Summary of Neo-Plasticism
Neo-Plasticism, articulated most completely by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, relied on the most basic elements of painting - color, line, and form - to convey universal and absolute truths. Mondrian advocated for the use of austere geometry and color to create asymmetrical but balanced compositions that conveyed the harmony underlying reality. As with many avant-gardes styles of the early-20th century, a utopian vision of society underlay Neo-Plastic theory. Embracing the elemental forms of composition and the merging of painting and architecture, Neo-Plasticism strove to transform society by changing the way people saw and experienced their environment.
- Instead of representations of natural forms, Neo-Plasticism relied on the relationships between line and color to emulate the opposing forces that structured nature and reality. Neo-Plastic compositions juxtapose horizontal and vertical lines along with the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue against the non-colors of black, white, and grey to produce timeless balance.
- Neo-Plasticism abolished the figure-ground dichotomy by using an irregular grid structure that resisted arranging the pictorial elements into a hierarchy. This all-over composition created a unity that Mondrian felt underscored the disharmony of the surrounding environment.
- Mondrian and other Neo-Plastic artists thought that the merging of painting, architecture, and design would hasten the coming of an ordered and harmonious society. They intended that this utopic vision, coming from the "dynamic equilibrium" sought out in Neo-Plastic paintings, would spread to the interior of the studio, to the home, the street, and the city, and eventually to all of the world.
Overview of Neo-Plasticism
From 1909-1910 Mondrian painted in a Neo-Impressionist style and carefully studied Georges Seurat's scientific methodology and color theory that emphasized the use of contrasting primary colors. During this time, he also joined the Dutch Theosophical Society and remained a member all his life. The writings of the theosophists Madame Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner and M. H. J. Schoenmaekers's Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde (The Principles of Plastic Mathematics) both influenced and echoed the aesthetic theory that Mondrian was then developing. Particularly influential was Schoenmaeker's view that, "The two fundamental and absolute extremes that shape our planet are: on the one hand the line of the horizontal force, namely the trajectory of the Earth around the Sun, and on the other vertical and essentially spatial movement of the rays that issue from the center of the Sun...the three essential colors are yellow, blue, and red." The use of horizontal and vertical lines and primary colors became fundamental principles of Neo-Plasticism. Mondrian even borrowed one of Schoenmaeker's phrases, "de nieuwe beelding," which literally means "new image creation" or "new art," as the name for his new art style.
Important Art and Artists of Neo-Plasticism
By 1917, Mondrian had abandoned any allusions to representations of nature, and this work is among the first group of paintings to embody the ideas that he put forth in "Neo-Plasticism in Painting," published in the same year. In previous work, like Pier and Ocean (1915), Mondrian used only black and white lines on a white background to depict a very abstracted landscape. According to Mondrian, "Vertical and horizontal lines are the expression of two opposing forces; they exist everywhere and dominate everything; their reciprocal action constitutes 'life'."
The ochre, mauve, and grey rectangles cover the surface of the painting in an asymmetrical fashion, subverting the regular grid format. While the rectangles seem to float above the white background, close inspection reveals that the "background" itself consists of painted white rectangles. Without inscribing lines on the painting, these white rectangles of varying size hold the others in place. Mondrian wrote to a friend that paintings similar to this one "represent a development which I believe offers a better solution for color planes against a background. As I painted, it gradually became clear to me that for my work color planes set against a solid field do not form an entity." By setting the colored blocks amidst white ones, Mondrian created a tightly interlaced, united composition.
In this geometric abstract work, six rectangles in varying sizes are depicted in pairs of primary colors - red, blue, and yellow - against a white background. Two short horizontal lines float at the upper right and lower left corners, and three short lines create a broken diagonal from the lower right to upper left corners.
This work is one of Van der Leck's few completely abstract paintings. Prior to meeting Mondrian in 1916, his work included figurative elements, but in the following association with Mondrian, he began using line and geometric form to create abstract works. He was one of the co-founders of the magazine, De Stijl, and for a time collaborated with the group. Eventually, he came to disagree with Mondrian and the others about the representational aspects of art. Van der Leck used the geometrical elements of Neo-Plasticism to create recognizable images, as can be seen in his Man te paard (The horseman) of 1918.
It is possible that even this abstract composition could have begun as a vase of flowers on a table, but after deconstructing the image to its most elemental forms, we are left with a seemingly abstract configuration of shapes and lines. Notable is the use of the diagonal in the line segments dividing the canvas, and the placement of rectangles to resemble diamond shapes. As a result the overall effect is that the color rectangles create a kind of implicit shape on the canvas, the suggestion of an underlying reality, outlined with a minimalist vocabulary.
Mondrian turned his usual square format on its edge to produce a diamond-shaped canvas, creating one of the first "lozenge paintings," as he called them. After a period of time when he abandoned line to work only with geometric shapes of color, Mondrian reintroduced line again in 1918 as he continued to develop Neo-Plastic ideas with his fellow artists Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck. Subsequently, he made a number of rhomboid paintings like this one, composed of a grid of rectangles, divided by black lines and painted in rose, grey, yellow, and white.
For Mondrian, the right-angle meeting of lines and planes was crucial for conveying the equilibrium of contrary forces, but he was willing to experiment with whether the same equilibrium could be found in the meeting of diagonals. Art historian Carel Blotkamp suggests that Mondrian painted the composition oriented as a square so that all of the lines would have been diagonal, but after further discussion and consideration with his colleagues, Mondrian reoriented the painting so the lines would be vertical and horizontal.
Heavy black lines divide some of the rectangles, but other lines are lighter, creating an impression of translucent color, and conveying a sense of shallow, not illusionistic, depth on the surface of the canvas. Mondrian said that the lozenge paintings were all about "cutting." The diagonal edge of the diamond-shaped canvas cuts through the vertical and horizontal lines, in effect cropping the composition. The viewer can imagine the grid continuing beyond the edges of the canvas onto the surrounding space, thus suggesting the underlying unity of the world.