Piet Mondrian and the Color Theory Abstraction

piet mondrian

Turner Contemporary presents Mondrian and Colour, the first major exhibition that explores the significance of color during Piet Mondrian’s early career. The exhibit surveys Mondrian’s system and follows his use of color from figurations to early abstraction in his search for a new “universal harmony.”

Pieter Cornelis “Piet” Mondrian was a Dutch abstract painter, recognized for his iconic geometric abstracts. However, his early works were rural landscapes such as his Farmhouse with Wash on the Line (1897). What connects the two distinctive styles in his artwork, is his innovative use of color.

Disregarding impressionist principles of the previous decades, the painter was in search of something more than a method of portraying landscapes in the tradition of Rembrandt. His early landscapes and windmill paintings expressed the early stages of Mondrian’s abstract thinking. They were, in actuality, the start of Mondrian’s quest for a “universal harmony” that could be easily grasped by viewers.

Mondrian wanted the color of his paintings to be representations of spirituality and ethical values, not “the material of reality.” He began to reconsider a painter’s methodology to color. Familiar with different artistic styles including Pointillism and Fauvism, Piet Mondrian saw Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s Cubism in Paris before World War I.

He decided to leave these artistic ideals to foster his own artistic principles, in what became known as Neoplasticism – a philosophy rooted in his awareness of Theosophy. Mondrian believed that the theory of a universal style should be founded on the elementary philosophies of life as well as of art – the right angle and straight lines.

Using his Neoplasticism principles such as symmetry is to be circumvented; Mondrian and other artists began to create works under the De Stijl (The Style). The Dutch art abstract movement brought rationality to the painter’s aesthetic principles. It was a deliberate process that the artists employed, incorporating a structure of lines so that color could be applied without the dependency on the object itself.

Another precept of the movement was that pigmentation must be primary or in not true colors – white, gray and black. For Mondrian, the application of his theory can be seen in works such as Square Composition with Gray Line (1918) or Checkerboard Composition in Light Colors (1919).

piet mondrian

The painter left Dutch artist, Theo van Doesburg, the most assertive within the movement to spread the message of the De Stijl doctrine. Mondrian focused on perfecting his technique, and by 1920, he had condensed his methods to a straight line, right angle, rectangle, square, and the use of primary colors. He believed that, with these essentials, he could create “the equivalence of reality.”

From 1921 onward, Mondrian only painted with primary colors – red, yellow and blue – combined with black lines and white planes. This seemingly “extremist” notion, guided his future work in the realm of abstraction, making him the innovator of “color field painting.”

To compliment Mondrian’s early years, a second exhibit, Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool traces the artist’s later years, specifically New York and Paris. Collectively, the two shows offer viewers an in-depth of his career.

In art and in life, Mondrian worked with an intensity that he attained with his ascetically limited system. While Van Doesburg described Mondrian’s work as “peripheral,” viewers will discover how, within the restricted method of his color theory, Piet Mondrian was able to create a mastery of space in abstraction.

By: Dawn Levesque


Art Fund

Bucerius Kunst Forum

San Jose University

19th and 20th Century Art


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