The painter was an idealist whose ideas were doomed to fail—But his art remains as powerful as everby Sebastian Smee / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
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…