Composition with Red Blue and Yellow is a 1930 painting by Piet Mondrian. A well-known work of abstraction, Mondrian contributes to the abstract visual language in a large way despite using a relatively small canvas. Thick, black brushwork defines the borders of the different geometric figures. Comparably, the black brushwork on the canvas is very minimal but it is masterfully applied to become one of the defining features of the work.
Mondrian's origins and connection with De Stijl
Composition with Red Blue and Yellow is a product of the Dutch De Stijl movement, which translates to “The Style.” The De Stijl foundation can be viewed as an overlapping of individual theoretical and artistic pursuits. Mondrian is widely seen as the prominent artist for the movement and is thus held responsible for bringing popularity to the rather obscure style. Born in the Netherlands in 1872, Mondrian is cited as always having an interest in art. This transformed from a hobby to a passion when his uncle, Fritz Mondrian (a professional painter), helped him move to Amsterdam where he studied for three years at the Academy of Fine Arts under the master August Allebé. When he moved to Paris in 1910, Mondrian began to discover his potential. It was in Paris that he was introduced to Cubism, a major influence to his work. He is quoted as having said “of all the abstraction artists, I felt only the Cubists had found the right path.” . He still found this style too naturalistic however, and began to dive even deeper into abstraction. A short visit back to the Netherlands led to an extended stay for five years due to the outbreak of World War 1 (1914). Although an unexpected turn of events, Mondrian made many important connections during this time that led to establishment of De Stijl. An encounter with fellow Dutch artist Bart van der Leck provided ground for Mondrian to exchange ideas. From van der Leck he received the concept of painting flat areas of pure color; a solution to Mondrian’s problem of coloring - he was then using color in what he considered an Impressionist way, which was too restless and emotional. In return, van der Leck adopted Mondrian’s concept of crossed vertical and horizontal lines as a basis for composition. These two technical elements are consistent throughout all of Mondrian’s work. Shortly after the formation of Mondrian and van der Leck’s working relationship, they were contacted by Theo van Doesburg, a painter who frequently wrote about art for different periodicals and whom is considered the propagandist of the De Stijl movement. He invited Mondrian and van der Leck to join his initiative to start an artistic review periodical. They agreed and the result of this was the journal entitled De Stijl.
Together they formed an artistic collective that consisted not only of painters but also architects; the movement was confined to strictly Dutch areas due to war. These artists cannot be considered the same. For example, not all De Stijl artists produced work that mimicked Mondrian. It was more a group of individual artists/architects who applied similar and distinct techniques to their work in hopes of achieving a similar, theoretical goal. Mondrian attempts to define the ambition of De Stijl artists in his personal artistic manifesto, Neo-Plasticist in Painting (1917). To create the essence of life itself through abstraction, which relies on what he refers to as the universal means of expression: straight lines and primary colors.  This essence of life can be illustrated by transcending the particular to express the universal. Mondrian claimed the particular to be associated with a Romantic, subjective appeal. Thus, the universal must be something that goes beyond the surface of nature. Mondrian’s art also had a clear spiritual quality to it. He practiced Theosophy, a self-styled universal religion rooted in mystic, oriental interpretation that promoted opposites as a form of unity. Theosophical philosophy informing Mondrian’s art is evident their shared terminology. Nieuwe Beelding, a word used in Theosophical teachings, makes an appearance in Mondrian’s work in a major way: as an alternative title to De Stijl, Nieuwe Beelding translates to Neo-Plasticism, a term used in Mondrian’s personal essays to describe his art.
Examining Composition with Red Blue and Yellow, Mondrian’s De Stijl practices are in full effect. The contrasting horizontal and vertical lines represent to Mondrian an active relationship in which he intended to mimic the rhythm and vibrations of life that transcends symbolic knowledge. The reduced colours of red blue and yellow and accentuated thick, black lines that cross over each other are similarly rendered. His depiction of inner reality (essence of life), is believed to be found through the interplay of contrasting pictorial elements. It is arguable that all elements found within Composition are contrasting and thus indicative of the inner harmony of life that lies beneath the surface. Mondrian theories do not accumulate in Composition; he did not even consider this is a success. He called it “static.”  He continued to progress and refine his work, and it is in his final pieces of work before his death (1944) that he achieves some satisfaction. Despite De Stijl being a movement confined to Dutch regions, many credit the movement, and specifically Mondrian, as having played a major role in articulating the abstract landscape and defining the current terms for the art world today.
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- ^ abBlotkamp, C. (2001). Mondrian: The Art of Destruction. Reaktion Books. p. 128. ISBN 978-1-86189-100-6. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
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Mondrian’s painting, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow was created in 1930 on a 46 x 46 cm canvas.This oil painting consists of geometric figures, in particular, variations of squares and rectangles. Combinations of thick and thin planar lines are used to form the boundaries between the color blocks in the painting. These planar lines can be described as flat and simplistic; they are not detailed and show little brush detail. The planes that are created by these lines are a variety of sizes and colors. In this painting, the lines do not create distinctive borders, but instead the rectangular planes fully extend onto the edges of the canvas. Mondrian uses red, white, blue, and yellow as the colors for the individual planes. Mondrian always began with a white canvas but he did not leave the white planes of his paintings untouched, but rather painted with a white paint instead of leaving the original canvas exposed. The cracks in the paint within the white planes can be seen clearly. Each plane varies in size; the red plane is nearly nine times larger than the blue plane, which is subsequently about nine times as large as the yellow plane. The four individual white planes vary in size as well, however none of the aforementioned planes overlap. Instead, each plane lay adjacent to one another. This piece is an indicative representation of the works that were created by Mondrian during the decline of the de Stijl movement.
This piece was erected out of the de Stijl style movement, “one of the major modern movements.” This movement was based off of a Neo-Plastic ideology of art, which Mondrian was extremely influential in the development and exploration of this philosophy. Neo-Plasticism pursued the goal to create new pictorial rhythms through a novel plastic representation of space. Mondrian believed that the “success of a Neo-Plastic painting depends on the inspired intuition of the maker.”This style can be thought of as a somewhat transitional style out of Cubism and into a full-fledged exploration and engagement of de Stijl. De Stijl was not a group of similar artists or stylistic techniques, nor was it a school devoted to art or design, but rather de Stijl was a “collective project or enterprise between 1917 and 1928.”This idea of the collective project can simply be thought of as artist coming together and exploring new ideas in art, literature, architecture, and many other facets while conversing between each other over their work and their colleagues. Even though this was not an established group, the artists associated with this period knew of each other’s works and produced pieces that were stylistically and contextually reminiscent of each other throughout the movement.The basic principles that the de Stijl movement promoted were a “stripping down of the traditional forms…into simple ‘basic’ geometric components or ‘elements’; the composition from these separate ‘elements’ of formal configurations which are perceived as ‘wholes’, while remaining clearly constructed from individual and independent elements; studied and sometimes extreme asymmetry of composition or design; and an exclusive use of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines along with the ‘pigment primary’ colors, plus ‘neutral’ colors or tones.”The artists involved with this movement were profoundly engrossed with novel and progressive ideas about the relationship between the “production and consumption of art and design” and the impact or influence on modern society and social life.The subject matter of these paintings were not the traditional figures, landscapes, and scenes, as had been previously represented by other painters and artists. Instead the de Stijl movement focused on subject matter that was concerned with geometry and form.
The most distinctive figure in Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow is the large red square located in the top right corner. This particular square takes up over half of the canvas. This piece also has a very distinctive, thick, and pronounced line separating a large white plane in the upper left corner into two individual planes. These two elements draw the viewer’s eye inward and then force the eye to proceed in a downward manner that allows the viewer to experience the painting first as individual elements and then as a whole. This is one of the most basic tenets of de Stijl; for the “single element, perceived as separate, and the configuration of elements, perceived as a whole.”  As mentioned previously, his palette consists of extremely hard primary colors; red, yellow, and blue, as well as neutrals; black and white. The use of these bright distinctive hues yet, nevertheless basic colors, in such a dramatic and dynamic nature emphasizes one of the cornerstones of de Stijl ideology in reference to returning to a state of simplicity. Mondrian praised the use of primary colors and neutrals, this idea of simplicity of form are echoed throughout the white planes; these are “not a neutral background, but a living, vibrant component of the painting: in some areas the white is as much form as the coloured shapes or the lines.”
This grid configuration that Mondrian used by implementing a “network of lines” worked well to “increase the cohesion, not only between the colour planes themselves, but also between the coloured and uncoloured portions of the work.” The composition is very repetitious by using the same basic shapes and colors. However, Mondrian would not have perceived his work as repetitive, but instead would have seen this piece as a whole experience made up of individual parts that generates a statement on the relationship between the individual and the collective or universal. The use of horizontal and vertical lines or elements is prevalent in this piece. The horizontal lines signify a sense of rest and repose, while the vertical lines communication a sense of height to the piece. Working together as an overall piece, the lines together create a sense of stability and solidarity. In particular, Mondrian’s use of ninety-degree angles throughout his composition evokes a sense of structural stability that reflects the ideas of permanence and reliability. Mondrian was attempting to portray this sense of stability through his paintings and evoke sentiments of a utopian society rather than face the instability of the world in its current state. Since asymmetry was praised in this style, Mondrian uses juxtaposition, proportion, and location to create an overall harmony in his painting without definitively balancing the elements. Aesthetically speaking, Mondrian used the idea of opposition in his painting to achieve this quality.
However, there are slight differences that can be seen in the paintings created towards the end of the de Stijl movement. According to Blotkamp, the “standardization is far from uniform.” She also describes the differences between his former line thicknesses, color palette, and plane proportions. Early Mondrian works from this period have significantly more standardized size proportions when concerning the planes; conversely the later paintings and works exhibit an extreme disproportion of plane size in relation to one another. The use of his lines changes as well. He moves from a routine way of depicting the lines to a drastically more dynamic way that not only enhances, but also highlights the varying thicknesses. In the later paintings, Mondrian also tends to extend the black lines to the very edge of the canvas; like the color fields, the lines could even extend onto the side of the canvas. This work is symbolic of the previous uniformity in Mondrian’s paintings coming to an end.
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