Pieter Cornelis "Piet" Mondrian
Piet Mondrian was a dutch painter and one of the main figures of the Abstract art movement. Three distinct periods can be identified on his paintings, that evolved from a figurative to a non-figurative stage. Objects were gradually being reduced, until being completely independent from any visual references in the “tangible world”.
Mondrian’s journey started in a figurative approach, passing through a cubist influenced phase evolving towards a complete abstract period. However, it was his abstract paintings that acknowledged Mondrian’s work in a world wide scale.
From 1892, when Mondrian entered the Academy for Fine Arts in Amsterdam, to 1911, his paintings were mainly naturalistic and impressionistic depicting dutch landscapes. “Wood with Beech Trees” (1899); “Oostzijdse Mill with Woman” (1902); “The Red Cloud” (1907); “Seascape” (1909) are some of the pieces produced in this period.
It is known that Mondrian’s theosophical thoughts are present in his pieces as visual metaphors. Female and male representation, for instance, appear as horizontal and vertical lines. Such step in abstraction had a great impact on the way artists could deal with complex concepts or correlating them to simplified geometric compositions.
Mondrian’s canvases comprised of horizontal and vertical dark lines or planes of basic and pastel colours served as model, decades later, for numerous computer art works. Firstly, in the early history of Computer Arts we can observe Michael Noll’s experiment that resulted in the article “Human or Machine: A Subjective Comparison of Piet Mondrian’s “Composition with Lines” (1917) and a Computer Generated Picture”. Michael Noll was then the first computer artist to reproduce a Mondrian canvas in order to prove a concept on computer arts field. The idea was to test on how humans would prefer a computer-generated random pattern over the pattern of Mondrian’s “Composition with Lines”.
As Michael Noll’s concludes in his article “Both patterns were conceived by humans, although certain features of the computer-generated picture were decided by a programmed random algorithm. The computer performed only as a medium performing its operations under the complete control of the computer program written by the programmer-artist.” (…) “The experiment was designed solely to compare two patterns that differed in elements of order and randomness.”
It is curious that the jury had preferred the “randomness of pattern” generated by the program over the “more-orderly” pattern painted by Mondrian.
“Mondrian often took pains to stress that his art was not the product of rational considerations, but came about intuitively: first there was practice, and only later there was theory.” A statement by the writer Carel Blotkamp in “The Art of Destruction” (1994) denies the correlation of Mondrian’s canvases with purely mathematical thoughts. However, some theories, starting from Michael Noll’s experiments, brings to discussion the fact that numbers, formulas and algorithms can be directly related to Mondrian’s compositions. Not necessarily as a generator factor but in its results and on the perception of the public.
Besides the Mondrian’s aesthetic, so often quoted in pieces of computer art, we should also consider his theoretical approach as a relevant aspect to the computer art. The abstract theory that gives the basis for Mondrian’s canvases certainly influenced the manner which the artist accept to revolutionize his methodology assuming the character of “artist-programmer”. The process of conceiving an idea, sketching it and then evolving it to the materialization of visual metaphors, introduced to the artists a new way of thinking. The moment where the artist writes the code in order to generate a result – will be a similar step of abstraction in the creative process. Mathematical metaphors are now serving as “universal language” and mediates the dialogue between the piece and the public. The piece of art, the result of the creative process, now is revealed as an output for a written code. The piece of art is not anymore the identical reflexion of the object worked by the artist. In computer art it will be the output or the direct consequence of an “algorithmic composition”. The program written itself will not have any visual similarity to the final aesthetics or plasticity of the generated object of art.
This dramatic change in the creative methodology should be associated to the abstract theory on “creating an universal language” in art and complete distance of a subject matter. When the concept of man is represented as a vertical line, for instance. The codes will equally play the role of mathematical metaphors. The final result will directly depend on this stage of pure abstraction, where equations and commands will play the role of the direct generator of the final object. In addition, the algorithm will always be a language recognizable world wide.
The medium is also a factor to reflect on. Even thou the work of the artist-programmer is the main determinant factor to the creation of the final result now the medium also plays a bigger role and sometimes a limiting condition. When developed by the artist, the code itself will never express the expected meaning by itself, the medium [the computer] was promoted to a vital medium in the production process. It might be considered limiting sometimes but the computer as a medium might be acting as an irreplaceable factor in the process as a whole.
Some examples of contemporary computer art works directly related to Mondrian’s pieces:
Author: Cleve Lendon
Coded in Java
Piet Mondrian (Pieter Cornelis “Piet” Mondriaan)
Date and place of birth: 7th March 1872, Amersfoort, Netherlands.
Date and place of death: 1st February 1944, New York, USA.
Piet Mondrian was born in Amersfoort, Netherlands and grew up with his sister and three younger brothers in a Calvinist environment. “Although Calvinism is often thought to be antagonistic towards the arts, this was certainly not the case in Mondrian’s family.” 1 (Blotkamp, Carel – 1994). His father, Pieter Cornelius Mondriaan, had qualified as an art teacher and even designed some interesting printed pieces commemorating historical events and some covers for children’s book. His uncle Frits Mondrian was also related to visual arts and painted mainly landscapes in Impressionistic style of The Hague School. Piet Mondrian _“played an active role in the political, social and cultural life of the community, and was acquainted with the leaders of the new Protestant political parties, such as Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper.”_2 It is known that Mondrian suffered great influence of Theosophical thoughts and explored it notably in his paintings.
Mondrian’s theosophical thoughts are exhibited in his pieces as metaphors. Female and male are represented as horizontal and vertical lines. At “Seascape” (1909), a composition of horizontal and organic lines, is related to a dutch sea side landscape and is also acknowledged as a representation of the female essence. While in “Lighthouse at Westkapelle” (1910), an urban landscape, a lighthouse building that represents the male essence with its vertical lines.
From 1911 to 1914, Mondrian lived in Paris. In this period he made some steps toward abstraction. He was highly influenced by Braque and Picasso Cubist paintings. Nevertheless, he developed his own particular process of synthesizing the out side world. “Grey Tree” (1912); “Trees in Blossom” (1912) and “The Tree A” (1913) are clear examples of such transitions.
In 1914, Mondrian was back in Holland to visit his father in bad health conditions and was obliged to stay for the whole World War I period. This occasion leaded Mondrian to unite his thoughts to Theo Van Doesburg and they founded “De Stijl” journal in 1917. The publication was essential as a platform for publishing articles related to their new concept of art.
De Stijl had as contributors artists, architects and designers. They shared a vision of a future never before expressed as such. The harmonic aesthetics of the paintings were then used as models to “redesign the world”. It was made surely in a small scale, present in spaces and buildings. They were thoroughly designed as geometry in service of practical and functional matters. For instance, The Schoroder House (1924) Rietveld.
On this Tate article we can acknowledge some of the rules for the visual code stablished by De Stijl: “colour, line and form were used only in their purest, most fundamental state: only primary colours and non-colours, only squares and rectangles, only straight and horizontal or vertical line.”
In 1924 in France, Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg split. The reasons for such an end were never well defined. One point cited very often by art historians was a matter of composition: the direction of the lines and planes at the paintings. Van Doesburg aimed to experiment with the diagonals while Mondrian didn’t accept it. He used the canvas placed as a lozenge but maintained the vertical and horizontal compositions intact. This controversial point of discussion can be observed at “Contra-Composition XVI” (1925) by Van Doesburg and “Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray” (1921) by Mondrian. The art historian Carel Blotkamp, also pointed as the main reason, their divergences on the concept about space and time. Following his own perspective and thoughts Mondrian continued as Neo-Plasticist and Van Doesburg as Elementarist.
During the 20’s and 30’S Mondrian continued his Neo-Plasticist experiments, which unfortunately had not yet recognized value. He lived in poverty for many years and even had to work on watercolors portraying orchids just for earning some money.
After some of his paintings being censured by the nazis Mondrian realized that for the sake of his life he should leave during the World War II. In September 1938, he moved to London but after some terrifying bombardment in 1940 Mondrian decides to move to a small studio in New York where he lived until his death.
From 1920 to 1940 all Mondrian’s canvases were strictly related to the visual codes inherent in the Neo-Plasticist writings. In this period he believed he had achieved the most perfect harmony on his canvases. Such paintings were establishing a language never tried before by a modern artist. Such new “vocabulary” were somehow enriching and leaving seeds for future generations.
Mondrian had written numerous articles and discussed his ideas with friends through letters, but in fact he had never officially written an art theory. He believed that only doing art he could really build a genuine art theory.
Mondrian aimed to create a synthetic universal language through a elementary visual code and he possibly had achieved it in his last two decades of life. _“I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness.(…) but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…” _
Piet Mondrian died of pneumonia in New York, 1944. He never achieved in life a consistent financial return from his master pieces. Mondrian’s closest friend Harry Holtzman opened his studio to the public for 6 weeks after his death. This initiative allowed hundreds of artists and friends to pay homage and contemplate Mondrian last pieces.
1 Blotkamp, Carel. “The Art of Destruction” (London, 1994) p. 21.
2 Henkels, Herbert. “Mondrian in Winterswijk”.