I finished reading an art book this week ~ Mondrian by John Milner. Well researched and illustrated with plenty of colour plates ( I mean, what is the point of B&W photos of paintings?) it gave a glimpse into aspects of his approach to painting that aren't always given much emphasis ~ the spiritual philosophy behind them. Mondrian is probably the clearest example in modernism to demonstrate how a artist progresses from a representational to an abstract painter. There is a consistent integrity of intention behind Mondrian's artwork, that's fascinating to see unfold.
In the late 19th Century Mondrian was a little known, but distinctive, Dutch landscape painter. With a strongly developed penchant for flattened perspectives and considered picture planes. Apart from these personal aesthetic explorations, Mondrian's experiments with Symbolism, Pointillism and Cubism were also fed by a distinct philosophical intention. Mondrian's thinking fell under the influence of Theosophy, a movement based on the works of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, and even joined the Theosophical Society in 1909.
Theosophy was influential in late nineteenth century artistic and literary circles, seeking to define the universal myths, themes and virtues common to all religions. In the aftermath of Nietsche saying 'God was Dead' there was an urge to salvage something from the wreckage,still of spiritual value to humanity. This desire to find the universality within all religions meant it often ignored significant differences, or whatever contradicted this viewpoint, and frequently made quite generalised or unsubstantiated assertions. It also catagorised their own distinct understanding of archetypal symbolism, which predates Jung's definitions by quite a few decades.
Colours such as Red were associated with Earth, Blue with Spirituality, Yellow with the Intellect. Oval shapes were said to represent the 'cosmic egg' out of which all things were to be born. Square shapes symbolised immortality, perhaps linked with Pythagoras's idea that they stood for the soul. Downward triangle shapes indicate an unenlightened state, and upward pointing triangles an enlightened state. Knowing this information you begin to see how these ideas influenced the future direction of Mondrian's work
Artistically it was in vogue and had ardent followers. The Theosophical impulse to reveal these universal elements in Art, became an overarching principle in Mondrian's painting. In order to uncover these hidden qualities Mondrian stripped his art down to the barest essentials. For him revealing the universal meant an art that was less expressive of self. He began by trying to isolate fundamental structures directly observed from nature, such as trees or the ocean. When he moved to Paris, he applied the same process to the city-scape. The grids and rectangles that define Mondrian's artistic aesthetic, have their routes in this search for universal rhythm and counterpoint.
Whilst he eventually abandoned the Theosophical aesthetic as too limiting, it nonetheless left its distinct marks upon his future Neo-plasticism philosophy, and his work. The centrality of square forms, the positioning of colour planes, the rhythm repetition and direction of lines, open ended overlapping, or rooted, gave each painting a distinct emotional liveliness and tone. He moved over the decades from a style of painting that was directly imitative of nature, to one that was only suggestive of nature, to an art that was none of these things, but had an expressive lifeaffirming purity of energy that was all its own. He wrote:~
" The abstract, like the mathematical ~ is actually expressed in and through all things....The truly modern artist consciously perceives the abstraction of the emotion of beauty: he consciously recognises aesthetic emotion as cosmic, universal. This conscious recognition results in an abstract plastic ~ limits him to the purely universal."