Composition II with Red, Blue and Yellow is the epitome of the neo-plasticism movement, championed by abstract artist Piet Mondrian. Mondrian became infamous for his radically simplified artworks, which combined primary colors with strong vertical and horizontal lines. In this article, Singulart examines the trajectory of Mondrian’s artistic career, the creation of the De Stijl movement, and looks in detail at Composition II with Red, Blue and Yellow.
Who was Piet Mondrian?
Mondrian was born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan in the Netherlands, on March 7th, 1872. He joined the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam in 1892, following in the footsteps of his father, who was an acclaimed drawing teacher. Although he trained in primary teaching, he also began painting in a naturalistic style. His work from this period consisted primarily of landscapes, often painted in the style of the impressionists. He took inspiration from various art forms during this period, using bright fauvist colors and employing pointillism, a style where a piece is comprised of tiny dots that come together to form the subject.
Mondrian moved to Paris in 1911 to join the avant-garde movement, dropping the second ‘a’ from his surname to signify his move away from the Netherlands. He was heavily influenced by the cubist style of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques, which are evident in pieces such as The Sea. Mondrian returned home in 1914 to tend to his sick father, and the outbreak of World War I meant that he was unable to return to Paris until 1919.
During his time in the Netherlands, Mondrian joined forces with artist and architect Theo van Doesburg to produce the journal De Stijl, or The Style. It was a call for a movement of total abstraction, with artworks reduced to the most essential forms and color in order to promote harmony and unity amongst the arts.
Upon his return to Paris, Mondrian began creating the primary colored compositions that would become his most famous legacy. He moved to London for two years in 1938 before moving to New York in 1940. In New York he befriended art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who became a staunch supporter and championed Mondrian’s work. He joined the American Abstract Artists and began exploring more complexities in his work, seen in pieces such as Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943).
Mondrian lived his life in the same simplistic, uncluttered fashion of his art. He had few possessions and lived a simple, frugal life. Never married, he passed away from pneumonia in 1944, aged 71.
“The New Plastic Painting” & De Stijl
De Stijl was officially founded in 1917, with the publication of a journal that encapsulated the movement’s ideals. The founding members, along with Mondrian and van Doesburg, were artists Vilmos Huzár and Bart van de Leck, and architects Gerrit Rietveld, Robert van ‘t Hoff, and J. J. P Oud.
In his essay “Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art”, Mondrian wrote: “…this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and color. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and color, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary color.” The fundamental ideas of the movement were the geometry of straight lines, using pure primary colors, and the relationship between positive and negative elements.
Mondrian defined neo-plasticism (or to use the Dutch term, nieuwe beelding) as a movement that “creates harmony through two extremes: the universal and the individual. The former by revelation, the latter by deduction. Art gives visible expression to the evolution of life: the evolution of spirit and – in the reverse direction – that of matter.” In accordance to the De Stijl principles, within the neo-plasticism movement artworks were distilled to their purest, most fundamental state.
The group disbanded in 1931 after the death of van Doesburg. Although the group could not be described as a close-knit group of collaborators – for example, Mondrian and Rietveld never met, and most communication went through van Doesburg – the influence of De Stijl can be seen in the modern art movement and in the international style of modern architecture.
Composition II with Red, Blue and Yellow
Composition II with Red, Blue and Yellow exemplifies Mondrian’s theory of neo-plasticism. It is a minimal composition, consisting of black lines of varying thickness, and a large red square. A blue rectangle can be seen on the bottom left, while a yellow rectangle appears cut off on the bottom right corner. In fact all of the rectangles seem to extend off the canvas; they are not confined by the black lines that dominate the painting. The lines are not outlines, but act as planes of pigment- the line above the yellow rectangle stops just short of the edge of the canvas.
The piece avoids references to anything naturalistic, and is stripped back to the simplest of colors (red, blue, yellow and black) and planes (horizontal and vertical). While the painting looks controlled and considered, Mondrian left slightly visible brushstrokes on the canvas, imbibing the piece with a certain life and movement. Though the painting looks simplistic, there is a lot of consideration for how the rectangles interact with each other; the red square, which could dominate the piece, balances beautifully with the blue and yellow rectangles, though they are much smaller in size.
Speaking about his particular style of artwork, Mondrian stated:
“Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have no value for man.”