Recalling Mondrian and De Stijl

Each day as I drive through the rolling hills of Bellbrae, I am reminded of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Piet Mondrian, by a brightly coloured letterbox decorated with irregular rectangular shapes. Despite its rural setting, this Mondrian-inspired creation invites me to leave behind the forms of nature and embrace the minimalism of straight black lines and pure primary colours.

Mondrianinspired letterbox
Mondrian inspired letterbox in Bellbrae.

The Mondrian letterbox is not alone – all kinds of objects have been created in the style of the eccentric Dutch artist.

mondrian inspired shoe 2
VANS Modular Authentic sneaker. Image from http://www.freshnessmag.com.
Emily Duffy mondrian-car
Mondrian inspired car painted by artist Emily Duffy. The car now be found at Art Car World. Image from http://www.wired.com.
Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dress
Yves Saint Laurent, Mondrian day dress. Image from http://www.metmuseum.org.
Vogue-mondrian
'Vogue Paris' featuring Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian dress on the cover of the September 1965 issue. Image from hyperallergic.com.

But the best is the chair by Mondrian’s contemporary, Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld, a member of the De Stijl movement. I can’t resist quoting a wry Robert Hughes from The Shock of the New documentary:

“The most severe rebuke to the pleasure seeking body was made a bit earlier in 1918 by a Dutch designer named Gerrit Rietveld. This chair of his is rightly considered a classic because it goes far beyond the ordinary kind of functionalist discomfort. The human body for which it was reputedly made, simply doesn’t exist and in so far as it was ever designed to accommodate a human bottom, that bottom is one of those platonic solids existing somewhere out in the ethers in the world of ideal form but never made flesh. The fact about the designs of Rietveld, august as they are, they are not really furniture – they are sculpture.”

Gerrit Rietveld Red Blue chair De Stijl
Gerrit Rietveld, 'Red Blue Chair'. Although the chair was originally designed in 1918, its color scheme of red, yellow, blue and black was applied around 1923. Chair held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image from wikipedia.org

Mondrian and the proponents of De Stijl (The Style), were the pioneers of geometric abstraction. They sought new ideals of beauty and harmony through the use of primary colours, and flat rectangular areas defined by horizontal and vertical lines. The Schröder House, built in 1924 and designed by Rietveld, is like the physical embodiment of a Mondrian painting – even the windows can only be opened at 90° angles.

Rietveld-schroder-house
The Schröder House designed by Gerrit Rietveld. Image from dwell.com.
Rietveld-schroder-house-living-room
The Schröder House interior view. Image from dwell.com.

Last month, a 2010 documentary ‘In Mondrian’s Studio’ aired on SBS. The documentary was filmed in an exact replica of the artist’s studio. Like the Schröder House, to enter Mondrian’s studio was like stepping into one of his paintings, with the expanse of white painted walls punctuated by carefully placed rectangles of red, blue or yellow, and furniture painted in primary colours, black and white. The documentary traces the development of Mondrian’s unique style from his early life in the Netherlands, to his move to Paris, and later to London and New York.  It provides a fascinating insight into Mondrian’s influences, which include Theosophy, Cubism and jazz music, and reveals his artistic intentions with quotes from the artist’s letters and journals. Some of Mondrian’s musings are transcribed here:

“My artistic life really began in Domburg in the summer of 1914 with the plus and minus signs inspired by the line of the horizon and the vertical breakwaters – one horizontal line that symbolises the material principle and a vertical one for the spiritual. Nothing I had done up till then mattered any more.”

Piet_Mondrian_portrait
Piet Mondrian. Photo from 'De Stijl', vol. 5, nr. 12 (December 1922): p. 179. Image from http://commons.wikimedia.org

“Nature has always inspired me. These days I detest anything that reminds me of nature. I detest the colour green. I have banished it from my paintings and from my workshop.”

Mondrian_Composition_II_in_Red,_Blue,_and_Yellow
Piet Mondrian, 'Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow', 1930. Image from wikipedia.org.

“To arrive at the destruction of volume itself, that is how I came to use flat surfaces. I want to get at the truth as quickly as I can and that is why I take everything out until I arrive at the essence of things.”

Mondrian_Composition with Yellow Blue and Red
Piet Mondrian, 'Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red', 1937-42. Image from wikipedia.org.

“Art should never slumber in all that is nice and pretty. The emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object. From now on, the object must be eliminated from the painting.”

Mondrian_Broadway_Boogie_Woogie
Piet Mondrian, 'Broadway Boogie Woogie', 1942-43. Image from wikipedia.org.

“Art today is condemned to a separate existence for present day life is essentially tragic. But in some distant future, art and life will be one.”

Piet Mondrian

(quotes transcribed from ‘In Mondrian’s Studio’ by the Mondrian/Holtzman Trust, 2010)
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7 thoughts on “Recalling Mondrian and De Stijl

  1. I knew De stijl through the White stripes (their first album is “de stijl” and they’re influenced by this art), but I never had the chance to look further into it. Thanks for making me descover! Great post!

  2. I too often pass this letterbox but failed to recognise its significance. I will look at it in a new way now. I love the juxaposition of these straight lines and bold colours against the rural background and it always makes me smile!

  3. I love receiving all the posts, they are always well written, carefully researched and beautifully presented. You have certainly broadened my understanding of our wonderful local art scene. You do a remarkable job. Congratulations!

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