Piet Mondrian: The first digital artist

The painter was an idealist whose ideas were doomed to fail—But his art remains as powerful as ever
June 18, 2014

When we look at a painting by Mondrian, we must push to the backs of our minds all the ways in which Mondrian’s own dream was subsequently corrupted, trivialised, or re-packaged as kitsch

You’re swimming in a placid sea. You stop to look around, treading water, letting your mind absorb the feeling of immersion. For a moment, the sky and shoreline disappear. You lose consciousness of your body. Instead, you’re hypnotised by the ever-shifting undulation of the water all around. Sunlight spreading in every direction brings news of each inversion, but at a rate the brain is too slow to register. Pooling pinpricks of light multiply into something infinite, something universal. Reality has been involuntarily abstracted. Digitised.

Piet Mondrian, I like to imagine, experienced something like this before he painted breakthrough works like Ocean 5 from 1914, and Composition No. 10 in Black and White, otherwise known as Pier and Ocean, from 1915. His response was to distil what he saw into a series of horizontal and vertical dashes, rhythmically arranged, and with just enough variation in length and spacing to capture the essence of it.

Mondrian was, you could say, the first digital artist. He was writing code before it was even invented. Computer code is the symbolic arrangement of data using ones and zeros, and Mondrian’s breakthrough paintings do something similar—capturing the world in a binary code of horizontal and vertical dashes. His inspiration was nature. But he was quick to see that the problem of representation was not a question of culture against nature, individual versus society, or the particular against the general. It was about everything. All at once. In dynamic equilibrium.

Mondrian, who is the subject of a show at Tate Liverpool timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of his death, was the son of a school teacher. Born in 1872, he was raised in a strictly Protestant household by parents who nurtured his interest in art. He was visiting family in his native Holland when war broke out in 1914. He was forced to stay there for the next five years—a circumstance that made all the difference to the development of one of the most influential careers in modern art.

He had moved to Paris two years earlier—he was already 40—hoping to master the fundamentals of Cubism, the revolutionary method of picture-making invented by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Living in the French capital at a time of unprecedented artistic tumult, he was inspired as much by the humdrum, rectilinear brick façades of buildings in Montparnasse as by the Parisian avant-garde.

Now, in Holland, as his colleagues in Paris pushed on in new directions—collage, lettering, trompe l’oeil, pattern-making, found objects, assembled sculpture—Mondrian remained obsessed with the earlier, purer stage of Cubist invention. That stage, known as Analytic Cubism, had taken Picasso and Braque to the brink of abstraction. And where they had balked, Mondrian now waded in.

He was a spiritualist, a truth-seeker. Heir to the Dutch tradition of unyielding Puritanism, he also shared with his 17th-century compatriot Spinoza the conviction that a link existed between geometry and ethics. His apprenticeship in Paris was crucial; but in the end, he had little in common with the cosmopolitan, poetic, partisan preoccupations of his French avant-garde colleagues.

A figure of almost monastic self-possession and open-hearted humility, Mondrian had a nose for the universal. He was attracted to theosophy, the esoteric philosophy, which melded east and west and sought to understand the phenomena, both hidden and revealed, that united humanity, nature, and the divine. In Holland he became closely involved with the De Stijl movement, and especially that group’s leader, Theo van Doesburg.

No. VI / Composition No. 11 (1920): Mondrian’s quest was to rid his work of what he called the “particularity” of the image. Tate. © 2014 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International USA

Unlike earlier Mondrian exhibitions, the Tate Liverpool show emphasises his explorations of three-dimensional space. Mondrian’s thinking on this subject had much in common with ideas that were already coming to the fore in the fields of architecture and design. As far back as the 1890s, the Belgian painter and architect Henry van de Velde had described the architecture of his time as “a lie; all posturing and no truth.” Van de Velde and his contemporaries were reacting against the rampant eclecticism of the 19th century, and the obsession with ornament over functionality. Their attack on these old aesthetics carried an ethical implication. And this almost accusatory attitude towards the past only grew stronger as the old architecture, and the society it served, began to tear at the seams.

Across the Atlantic in America, the Dutch Pennsylvania and Shaker traditions of sobriety and simplicity stood ready to be revived in a strange new compact with modernity. Frank Lloyd Wright was at the forefront of a renovated aesthetic that transposed the hubris of verticality—a fight with gravity—into the harmonics of horizontality. Cleaving to truth ahead of beauty, the new architecture declared its function—above all, shelter—and its constituent materials openly. Nothing was to be hidden. Nothing superfluous. The seeds of the modernist notion that “less is more” had begun to sprout. So too had the ethical ideal of transparency. Ornament had no place in the new scheme. It was a lie, a crime.

The first De Stijl manifesto, composed in 1918 (but not published until 1922), made the state of things clear:

There is an old and a new consciousness of time.

The old is connected with the individual.

The new is connected with the universal.

The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world war as well as in the art of the present day.

Principally the work of van Doesburg, the manifesto went on to state that the new art would contain a balance between the individual and the universal. It would “realise the internal life as well as the external life.”

What did this mean? For Mondrian, it meant ridding his work of what he called the “particularity” of the image. (You can feel the spectre of Protestant iconoclasm in his thinking.) He systematically eliminated spatial illusion from his work, purging it of all hierarchy (no one aspect of the composition was to be more important than another), and all centrality (the edges of his pictures were given equal weight with the centre). All this in the name of greater “truth.”

Truth could be represented, believed Mondrian, by distilling the world into a system of verticals and horizontals. Straight lines were better than curved ones, since, historically, the curving line had been so closely associated with the by now thoroughly corrupted idea of beauty. (In any case, he saw straight lines as simply “tensed” curves.)

But lines alone were insufficient. Since Pier and Ocean, with its black lines superimposed on a white background, still implied a kind of depth or recession in space, Mondrian gradually introduced flat planes in primary colours (red, yellow, blue: more essentialism) connected together by thick black lines and dispersed across the (resolutely flat) pictorial field in dynamic, asymmetrical compositions.

Mondrian’s motto—“each element is determined by its contrary”—drew directly on Hegel’s Theory of Dialectics, according to which oppositions pitted against one another resulted not in stasis but in constant evolution. Struggle, in other words, was part of it. “It is in human nature to love a static balance,” wrote Mondrian; “the great struggle, and the one which every artist must undertake, is to annihilate a static equilibrium.”

All of this idealism, this sincere and honest striving, which Mondrian pursued in parallel with similarly giddy seekers among the Soviet and German avant-gardes, depended on the idea that an equilibrium between individual spirit, society, and indeed the entire external world could somehow be found and maintained. Mondrian’s every statement, his every creative act, vibrated with inner conviction. Logically extended, his idealism—like the idealism of his contemporaries Fernand Léger, Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich (the subject of a concurrent retrospective at Tate Modern) and so many others—called for a breakdown of the division between art and life, and between all the various fields of human endeavour. The “truth” of universality, after all, was to triumph over the illusory veil of particularity. And so these avant-garde artists wanted their art to share centre stage with the most prestigious fields of human endeavour. Society was broken. They believed art could effect a kind of remedy.

The abstraction of Mondrian, and indeed of Kandinsky and Malevich, was a response to a crisis that was felt everywhere at the time. The crisis was not just the catastrophe of the First World War. The war was merely a symptom. The real problem went much deeper, and it was diagnosed by philosophers and social scientists as diverse as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, and Madame Blavatsky (a founder of the Theosophical Society). It was tied up with the pressures of industrialisation and rampant urbanism, the fear of mechanisation, the alienation of the individual from basic conditions of existence, the marginalisation of the artist and the life of the spirit, the death of God. Life, all these thinkers acknowledged, was fragmented. The avant-garde artists genuinely believed they could sew it together again.

Unlike their Soviet colleagues, however, the members of De Stilj were wary of mixing the arts—of combining painting with theatre, music, dance, or literature—because for them, the important thing was the evolution of each art towards its own essence. They didn’t want to complicate the drive toward purity.

If there was one other field that was open to fusion with painting, it was architecture, since both relied on straight lines and planes. Mondrian explored architectural possibilities in his own studios. He deployed flat coloured planes throughout the real spaces of the rooms he worked in, punctuating these arrangements with his own paintings, each new permutation of the ensemble triggering fresh ideas and insights. In many ways, his studios were early harbingers of the minimalist sculpture of artists like Donald Judd, and prototypes of installation art. The Tate Liverpool show even goes to the trouble of recreating Mondrian’s studio in rue du Départ in Paris.

But in the end, Mondrian did not pursue architecture with the same conviction as his De Stijl colleagues. The idea of blending the two pursuits, thereby dissolving “art into the environment,” ultimately proved beyond him. His problem was that architecture could never be truly abstract. Even if it could be theoretically de-centralised—that is, stripped of grand entrances and pleasing symmetries, with back doors and servants quarters relegated to their appropriate corners; if it could be opened up democratically on all sides, as Le Corbusier and others tried to do—nonetheless, it would never have the essential purity Mondrian sought.

So he re-focused his efforts on painting. And after his move from the addled Old World to the New, in 1940, he embraced his new home and enjoyed a late flourishing as an expatriate in New York, where he painted unbuttoned, syncopated masterpieces such as Broadway Boogie-Woogie.

The ideas that underpinned Mondrian’s art were of course part of a wider Utopian dream that failed—and was perhaps always bound to fail—when the attempt was made to convert it into reality. But what is strange—what is to be cherished—about Mondrian’s paintings today (and what is perhaps strange and to be cherished about art in general) is that by somehow capturing a dream that never became a reality, those paintings allowed the dream to live on.

When, a century after his early breakthroughs, we look at a painting by Mondrian, we must push to the backs of our minds not just the failure of the great early 20th-century collective experiments, but all the ways in which Mondrian’s own dream was subsequently corrupted, trivialised, or re-packaged as kitsch, in the form of everything from Yves Saint-Laurent’s Mondrian dress to the (highly addictive) video-game, Pac-Mondrian. If we really look at Mondrian’s paintings, we can see what marvels of distillation and balance they are. And when we do—when we find ourselves noticing the varying thicknesses of Mondrian’s hand-painted lines, when we register the visual rhythms he established with his inimitable blend of instinct and fastidiousness—we may gradually enter our own dream, one in which simple-seeming visual phenomena gain a density, a weight, and a rightness we had not previously noticed, and where ideals of wholeness and harmony seem, however briefly, to take their place not instead of, but alongside our fractured and fallen reality.