As a gallery educator at The Phillips Collection, I have the pleasure of facilitating tours and conversing with visitors about inspiring artworks in the collection. One of my favorite paintings to discuss is Painting No, 9 (1939-42) by Piet Mondrian. As a non-objective painting composed of primary colors and geometric shapes it is easy to walk past and think “Got it.” However, if you slow down and think about what Mondrian is doing in his art, the painting can take on an entirely new and exciting perspective. While visitors may not become Mondrian converts after our tour conversation, I frequently hear “You know, Mondrian may not be my favorite, but I have a much greater appreciation for what he set out to accomplish.”
Much like a visitor to the museum, I encourage you to slow down, click here and spend a few minutes learning to appreciate the simplicity and idealism of Mondrian.
While looking at the painting, ask yourself: What do I see? (Literally, what shapes, lines, colors?) Imagine removing or adding an additional line or square of color; how does the artwork change? Look at the relationship between the black lines and the blocks of color; does the black line appear to be consistently above or on top of the color blocks? How does the interplay between the black lines and blocks of color suggest depth?
Piet Mondrian was a Dutch artist who dedicated his artistic career to developing an art form that limited painting to its most essential elements: straight lines (vertical and horizontal), primary colors (red, yellow, blue, paired with black, white, and gray), geometric shapes, and an emphasis on the flat painted surface. In other words, Mondrian did not want to create an inauthentic “window onto the world” by depicting a representational subject. Rather, he aimed to show something truthful: the application of paint on a flat canvas. Mondrian was interested not only in the formal purity of his art but also believed it possessed a spiritual quality. He viewed the balance between verticals and horizontals as well as the balanced color combinations as reaching a spiritual utopia. I encourage you to imagine eliminating one element from the painting, and see how it alters the asymmetrical balance of the entire composition.
Mondrian was not the only artist interested in an essentialized art form. Mondrian worked in this method with several other artists including Gerrit Rietveld and Theo van Doesberg from the late 1910s to the early 1930s seeking purity and simplicity. Mondrian and his fellow artists referred to this style as “De Stijl” or “The Style” once again removing any reference to the real world. Also, as you may have noted, even the title Painting No. 9 reiterates this notion that the artwork is simply a painting, not a depiction of something else. Although Mondrian continued working in this style for the majority of his career, he formally broke away from the De Stijl movement around 1925 when Theo van Doesburg introduced a diagonal line; a blasphemous gesture in the eye of Mondrian. While Mondrian was not widely collected by Duncan Phillips, Painting No. 9 never fails to fulfill Phillips’s desire to create conversations between the visitors and artworks. I encourage you to take this conversation into the 21st century by commenting here with your insights, observations, and questions.
Ellen Stedtefeld, Gallery Educator