An initial response to Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue may involve asking the question: Where’s the rest of it? Following this, a question of, what am I supposed to get from this? This may lead to the more involved questions of: Why, looking at a blank canvas would the artist decide to paint something like this? And why put primary colors as the positive spaces and use black lines to divide up the canvas leaving white, negative spaces? In essence, the painting incites a feeling of confusion, a need to figure out a puzzle. Looking at it inspires thoughts of something both elementary and industrial in quality.
The above reaction seems to arise from the collage like quality of the series of rectangles or squares, whether defined by color or implied by the black lines. The smoothly textured appearance of oil on canvas is not apparent as there is almost an artificial, even acrylic brightness to the paint when contrasting the red, yellow, and blue rectangles against the white and the divisions made between them by the vertical and horizontal black lines of varying thickness. Still the most unusual thing about this composition is the lack of an object. That is to say that there are no organic shapes, no figures or singular entities different from the rest to command the most attention. In fact the single most defining and differentiating factor seems to be color rather than shape. Possibly, size may command attention as one is drawn, visually, to the large red rectangle first. However, the power of the blue and yellow rectangle are in no way negated and even the white rectangles command attention for their very lack of color, providing a powerful contrast to everything blue, red, yellow, or black. But the most important characteristic of this composition is a sense of incompleteness, incompleteness to the varying colored rectangles simply because of the arrangement of the horizontal and vertical lines. This feeling’s enhancement likely lies in the lack of obvious perspective as there is no sense of closure to the composition though it is contained to the dimensions which define the picture space. There is no indication, due to the arrangement of the shapes on the canvas that a point of view is being advanced, this arrangement of rectangles or squares is wholly ambiguous and they seem arbitrarily placed.
Given the feeling of ambiguity that dominates Mondrian’s composition viewers are left to determine the work an eminently personal exploration for some revelation eluding the artist. The rectangles or squares have no obvious meaning for viewers but must have some for the artist. Nevertheless, this does not account for the significance a viewer may attach to size and color of the shapes in the composition, for here one is drawn and likely to determine that some meaning beyond the visual is at work, at least in the artist’s mind if no where else. The large red rectangle, for example, seems to focus the viewers attention almost immediately but in this intellectual and bold abstraction one can only guess what the red rectangle apostrophizes, or any of the other variously colored shapes captured in the oil on canvas.
Perhaps this overall conveyance of ambiguity lies at the heart of Mondrian’s intentions for his composition. A better informed understanding of the work likely lies in an examination of the historical significance of the work. Rather, the circumstances from which the composition arose. Mondrian, a Dutch painter, active before, during and after the first World War was in the throes of a spiritual crisis and this was a time when he “put spiritualism at the center of [his life] and [his] art (Art Spoke 196); when he is credited with experimenting, creating and greatly influencing abstract art which he coined Neo-Plasticism and others after him, De Stijl, or “the style” in Dutch (Art Spoke 91). “Entirely abstract, the style permitted only the straight line, the right angle, and the three primary colors red, blue, and yellow, augmented by black, white, and gray. They were the product of extremely complex, and sometimes self-contradictory, spiritual and intellectual concerns (Art Spoke 91). Influenced by “Theosophical ideasabout geometry” (Art Spoke 198) and “a detailed version of Plato’s message ‘God Geometrizes’” (Art Spoke 196), Mondrian’s composition echoes the work of post-impressionists, evincing the belief “that his (in academic terms) unsophisticated pictorial language would reach people defeated by the complexities of most art and release in them basic human qualities suppressed by the false value of modern society” (Lynton 24).
The influence of theosophist ideology upon Mondrian is perhaps best explained by his influence upon abstract art. As Alan Browness explains it, “And had it not been for the persistence of Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, abstract art might have disappeared entirely” (Modern European Art 136). It was Mondrian’s determination to create an objectless picture that was not a pattern or a piece of decoration, one emphasizing façade through exaggeration of horizontal and vertical lines; fading at the corners so as to seem to grow outward from the center while conveying the greatness of nature by expressing expansion, repose, unity and ultimately the reality of rather than a particular feeling (Modern European Art 138-39). Mondrian, relying on M.H.J. Schoenmaekers, neo platonic conception, Plastic Mathematics, developed a style which intended to resolve fundamental contradictions like black and white through a geometrical reduction of horizontal and vertical(Modern European Art 139).
That is to say, upon re-examining Mondrian’s composition, in light of Schoenmaekers’ belief that “the spiritual is best expressed in such pure plastic terms as the primary colors, and the contrast of darkness and light of horizontal and vertical” (Modern European Art 140), viewers begin to glimpse the sublime nature of abstract art. They begin to ascribe meaning to Mondrian’s intent and his composition, such that power of the red rectangle is translated into its size where it resolves the contrast between the smaller, calm blue rectangle and the even smaller, energetic yellow rectangle. What each color means is entirely up to the viewer whom is no more aware of what these contrasts, in need of resolving, meant to Mondrian, the artist. Black vertical and horizontal lines of varying thickness, along with the white rectangles or squares they create, in conjunction with the red, yellow and blue all serve to highlight and emphasize this dynamic resolution taking place. And Mondrian, hinting at the sublime nature of the resolution, implies, with the possible infinite continuation of these lines and rectangles beyond the picture space that the process is ongoing.
In fact, Mondrian’s time and therefore the period of this work are dominated by a society left in spiritual crisis as a reaction to WWI and very much in need of its resolution; however, they war had left many so cynical that resolution seemed less immediate and more a process that one most evolve towards. The style of the work is abstract because the revelation Mondrian seeks has no more substance than an apostrophe. If the work is functional, it is not beyond its ability to influence others as his “influence, direct and indirect, has been considerable, possibly greater than any other 20th century artist” (Modern European Art 142). But always “more generalized and all-pervasive” (147) as generations that followed, confronted with a preponderance of abstract works returned to Mondrian’s philosophy, needing to believe that at the heart of any work of abstraction lies spiritual conflict (146) and in its ultimate resolution, meaning .
Ultimately Mondrian’s Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue is an attempt to resolve some spiritual conflict. If I were either the blue or yellow rectangle, I would determine that my moment of transcendence, complete transformation and understanding would lie in becoming the red rectangle. I would not need to strive for this being confident that at some point, beyond even the picture space, the horizontal and vertical black lines, as well as the white rectangles would bring me to this point. Therefore the nearly incomprehensible abstraction involved in this work points to a metaphysical realization. It reminds me that life, like this composition must be lived beyond, any single moment of crisis because at some point outside the picture space there is resolution. In act I would name it differently and perhaps name it something not immediately comprehensible like The Eventual Resolution of Yellow and Blue Into Red by the Gradual Reduction of Vertical and Horizontal Black Lines and White Rectangles.
And in examining Piet Mondrian’s work I found the experience thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying. From a state of confusion, upon initially viewing the work grows the realization that this is its purpose: provocation of thought rather than feelings of comfort. Owning this work would be a wonderful thing and constant reminder that thought leads to resolution which leads to comfort; doubtfully, a small thing as my initial feelings were that I would never understand this work and only managed to do so after careful examination of my reaction to it and the context in which the work was created. While Mondrian a surfeit of technical, intellectual and compositional skill went into creating this work, its ultimate beauty is that it espouses no point of view. This surely relies on the fact that is not visually satisfying, the picture space lacking a sense of closure. However the work’s very ambiguity leaves it open to address any significant human problems , the viewer need only apply them and can do so very well as Mondrian seems to have succeeded in removing ego from the painting process. To that end the work clearly disseminates the feeling that resolution, while not immediately at hand exists and forces me to conclude that as a product of a society increasingly reliant upon quick solutions, I would do well to heed Mondrian’s implication. Maybe, the longer road of contemplation, implied by this painting, achieves a more profound resolution than simply smiling when sad at a cheery contrast of freesias, phlox and daisies upon a canvas.
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Abbeville Press Publishers: New York. 1993.
Browness, Alan. Modern European Art. Thames and Hudson Inc: New York. 1995.
Lynton, Norbert. The Story of Modern Art. Phaidon Press Limited: London. 1980.
Frampton, Kenneth. “De Stijl: The Evolution and Dissolution of Neoplasticism: 1917-31” in
Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Post-Modernism. Edited by Nikos Stangos.
3rd edition. Thames and Hudson Inc.: New York. 1994.
Maracus, George H., editor. Encounters With Modern Art: The Reminiscences of Nannette F.
Rothschild: Works from the Rothschild Family Collections. Philadelphia Museum of Art. 1996.
 See quote above from Art Spoke, page 91 and the synopsis of Kandinsky’s and Schoenmaekers’ philosophies in Modern European Art by Alan Browness.
 Horizontal and vertical lines, in this system, “were related to cosmic forces – the vertical to the rays from the sun, and the horizontal to the earth’s constant movement around the sun. Schoenmaekers also concerned himself with colour; he recognized the existence of only three primaries. Yellow for him was the radiant movement of the sun’s beam and blue the infinite expanse of space, the contrasting colour, red was the median, mating colour” (Modern European Art 139-40).