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