PRINT May 1970

Geometric Abstract Painting and Paris in the Thirties, Part I

“IT WON’T DO,” WROTE Theo Van Doesburg in 1925, “it won’t do to use the exterior forms of the new as a recipe, in order to produce decorative or applied arts.”1 But by the early thirties abstraction seemed to have lost its uncompromising character, its equilibrium, and some younger abstract artists were producing what Van Doesburg had mockingly called “quadratic baroque.” Both Van Doesburg and Mondrian had, in fact, recognized that second generation abstractionists ran the risk of borrowing exterior stylistic forms without a full comprehension of their implicit spirit; but the abstract “mannerisms” which these old masters noticed in others’ work was not entirely absent from their own. Mondrian, for example, having reached a climax in reductive development in the very sparse canvases of 1930–1933, embarked on work of increasing complexity and ambiguity which tended to contradict his avowed aims of “equilibrium” and “plastic regularity.” Likewise, the Paris work of that other old master of abstract art, Kandinsky, radically revalued “constructive” principles for an art of illusionism, drama and even sentiment. But Paris in the thirties wasn’t Germany in the twenties, and in the last years of international abstraction before World War II, a different and special kind of abstract art was created.

The story could well begin in January of 1929, at the Paris exhibition of Friedel Vordemberge-Gildewart, with the meeting of the critic Michel Seuphor and the Uruguayan painter Torres-Garcia.2 Here, and at subsequent meetings at the Café Voltaire and the Brasserie Lipp, the idea of a new group of abstract artists was discussed. Mondrian and Van Doesburg were consulted, as was Arp and others, and in March of 1930 Cercle et Carré came into being. Although short-lived, the mailing list of this group provided the basis for the more durable organization, Abstraction-Création, run by Herbin and Vantongerloo, which made propaganda for abstract art until it too collapsed in 1936.

But the sources of the Paris thirties alliances go back further than this. If Abstraction-Création developed from Cercle et Carré, the latter group similarly owed much to earlier attempts to introduce to Paris foreign geometric abstraction. In the twenties, the Paris art world had reacted to any such attempts with extreme coolness: the 1924 De Stijl exhibition was a flop, and Mondrian’s difficulties in selling his work in Phis period are well known. The most ambitious attempt to bring in this alien abstraction was perhaps that of the painter Poznanski, who had a small success with the Art d’aujourd’hui exhibition of 1925, partly achieved, no doubt, by the clever ploy of showing foreign geometric work and indigenous post-Cubist abstraction together. But despite the very defensive tone adopted in the catalog statement—with its respectable references to Poussin and predictable antithesis of abstract art and photography—only Zervos’ Cahiers d’Art could find anything good to say about it.3 Nevertheless, with the increase in emigrations from Germany to Paris, the alliance of foreign hard-core abstractionists to those Paris-oriented artists who had developed to an extreme the decorative possibilities of synthetic Cubism was what became characteristic of Paris thirties abstraction. The interplay of these trends against the background of the increasing social unrest of the period is an important theme. Another is the internal formal crisis in which geometric abstraction found itself in the thirties—something made partly explicable by the influence of non-geometric currents, but owing as much to certain implicit and idealistic contradictions in the theory of abstraction itself as developed in the early Utopian years. It is to this formal crisis we must look first, and its effect on that most consistently Utopian artist, Mondrian.


To me, the circle and the square were the sky and the earth as symbolized by the ancient Oriental religions; they formed a kind of rudimentary alphabet by means of which everything could be expressed with the most limited means. They evoked prehistoric runes and the early Chinese I-Ching, or Book of Changes.
—Michel Seuphor

SEUPHOR’S DESCRIPTION OF THE SYMBOLS of Cercle et Carré well suggests his dependence on the international abstractionist esthetic, with its dual motives of mysticism and utilitarianism. The idea of “a kind of rudimentary alphabet” was developed in the period around the Great War and although becoming for many an almost functional system, was originally informed by the occult connections of figures like Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky, who were concerned with a psychic (not physical) grammar of “thought forms” (not functional or materialistic ones). Indeed, the emergence of abstraction might well be viewed as an attempt to repudiate the materialism of contemporary society. But the spiritual connections of the early years were increasingly put aside by such tougher-minded propagandists as Van Doesburg and Moholy-Nagy, and, as developed, the theory of Elementarism wished to free its formal vocabulary from this original superstructure so that art might be less dependent upon individual caprice and, by becoming very nearly utilitarian, have a closer social contact. This utilitarianist assumption welcomed the reductivist origins of abstractionism, believing that an art of lowest common denominator would assert “universal” qualities, but ignored the dependence of this exclusive vocabulary on a belief in the primacy of consciousness over environmental materialism. The transference of a simplistic, personally-motivated ideal into a collectively anonymous art activity took little account of the individualistic sources, finding it convenient to subsume the “elements” themselves but more difficult to construct anything like a workable syntactic guide. It could even be said that the individualistic will never be absent from a construction based on reductive principles and that social or “universalist” ambitions imply a built-in redundancy, not brevity, of “language,” an elaboration, not contraction, of “elements.”

As a utilitarian theory, Elementarism falls flat, since the context of elements is what is important, and once the relational aspect is brought in, the individual elements themselves are relatively insignificant. For example, what characterizes Mondrian’s art is not the elements themselves, which may be rationally described, but their irrational organization. Moreover, reductivism cannot be prolonged indefinitely (Malevich’s work showed this) and formal proliferation is perhaps inevitable. For Mondrian, however, reductivism was not so much an initial assumption as something worked for through a decade, “the slow and sure path of evolution . . . towards the spiritual,” as he put it himself.4 While others were expanding the “rules” to include new elements (e.g., Moholy-Nagy’s new “biotechnical” elements) or enlivening the old ones in new directions (Van Doesburg’s introduction of the diagonal in his “counter-compositions”) Mondrian persisted in the straight and narrow of his prescribed formal system. But once the zenith had been reached, Mondrian’s “exact law-abiding organization” (as Kandinsky defined “composition”) gave way to more elaborate and intricate forms. Around 1932–33, some kind of crisis occurred, bringing, as part of a general crisis affecting much Paris art of that period, a reassessment of the premises of the previous decade.

Mondrian had considered the years 1921–22 crucial in his career. Although he had been producing totally non-figurative art since 1915–16 it was only around 1922 that he settled for what were to be the principal characteristics of his subsequent development: a square or vertical painting format enclosing relatively pure primaries on a white background and structured by strong black lines most often extending to the very edges of the painting surface. The development and purification of this formula occupied him for the next ten years. After a gradual increase in pictorial “openness” from around 1925, effected principally by allowing the largest rectangular area of any composition to be unbounded on one or two sides by internal dividing lines, he arrived at two or three basic compositional types which he developed from around 1928–1932. The work of this period is characterized by maximum clarity of elements and of color placement, “solemnity” of composition, and relative anonymity of style (he sometimes burnished the surface to suppress brush-work). The culmination of this approach is in the minimal works of 1930–32–33, many of which utilize a cruciform theme (reminiscent of Schoenmaeker’s “construction of nature’s reality”) and approach an “ultimate solution” in their color reduction and linear sparsity (cf. Composition 2 with Black Lines of 1930). In Modernist terms, Mondrian had thus entrenched his work more firmly in its area of competence, its purity, and imposed a regulating norm with a new force and a new completeness.5 From around 1933, however, this “regulation” gave way to what appears to be irrationality by the use of lines ambiguous in effect and of spaces whose functions were even illusionist. But Mondrian was, of course, never a rationalist, and only a classicist in the low-grade sense.6 He had never worked in a consistently formulistic manner (there are only nine modular paintings in Seuphor’s catalogue raisonné), and in only very few of his works do the dimensions of the pictorial elements directly echo the picture’s enclosing shape self-evidently.7 Thus considering Mondrian’s concern for the irregular emotional image it is tempting to consider the thirties work as releasing that which had been repressed in the anti-intuitive atmosphere of the twenties or as an atavistic resumption of pre-twenties complexity. However, the dependence of Mondrian’s post-1933 work on compositional types developed in the twenties (albeit in free synthesis) suggests the more likely explanation of this work as produced in a period of imbalance, itself not redressed in Europe. In the Paris works, style itself serves as the source for style while the original philosophical (external) impetus grows weaker. But this effects a corollary freedom from a priori concepts which, importantly, substantiates a revitalized manner far less worried about “meaning” (cf. the later appearance of descriptive titles) which finds ultimate resolution (outside of Europe) in an increasingly unconceptual style in which the logic of development within a certain formal configuration was itself the means of self-realization. But the Paris works reveal their transitional nature between philosophy and formalization in a kind of dramatic and emotive “mannerism” of effect. And if these adjectives seem themselves too emotional, a closer look at some typical works will reveal their validity.

It could be argued that the sparse- works of 1930–32–33 which we have taken to be the climax of Mondrian’s “philosophical” development are themselves theatrical in character and forbade future developments. Composition 2 with Black Lines of 1930 uses lines of strikingly different width; so. much so that the principal horizontal might even be read not as a line at all, but as a (black) colored area transversing the side-turned “T” shape and setting up a distinct illusion (like the curtain-rod in Vermeer’s Lady reading at the window at Dresden) and implying recession through three separate zones (the horizontal, the “T,” the ground). However, the secondary horizontal, of a width midway between those of the principal elements, is contrived to tie the composition by relieving the “tragic” domination of the principal horizontal form and by asserting the “peripheral” nature of the composition. Mondrian’s tendency to flank the largest area of his paintings With smaller rectangular divisions was one of the most important devices of this period, and this work is one of the most purified versions of this theme. The development of this trend is hard to follow through the thirties because of the complexity of the works, but it appears to be significant for the later use of pulse-like color areas freed from their black-line encasements which first appear attached to the very limits of the painting surface and which are subsequently developed “all-over” in the American paintings. Here, how-ever, our reading switches from the apprehension of recession (with the horizontal predominant) and of flatness (through the peripheral stress of the flanking areas, especially of the “spiritual” ladder form along the right-hand edge).

The most startling extension of the minimal premises of around 1930 is perhaps the Composition with Blue and White of 1936, one of four works in vertical format begun in 1935 (the other three being completed in New York in 1942).8 These four works carry the spiritual ladder format to its most extreme conclusion, and though the New York paintings of the group compromise the verticality of the 1936 work, all imply the dramatic extension of the vertical beyond the physical limits of the pictorial surface. Mondrian defined the “tragic” concept as “suffering through the domination of the one over the other.”9 In Composition with Blue and White, the uninterrupted left-hand vertical was the ultimate tragic statement, as was also the vertical space-channel, which does most to suggest the extra-pictorial extension, with space operating here as a “positive” element (something even more apparent in the other three vertical compositions where the tying of both of the twin columns to their respective sides of the paintings substantiates the effect). This “mannerist” device (Mondrian would have called it “Gothic”) is an important demonstration of the dynamic and dramatic character of post-1933 work. But was It self-consciously dramatic? As a device, this up-dated coulisse was not to be repeated in this form; but other pictorial. oddities of the thirties work reveal comparable effects: a questioning of the function of line as a positive didactic element or as enclosing positive space (the relationship of “image” and “ground”); an awareness of the dual function of peripherally positioned elements as both extending and enclosing space (the relationship of “cosmic” to purely pictorial space).

While the “ladder” format of Composition with Blue and White associates it with Mondrian’s use of peripheral elements in the compositions of the late twenties and early thirties, both the stressed central channel and the repetition or mirroring of similar elements at each side of the work effect an emphasis not peripheral but tending towards concentricity. Van Doesburg had described the earlier development from the Cubist concentrical composition to the neo-Plastic peripheral one in De Still VII, stressing the importance of neo-Plasticism in abolishing “the center and all passive emptiness.”10 In the peripheral composition, the stress is directed away from the center and “towards the extreme periphery of the canvas” even appearing “to continue beyond it.” While Mondrian does not return to the Cubist concentrical composition where “the periphery of the canvas remains blank and therefore gives an impression of emptiness” he does, however, utilize peripherally positioned elements to (paradoxically) reemphasize the center. The characteristic nature of neo-Plasticism had been created by allowing the intersection of lines within the center parts of the canvas area to imply their extensions toward the edges and by placing formal elements (both lines and colored areas) so as to reduce emphasis on any single part of the surface in favor of a total expression of the whole surface. As a work tended towards minimalism, so “openness” of effect would be expanded, stressing the identity of relatively few elements as part of some larger implied cosmic space. This tendency reached a climax in the thirties — in the minimal works of 1930-32-33, but more especially in those works based upon a Greek cross motif where the arms of the cross are close together and they intersect close to the center of the composition, producing a “radiating” effect (cf. the Composition with Yellow Square of 1936, in the Arensberg Collection). When, however, Mondrian moved the arms of the cross away from the center toward the edges of the canvas attention was directed toward the central “enclosed” space, an effect often aided by the mirroring of like elements across the picture surface, with the result that “the symmetrical composition has ‘pressed’ itself more and more towards the center” (as Van Doesburg characterized “concentricity”). Nevertheless, the Greek-cross based works tend to retain some vestige of a depicted image, though it is often hardly discernible because of the proliferation of lines which Mondrian used.

Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, begun in 1939 but not completed until 1942, was one of a series of complex extensions of the Greek-cross format utilizing a small colored square in the lower right corner as a common motif.11 Here, the characteristic ambiguity of image and shape occurs, attention being directed from a searching for a structurally coherent image/theme to the all-over surface structure itself, lines functioning both as dividing color and non-color (white) areas and, in those sections where they closely approximate each other, as a surrounding “ground” for the non-color to act as a positive (while the blue-colored area to the bottom left is used in a way analogous to that of line) — a complication of effect further obscured by optical flickerings at line intersections. Such assumed polarities as lines dividing or containing, planes as before or behind these lines, and balance as equilibrious or disturbed are questioned in a new synthesis of pictorial dilemmas. Likewise, the relationships of line to plane, enclosure to explosure, color to non-color appear to be in flux, as is the basic one, for Mondrian, of horizontal to vertical. Here, the numerous vertical lines separate themselves in space from the four slightly broader horizontals (which form a kind of pictorial analogy to the horizon) disturbing the “gravity” effect, which is a fairly consistent feature of many of the thirties compositions (only the cruciform-based compositions are surely weighted towards the top—cf. Composition 2 with Black Lines), and serve to counteract the effect of any discernible depicted image. The format begins to echo, instead, its physical shape, directing movement within the surface rather than to its edges and beyond it. We have noted how Composition with Blue and White does this in one direction only, pressing in laterally; but while it is only rarely that Mondrian effects enclosure principally from top and bottom, most of the complex works of after 1933 compromise excessive verticality and control (contain) the central channel with horizontal bands which create shapes of horizontal direction down the center of a work flanked by principally vertical shapes along the sides. This kind of format was only fully realized in New York, but the importance of the reappraisals which began in the Paris years after 1933 towards Mondrian’s final manner is very considerable.

If the “explosion” of the Greek-cross motif did suggest the way toward the new spatial enclosure of works like Composition with Blue of 1937, then the original motif has been successfully subsumed in favor of the total image. Only with difficulty does the internal configuration assert itself against the emphasis on edge created by placing the outermost lines so near to the limits of the canvas surface. But, like the majority of the Paris works (and unlike Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue), the vertical emphasis remains and is supported by a gravity-like effect of clustering lines to form a U-shaped border around this composition. In contrast, the greater equivalence of vertical and horizontal elements in the London-New York Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue is to be typical of Mondrian’s last works. Mondrian’s concern for enclosed spaces in the later thirties sees this kind of vertical-horizontal equivalence developing, and one may trace the preoccupying themes of this period through to the mature New York works—to paintings like New York of 1941–42 and New York City I, of the same years, where the total effects are of edge-flanking, central enclosure, and some remnant of vertical emphasis (through U-shaped color placement in the former and proliferation of vertical lines in the latter). It may be even claimed that Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43) is a direct descendant of the various space-channel compositions of the thirties, though here, of course, the radical employment of a multi-colored grid, within which color can operate, resolves the problem of tensions between a differentiated linear and chromatic structure.

The use of colored lines instead of black lines was anticipated early in the thirties by the Composition with Yellow Lines (1933). Max Bill has suggested that Mondrian’s lozenge compositions contain implications of the kind of extra-pictorial extension we have noted in Composition with Blue and White, except that it is only the lines and not the spaces which are supposed to extend themselves.12 If, however, we turn our attention to the spaces (while remembering Mondrian’s apparent assertions that secondary phenomena were incidental to his aims), then Composition with Yellow Lines, and some comparable lozenges,13 exhibit the kind of enclosed space of. other works of the thirties; and assertively so, even appearing to stress that “center and all passive emptiness” of the concentric composition. The word “concentric” is here used advisedly, for this seemingly simple composition reveals subtleties and ambiguities somehow typifying the thirties work as a whole. There are two kinds of concentricity in this work. One is noticed by accepting Max Bill’s reading of the colored bands as extending themselves into the surrounding space. In this case, then, of all Mondrian’s lozenge compositions this is the most daring since all the four assumed “intersections’’ occur outside of the painting and imply a space larger than and overlaying that physically presented, effecting a kind of octagonal centralized image where the real and the imagined meet. The other appears from considering the character of the bands themselves: the two broader and two narrower strips oppose each other on one diagonal and mirror themselves on the other, while the increase in width of bands from right to bottom to left and above almost suggests a clockwise movement just developing momentum when halted (an effect emphasized when the work is hung according to Mondrian’s directions, “with the center no lower than the eye-level of a man standing up and, if possible, with the bottom corner coming at eye-level,”14 when the suggestion of a kind of “cosmic” motion is the more pronounced). In New York, Mondrian told J. J. Sweeney that “. . . it is important to discern two sorts of equilibrium in art: (1) static balance, (2) dynamic equilibrium,” and that while “it is always natural for human beings to seek static balance . . . vitality in the continual succession of time always destroys this balance. Abstract art is a concrete expression of such a vitality.”15 Interestingly, he was talking about his lozenge works; the description well fits this one.

In the same interview Mondrian talked of the “desperate struggle” to achieve “dynamic movement in equilibrium.” This concept had been formulated early in his career as an abstract artist: the idea that “expansion as an outward aspect of active primitive power results in a physical creation—form . . . Form is created when expansion is limited. If expansion is fundamental (because the action is based thereon) this must be prevalent in the representation.” This was in the first volume of De Stijl.16 And here he continued to suggest that expansion and limitation were the two extremes of formal creation which required expression in any work. The “desperate struggle” to contain both of these is never so apparent as in the thirties work: a period on the one hand of extreme refinement and sophistication of method, but also of spatial ambiguity both in and outside the canvas. The increasing complexity of effects, using double and multiple lines, allowing so-called secondary phenomena to confuse the perception of composition, speak more of bravura then balance and increasingly involve the spectator in their formal play, standing between the classical equilibrium of neo-Plastic pantology and the complex pictorialism of the exiled Mondrian, the painter.

John Elderfield



1. De Stijl, VI, 108.

2. Cf. Seuphor’s accounts of this period in: L’Art Abstrait, Paris, 1950; Dictionary of Abstract Painting, New York, 1958; Abstract Painting, New York, 1964. Additional information was kindly given me by Cesar Domela, Jean Gorin, Jean Hélion and Paule Vézelay. The principal Paris journals of this period concerned with abstraction are: Cercle et Carré (ed. Seuphor & Torres-Garcia), Nos. 1–3, 1929–30; Art Concret (ed. Van Doesburg, Hélton, et al), single number, 1930; Abstraction-Création-Art non-figuratif (ed. Herbin, Vantongerloo, et al), Nos. 1–5, 1932–36; Plastique (ed. Arp, Taueber-Arp, Domela, et al), Nos. 1–5, 1937–39.

3. Review by Zervos in No. 1, Jan. 1926, 16.

4. Quoted by Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian. Life and Work, New York, 1956, 151.

5. Cf. Clement Greenberg’s mention of Mondrian in “Modernist Painting,” Art and Literature, No. 4, Spring 1965.

6. Cf. Reyner Banham, “Mondrian and the Philosophy of Modern Design,” Architectural Review, CXXII, 729, October 1957, 227–229.

7. Cf. Richard P. Lohse, “Standard, Series, Module: New Problems and Tasks of Painting” in G. Kepes, Module, Symmetry, Proportion, London, 1966, 128–161.

8. Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue (Seuphor catalog, 387), Composition (S. 386), Composition (reproduced Frank Elgar, Mondrian, London, 1968, 201). All 1935–42.

9. Cf. the sketchbook page with composition diagrams by Mondrian discussed in Robert P. Welsh’s excellent catalog, Piet Mondrian, Toronto, Philadelphia, The Hague, 1966, 188.

10. “Schilderkunst en plastiek. Over contra-compositie en contra-plastiek.”

11. Cf. Welsh, Piet Mondrian, 202.

12. Cf. Max Bill, “Die Komposition 1/1925 von Piet Mondrian,” Jahresbericht 1956 der Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft.

13. Such as Composition 1 A, 1930 (S. 408) and the more complex Composition in a square with red, 1943 (S. 411); but not lozenges like Composition with Two Lines, 1931 (S. 409) which imply openness.

14. Inscribed by Mondrian on the back of the painting. Cited by L. J. F. Wijsenbeek, Piet Mondrian, London, 1969, 122.

15. J. J. Sweeney, Piet Mondrian, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1948.

16. “De nieuwe beelding als stijl.”