Mondrian and You: How Art Shapes Your Life

Today is the birthday of the great Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).  His name may not be familiar to some of you, but chances are you will recognize his work, or imitations of it.  The occasion of his birthday gives us a good opportunity to look at how art can have a practical impact on your life, even if you are unaware of that fact.

Mondrian worked in various styles over his career, but he is most famous for his very simple, precise combinations of lines painted in black and white, with blocks of primary colors used here and there, which was part of a movement known as “De Stijl” (“The Style”, in Dutch), and what Mondrian himself called “Neoplasticism”.  He developed his grid format after World War I, and it exploded in popularity during the Jazz Age of the 1920’s and 1930’s.  While he was not alone in painting in this way, nor did he originate the movement which his work is classified as being a part of, today he is certainly the most well-known member of it.

The De Stijl movement was not just about creating abstract painting and sculpture however: it was viewed as being, to use a modern parlance, something of a lifestyle.  If artists such as Mondrian had only created works of art in order to express themselves in the form of high culture, to be placed on museum walls and in gallery display cabinets, then they would simply have been another among many isolated groups of creative thinkers on the long timeline of Western history.  Yet as is so often the case, art and real life commingled in some interesting, practical ways.

The members of the De Stijl movement, including Mondrian, thought that art and design ought not to be separated, but rather that they should work in harmony with one another.  Thus in an ideal situation, a painter like Mondrian could create canvases for a home which a De Stijl architect was building.  Another member of the movement would design furniture and practical objects for the house, while another would design book bindings, album covers, magazines, and so on, all of which would coordinate with “The Style”.

This way of thinking may seem a very modern and efficient way of doing things, but it was not unique.  Throughout Western history there are many instances of artists who created high culture objects such as paintings and sculptures, using architecture and design to try to achieve a unified whole, often by working with others who could make their concepts real.  Thus, the Renaissance master Raphael, about one of whose paintings I wrote on Monday, was not only an artist, but designed everything from villas to tapestries; Peter Paul Rubens, the great Dutch painter of the 17th century, did the same.  And Edward Burne-Jones, one of the preeminent English painters of the 19th century, also designed stained glass, books, and even theatre sets and costumes.  None of these men actually sat in the factory and wove a tapestry, laid brick, or leaded glass, but they worked with those who did so, to try to integrate their own aesthetics with the creation of places and objects that were in harmony with their artistic vision of how the world ought to be.

While they had a number of ideas about remaking the world in their own image, during their heyday the members of the De Stijl movement never really succeeded in fully integrating the artistic production of members like Mondrian with the practicalities of daily life in the form of  homes, furniture, and so on, apart from a small handful of completed projects.  Perhaps they were too cerebral, or too lacking in resources, to be able to convince people that they should be allowed to have control over things like manufacturing.  However, the legacy of Mondrian and his fellow Dutch modernists is, in a broad sense, something which you may very well be sitting in, as you read this blog post.

Shortly after the De Stijl artistic and design movement began in Holland, in neighboring Germany a parallel creative movement got underway.  Although somewhat different in their philosophies, both shared a utopian view of the future, an appreciation for machines and geometry, and a desire to create an integrated whole so as to transform society for what they hoped would be better, particularly after the horrors which all had witnessed during World War I.  When architect Walter Gropius set up his legendary design school called the “Bauhaus”  in 1919, some of the first instructors at the school were Dutch members of the De Stijl movement.  While Mondrian remained at work in Paris, painting his geometric canvases, some of his fellow members of “The Style” were working with their German colleagues to produce everything from apartment buildings and chairs, to forks, knives, and spoons.

When Hitler closed down the Bauhaus in 1933, and World War II broke out, that might have been the end of the story.  Except as it happens, many of the artists, architects, and designers of both the De Stijl and the Bauhaus movements fled to America, including Mondrian himself.  In the United States they found not only the practical resources necessary to be able to achieve their vision, but an audience eager and willing to receive it.  As a result, the influence on American art, architecture, and everyday objects, inspired by the work of people like Mondrian and others who were originally involved in these parallel European movements, is all around you.

The question of whether their work is any good, I will not broach in this particular blog post; there are many good things which came out of the influences of these movements, but there were also many negative things as well.  My point here is not to engage in a systematic, critical analysis of their work, but rather to show how something which some might think solely the purview of those who go to art museums and galleries, can have a tremendous, practical impact on everyday aspects of our lives.  So the next time you pick up a pen or a coffee cup decorated with clean, geometric designs in black and white, with a few blocks of red, yellow, and blue, perhaps you will think of the work of Piet Mondrian, and how the influence of art is much broader than just within the artistic community.

Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black by Piet Mondrian (1924/5)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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