The abstract work of Piet Mondrian became the fodder of popular culture when in 1965 clothes designer Yves Saint Laurent adapted the patterns of some of Mondrian’s most famous works as the basis for a collection of dresses. The solid blocks of color amidst several blocks of white create a striking look, and YSL put it out on the street.
Mondrian’s Early Work
But for Mondrian himself, the road to those impressive arrangements of blocks of color took some time and consideration. Few artists jump straight to Abstract Art from their beginning, usually starting with some sort of representational works. Early in his career, Mondrian came under the influence of the Cubists. “Gray Tree” from 1911 displays this effect on his work.
His early works showing the Cubist influence still have enough of a traditionally representational look to them that viewers recognize what the artist presents to them. But for Mondrian, his painting was an extension of his spiritual and philosophical interests and he wanted the work to reach beyond what he found in the then-current styles of art. His intellectual pursuits put him on a quest for a deeper spiritual experience of nature and the world. It pushed his artwork toward a greater exploration of the essentials in shape and color. By the time he met the other artists who became the core of the De Stijl (“The Style”) school of art in the Netherlands, he was receptive to their concepts of using only basic shapes and primary colors.
De Stijl and Basic Elements
By 1930, this abstract conceptualizing resulted in works like “Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow.” This work and his others of this period are the ones that influenced Yves Saint Laurent in his fashion choices 35 years later. The bold starkness of the pieces became iconographic of an intellectual abstraction in art that was still unusual to most viewers. When untutored viewers come to such pieces they cannot figure out why the work should have such impact. This happens mainly because the effective composition of the shapes and selection and placement of the primary colors successfully has a notable impact on them, but it does so under their threshold of awareness.
Dealing With Abstraction
Most viewers continue to seek for a representational understanding of works that are not attempting to be representational of observable reality. They are instead, well, abstract analyses.
The work of an abstractionist such as Mondrian continues to influence artists that have come after him.
Diana Hobson’s piece “Thanks to Mondrian” shows hints of the earlier artist’s presence in her thinking. This piece contains sketched hints of Mondrian’s black-framed blocks, and references to the bold shapes of primary colors. But her own preference for a broader range of color takes over. Instead of the strictly primary colors Mondrian and the De Stijl artist, she moves to using an orange where they would have chosen yellow. She also gives the background a varied tonality that the De Stijl artists would never choose. And finally she springs forth with a flight of white and light blue that breaks the strict geometric forms that Mondrian focused on. In essence, she has abstracted from Mondrian’s abstract.
“Gray Tree” by Piet Mondrian, 1911, located at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Netherlands. Image used under Fair Use for instruction.
“Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow” by Piet Mondrain, 1930, part of the Collection of Fukuoka City Bank, Ltd. Image used under Fair Use for instruction.
“Thanks To Mondrian” by Diana Hobson. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.