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  • Russ Ramsey

Piet Mondrian and the Quest for Universal Beauty

For this Art Wednesday we’ll look at the life, work, and pop-culture influence of the Dutch painter and abstract artist, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). The arc of Mondrian’s work is one of reducing everything down to the simplest elements.

Mondrian, Tableau I, 1921


In 1914, Mondrian said, “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.”

Mondrian, after 1906


While I don’t agree with the worldview in his previous quote, I find it interesting because he is wrestling with the question of the connection between the spiritual realm and our everyday experience. Personally, I do not believe “reality is opposed to the spiritual.” I believe they are very much connected—that human beings are spiritual people, and to live on this earth is to not only live a material existence, but a spiritual one as well.

Mondrian, Willow Grove- Impression of Light and Shadow, c. 1905


Mondrian developed a nonrepresentational form of art he called Neoplasticism—a kind of minimalism he believed would be essential in order to create universal beauty. He limited his palette to three colors: red, blue, and yellow, and three values: white, gray, and black.

Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie (1942–1944)


Before Mondrian minimized his palette to primary colors and embraced abstract art, his earlier works reveal the journey leading him there. Evening; Red Tree (1908–1910), painted thirty years before the previous painting, hints at abstraction and consists almost exclusively of red, blue, and yellow.

Mondrian, Evening; Red Tree, 1908–1910


In 1911, Mondrian moved to Paris, dropping an “a” in his last name which had been spelled “Mondriaan.” He immediately fell in with the Cubists like Picasso, whose influence can be seen in his painting Gray Tree (1911)

Mondrian, Gray Tree, 1911


After Mondrian’s death, French designer Yves Saint Laurent took the simple designs Mondrian believed were necessary for universally appealing art and made them something people wear for an evening on the town. Mondrian products soon expanded to boots, handbags, luggage, coats, socks, wall paper, rugs, and even bicycles.

Mondrian dresses by Yves Saint Laurent, 1966


One last bit of Mondrian pop-culture. Data from Star Trek has a copy of Tableau 1 (the first image in this series) hanging on the wall in his quarters aboard the Star Ship Enterprise.

Data with his Mondrian

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