What has driven me to carry out this study, to undertake this project? Frankly, I really don’t know. The only thing I do know is that I can’t stop myself, I can’t do without it; it’s like a fire consuming me day and night. I don’t know why I should be doing all this: there is no obvious purpose in it, or practical, rational, objective goal.
I am doing it just for myself, because it makes me feel good and more alive. And so, it is like everything I have done between beginning my new life and the present day.
What follows must in no way be considered a “re-evaluation” of Mondrian, but rather an “visitation”: a detailed study and voyage of discovery into his working method.
Hence the title of this project: VISIT MONDRIAAN.
It is no accident that I have made use of his real surname, with its typical Dutch double “a”, because in some way, during the course of this study, I have explored not just the artist but also the man: “Piet the Invisible”.
Before going on to describe the project, it would be useful to outline, even if only in a summarised form, some of the fundamental aspects of Mondrian’s abstract art.
It is based on one main principle: the use of horizontal or vertical black lines, intersecting to form a grid. Within the grid, certain planes are painted using only primary colours (red, blue and yellow), and these are contrasted with blank, white spaces.
There are some variations on the theme, such as the use of shades of grey or different thicknesses of line, or in other cases, the inclusion of black planes.
Another principle is that the lines are limitless, and that they are never placed at the edge of the painting (except on very rare occasions). It is as if the work can continue into infinity, far beyond the tenuous boundaries of the canvas. Sometimes these lines finish before the edge, and in other cases they continue beyond it, spilling down the width of the stretcher.
Nevertheless, apart from these specific details, the basic principle remains a grid of straight lines (never sloping or curved), and planes painted in the three primary colours.
It would seem to be quite simple and basic, almost childish, to be able to create works using so few ingredients. However, this is not the case. The magic of Mondrian lies in the way he can make them so complex and profound, to the point of creating perfect harmony: a mathematical sense of balance, a spell-binding melody.
This becomes even more obvious when one looks at how from his early abstract paintings with larger planes of colour and a richer range of basic shades, he graduated to a disarming starkness in his later work. Here we see a totally white background, interrupted only by black lines and very small blocks of colour, sometimes even only one.
Surprisingly, even one tiny block of colour can become pivotal, and create a perfect balance in the overall composition.
The pattern of the lines forming the network seems to follow certain golden rules: a set of mathematical, almost scientific principles. But the end result is always harmonious, almost like a musical composition, because Mondrian’s inspiration incorporates those elements of instinctive dissonance which make the whole work so vibrant and brilliant.
Although they appear so simple and geometric, I personally detect a strong passion and sensuality in the works of Mondrian. The precept of contrasting the two opposing directions, vertical and horizontal, in perfect equilibrium (viewed as spirituality and materialism respectively), seems like an ideal balance of love between a man and woman. Opposite in nature just like the direction of the lines, the two become a single entity, blending together in perfect harmony.
At other times, however, this passion seems to explode into a sort of “cognitive dissonance”, as if to say: “I trust you, but I am jealous”.
The whole existence of humanity rests on this opposition of extremes: good and evil, black and white, and every other form of opposing and conflicting force. The one could not exist without its diametric opposite. Equilibrium and harmony are created by this confrontation. And perhaps it was in search of this state of opposition that Mondrian moved from realism to the purely abstract.
I do not wish to become involved in a critical study of Mondrian: I am simply expressing my feelings and trying to highlight those aspects which have impressed me and led me to this task.
What I have just described is one such aspect.
Another feature concerns the arrangement of the three primary colours, which is striking not only in terms of chromatic contrast, but also on a dimensional level. It is the combination of colour and dimension which creates the harmonious balance in the whole work. Thus it may happen that in a work containing a large red or blue plain, it is the small yellow segment that plays the pivotal role. Each of these three colours, therefore, plays a different active part: the yellow has a tendency to dilate, the blue to shrink, and the red to remain static: two opposing activities and one neutral one. In short, although they make use of just a few basic elements, the combination of these ingredients is extremely complex and structured, offering the possibility of infinite different compositions. Nevertheless, it is no easy task to find what will create a perfect equilibrium.
In order to do this, I think one has to be in total harmony with life, nature and the cosmos. One needs to have a deep inner balance, a purity of soul like that of a new-born child, as yet uncorrupted by contact with the world.
I do not know whether Mondrian attained this existential state, but his aspiration was certainly comparable to that of the Suprematist, Kazimir Malevič: to achieve the “zero degree of painting”. He came very close to reaching it (even though, to my mind, it is rather like searching for the end of the infinite).
For Mondrian, the attempt to realise the zero degree of painting was obtained first of all in a distribution of space, by eliminating the three-dimensional element. This was followed by a radical breakdown of the planes, to attain the maximum expression of abstraction: “to arrive as near as possible to the truth, to reach the basis of things”. All this was not intended as a final goal, but rather as a destination from where “everything” can achieve a new beginning.
Mondrian expressed such a desire for the whole of humanity, for he believed that mankind needs art in order to experience, if only momentarily, a state of equilibrium. But if Man achieved perfect harmony within himself, he would then no longer have any need for art, because equilibrium is art.
Intrigued and fascinated by all this, I started to wonder what could lie behind such a degree of harmony. How is it possible to achieve such a state of purity and concision in compositions which seem so simple but are actually extremely complex? What would happen to these works if I looked at them from a different angle, if I managed to penetrate them, or examined them from the rear, like the back of a coin? And what if I disfigured them, if I altered the colours or changed them to neutral shades?
The results were amazing!
Starting with the original work, and meticulously respecting its basic form, I found that my application of every possible variation had no visible impact on the overall harmony.
Such a result might well appear predictable and trivial, but actually it is not as reductive as it seems. The entire route I have taken in this project, in fact conceals some deep, intimate and formative aspects, which I will attempt to describe in the following section.
For the moment, it is just at the draft stage, but I will soon begin to transform the images I have sketched into paintings. My pictorial technique will play an important role in this, as well as my own personal style.
I had intended to dedicate a whole chapter to a description of the techniques involved in preparing and applying the colours; the mixture and composition of these colours and the various textures I would like to achieve. However, I concluded that at this stage of the research project, such a chapter would be superfluous.
So that this does not appear like a type of art totally determined at the drawing-board, I should stress that when I confront the canvas I do have clear ideas of what I’m going to paint (and a basic well-defined design), but I always leave it to my instinct to decide how to prepare and apply my colours.