Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, the eventual co-founder of the De Stijl movement, was intrigued by abstraction and what he believed was its ability to depict the underlying nature of reality. He coined the term “Neo-Plasticism” to describe his particular style of artistic exploration; the title refers not to what we now recognize as plastic forms, but rather to the plastic materials used to render sculptures and paint on canvas. Past European artists used their mediums to create illusions of 3D space, but Mondrian wanted to push beyond replicating the real world. He chose to focus on the material qualities of paint and its ability to express ideas abstractly using the most basic forms of elements like line, color, and texture. His study of paint’s material properties led him to describe his paintings as “abstract real”: he believed abstraction, as opposed to past illusory depictions of reality, could serve as a “universal pictorial language representing the dynamic, evolutionary forces that govern nature and human experience” (Smarthistory). Mondrian’s “Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow” (1930) is the most famous example of this “abstract real” philosophy.
“Composition” primarily shows Mondrian’s dedication to asymmetry, pure planes of color, and relational opposites. At first glance, the painting appears to be a collection of solid-colored rectangles divided by black lines: the upper-right third of the painting is dominated by a block of red, and the remaining space consists of blue, yellow, and white rectangles separated by black lines. However, the composition is more complex upon closer examination. The relationships between the different blocks of color are deliberate and strikingly functional: the small planes of blue and yellow counter the dominant red, and the black “lines” are actually color planes in their own right. In the bottom right corner, the plane of black doesn’t quite reach the edge of the canvas, which creates a tension with the yellow it overlaps and frames. Each plane of white and black is a subtly different shade and contains different textures and directional brushstrokes. These small variations are not the negligible coincidences they may appear to be, but in fact provide subtle humanistic qualities that counter what might otherwise be a rigid geometric composition. Mondrian’s combination of bold colors and shapes with gentle imperfections balance his desire for universal truth with the intimately personal experience of the artist.
sources and background:
Chadwick, Stephanie. “Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow.” Smarthistory, smarthistory.org/mondrian-composition-ii-in-red-blue-and-yellow/.
“Piet Mondrian and His Paintings.” Piet Mondrian: Biography, Paintings, and Quotes, www.piet-mondrian.org/.
“The Power of Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red Blue and: Ideelart.” IdeelArt.com, 17 Sept. 2018, www.ideelart.com/magazine/composition-with-red-blue-and-yellow.