will use as little of reality as possible, for reality is opposed to the spiritual. Thus the use of elementary forms is quite logical. Since these forms are abstract, we find ourselves confronted by an art that is abstract.”

He later expanded on this theory, stating: 

“If you follow nature you will not be able to vanquish the tragic to any real degree in your art. It is certainly true that naturalistic painting makes us feel a harmony which is beyond the tragic, but it does not express this in a clear and definite way, since it is not confined to expressing relations of equilibrium… We must free ourselves from our attachment to the external, for only then do we transcend the tragic, and are enabled consciously to contemplate the repose which is within all things.”

Mondrian’s spiritual side was particularly evident in pieces such as Metamorphosis and Evolution. Metamorphosis depicts a chrysanthemum flower, thought to be a symbol of the life cycle, or of decay and rebirth, while Evolution portrays three ethereal figures, symbolizing the ascension to a spiritual plane. 

Mondrian eventually adapted his philosophical views with the creation of the De Stijl movement. He wanted to create a form of universal beauty through his art, using equilibrated contrasts. 

Want to see artworks in a similar style? Discover Singulart’s Inspired by Piet Mondrian Collection.

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