PRINT April 1973

The Subject Matter of Abstraction

WHICH ARTIST, AT WHAT DATE, and in what specific work of art created the first truly abstract or nonobjective painting? The intensity of the debate surrounding this question has not been tempered by evidence that supposedly contending early 20th-century painters were originally little concerned with the issue of precedence. This patent-office approach to the history of modern art confuses the issue of “invention” in art with science; it also obviates the importance of divergent individual approaches. The question, apparently, held no great interest for Piet Mondrian, whose earliest abstract works have been identified with dates as widely separate as 1913 and 19171, since he never discussed it in print. It is nonetheless of considerable importance to an understanding of the content of Mondrian’s work, especially at the moment of birth of the de Stijl movement, and can be discussed most fruitfully in reference to a limited number of selected subject themes.

Apart from an occasional still life, seascape, figural or flower subject, Mondrian’s Cubist oeuvre from the period 1912-early 1914 in Paris was dominated initially by tree motifs and then by a series of paintings derived from various architectural settings.2 Contrary to prevalent assumption, such subject matter represented not merely variations of stock images, but also retained a direct compositional relationship to observed natural motifs. This principle can be noted in the tree subjects, due to the transitoriness of plant life, only through comparison between certain small sketches from nature and the compositions of major paintings derived from the sources.3 In contrast, in every architectural image in which a Paris setting could be identified, the site was within a short walking distance from Mondrian’s Montparnasse studio at 26, rue du Départ. A wall poster at the corner of the avenue Edgar-Quinet, the church facade of Notre Dame des Champs, a view down the railroad tracks leading into the gare Montparnasse,4 and the outlines of neighboring apartment building facades: these are the specific subjects which lie largely hidden within Mondrian’s paintings of this period. Although by 1913 Apollinaire could describe the artist’s work as “very abstract Cubism,”5 and other critics found analogies with music and stained-glass windows, Mondrian still preferred to speak of his work as “abstracting” rather than abstract, and to insist that his art belonged to the realm of painting."6

Despite this use of specific subject sources, Mondrian’s compositions began to display marked similarity in two fundamental respects: first, a close stylistic unity among works of any chronological phase (this due to the increasing use of protogeometric elements of design); second, the reduction of all compositional types to a minimal number of preferred formats. One of the latter, a centralized cruciform image embedded within an ovoid concentration of pictorial elements, provides particular insight into Mondrian’s evolving use of subject references.

In every instance where this compositional device occurs, it involves an observed subject motif, however ingeniously utilized. During the Picasso-influenced, high Cubist phase c. 1913, it reflects both the upright trunk and horizontally outstretched branches of a tree, as in Composition No. 7 (S: c.c. 265),7 and also railroad tracks leading under the horizontal bars of an overhead trestle (visible in the painting at top as a series of squares with enclosed “x’s”), in the Composition in Gray and Yellow (S: c.c. 269). This latter example may be equated with the Pier and Ocean (Fig. 3) of 1915, since a site photograph of the setting in Domburg (Fig. 4) shows that here, too, Mondrian selected a tailor-made illustration of deeply receding one-point perspective incorporated as the vertical axis within an essentially two-dimensional pattern of linear elements. Finally, one can add a windmill motif to the source list for the cruciform device, since Mondrian himself gave this title to another painting of 1913, Composition in Line and Color (Fig. 2).8 Admittedly, without the windmill title the subject reference would have remained unknown, but once identified, and through reference to earlier Mondrian windmill representations (Fig. 1), the relevance and subtlety of the usage becomes apparent. By concentrating exclusively upon the frontally viewed arms of the mill, the artist discovered a metaphorical relationship between the arms and attached sail frames of the natural subject and the definition of the cruciform in the painting in terms of elongated rectangles. Given the variety of natural sources for this cruciform image, one can better understand Mondrian’s affirmation in 1918 that his use of vertical and horizontal elements remains based upon the fact that they “are to be seen everywhere in nature.”9

Structural analogies notwithstanding, these natural subjects do not form a cohesive grouping in terms of traditional iconographic associations. Whereas trees, windmills, and seascapes relate to 19th-century Romantic-Realist tradition and churches might seem laden with a self-evident “spiritual” content, the apartment building and railroad references appear peculiarly modern and mundane. The still lifes and portraits which survived into the Cubist period make the iconographic disparity seem even greater. Consequently, one must search for another context in which all Mondrian’s subject preferences may be integrally interpreted. The obvious choice of this context is Mondrian’s known interest in the Theosophic Movement.

Since the influence of Theosophic teaching upon Mondrian’s pre-Cubist work has been argued elsewhere,10 it remains briefly to examine how this influence operated during the immediate post-Cubist period. Contact with the writings and person of Dr. M.H.J. Schoenmaekers in the Netherlands doubtlessly modified Mondrian’s understanding of orthodox Theosophic doctrine,11 which nonetheless continued to inform the latter’s basic world view. Thus, the motto attributed to Plato that “God geometrizes” was a basic Theosophic tenet which granted to such simple geometric forms as circles, ovals, squares, rectangles, and triangles the status of sacred occult images. The opposition of vertical and horizontal lines, often as embodied in the form of a cross, received similar recognition, as did the related spirit-matter or male-female polarities. Observing the gradual but persistent emergence of primary geometric shapes in the work of Mondrian, it is tempting to suppose that he was slowly bringing into the open a definite iconography of abstraction based upon his Theosophic beliefs. To presume such an overtly symbolic system of iconography, however, has its own problems which must be answered before so simple a solution should be accepted.

Both the vertical-male and horizontal-female lines and also their interaction in the form of alternatively Greek, Egyptian-Tau and Latin crosses do, of course, occur so frequently within Mondrian’s oeuvre beginning with Cubism that a direct symbolic function might be presumed. Similarly, picture formats and internal designs occur often as circles, ovals, squares, and triangles (including the lozenge as double triangle) that a degree of symbolic function might be assumed here as well. In particular, the oval as symbolic of the “cosmic egg” of creation and evolution was pictured in the bible of Theosophy, Mme. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled,12 as floating upon a sea of water, which cannot be discounted as lending one meaning to Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean, for example. Yet, Theosophic diagrams are not painting, and it can be presumed that Mondrian was aware of the danger that illustrative symbolism carried. This awareness is expressed in his first published essays, in which he stated that, “The new plasticism cannot express itself in a symbol.” Mondrian would have viewed symbols as no more than ersatz forms of representation and, as such, incompatible with the universal form of abstract creation which was his stated ultimate goal.

It should not be imagined, for this reason, that Mondrian’s cooperation in founding the de Stijl movement coincided with the end of his involvement with Theosophy. Rudolph Steiner, Schoenmaekers, and Theosophy itself are mentioned honorifically in his first essays for De Stijl, where he names Theosophy “. . . another expression of the same spiritual movement which we represent at present in painting.” (De Stijl, I, 5: 1918, p. 54). The deeper concordance between Mondrian’s art theory and the world view of Theosophy rests not in a shared symbolism, but in a common belief that the worlds of spirit and of matter are interdependent, mutually interactive. It was essential to the “positive mysticism” of Theosophy that the dualism of spirit and matter could be reconciled, or brought to equilibrium, through recourse to various forms of occult spiritual exercises. That Mondrian considered his art a personal means by which ultimate spiritual truths could be approached speaks from his known writings of both the Cubist13 and early de Stijl years. His insistence that he continued to be inspired by natural appearances even while rejecting a naturalistic style,14 though contradictory to Positivism, is totally in harmony with Theosophic doctrine. In abandoning the representation of matter for, as he put it, “the laws which hold matter together,”15 Mondrian relates the search for novel artistic form to the ideal of a balanced unity between matter and spirit. In this commitment lies the explanation why Mondrian described his art as “abstract-real” throughout the early De Stijl essays, and why he continued for so many years to base his compositions upon some observed subject in nature.

When the artist finally abandoned all references in his paintings to specific natural motifs remains ambiguous. Both the Pier and Ocean and the Composition: 1916 (Fig. 5) retain natural references, depending as they do upon various preliminary drawings in which the respective seascape and church facade subject can readily be detected.16 This writer is also willing to interpret the Composition in Line (Fig. 7) and the two Compositions in Color A and B (Fig. 8 and S: c.c. 290) from early 1917 as derived in general composition, if not in specifics of subject, from the Pier and Ocean and an oil study of Notre Dame des Champs respectively (S: c.c. 441). Hereafter (Figs. 9-14), an absence of descriptive preliminary drawings and of any sense of cohesive internal grouping of plastic components implies the cessation of the “abstracting” phase of Mondrian’s development.

This was not equivalent to the abandonment of all inspiration from the natural environment. In a letter of May 16, 1917, to Theo van Doesburg, Mondrian explained that his paintings continued to be executed “at a site, and even in relation to the site.” Most unexpectedly perhaps, on August 1, 1919, from Paris Mondrian requested that Van Doesburg reproduce in De Stijl “the most recent thing I showed you [while still in the Netherlands], because it was also a starry sky which first inspired me to produce it.” This painting was either one of two lozenge configurations with color planes paintings dated 1919 (Fig. 13 and S: c.c. 299) or, one of two closely related versions in black and white (Fig. 12 and S: c.c. 297). All are based on a grid of regularly spaced lines, upon which is superimposed an asymmetrical arrangement of more heavily outlined irregularly proportioned rectangles. The mention of a “starry sky” no doubt refers to the optical “popping” effect of flickering intermediate gray spots which occur at the intersections of the various lines that can be read as an abstract metaphor for a field of sparkling stars. Since analogous optical effects were contained in the Pier and Ocean and Composition in Line, one wonders if these latter works did not function to some degree as the subject antecedents of the otherwise mathematically abstract lozenge grids of 1918–19.

Even in his later work, there is evidence that Mondrian did not rule out completely the role of natural subject matter in his art. As late as 1937, while relating figurative and abstract art with “subjective” and “relatively objective” reality, he explained:

It is, however, wrong to think that the nonfigurative artist finds impressions and emotions received from the outside useless, and regards it even as necessary to fight against them. On the contrary, all that the non-figurative artist received from the outside is not only useful but indispensable, because it arouses in him the desire to create that which he only vaguely feels and which he could never represent in a true manner without the contact with visible reality and with the life which surrounds him.17

At least occasionally, this theory manifested itself in concrete instances of “abstract subject metaphors.” Trustworthy accounts exist that the face of a friend, a rose, or an unhappy encounter in love served as the initial stimulus for an abstract interpretation.18 And who is to deny that such titles as Fox Trot, Place de la Concorde, and Broadway Boogie Woogie were meant seriously to refer to the dances, music, and cityscapes Mondrian is known to have loved? To overstress the importance of inspiration from nature in Mondrian’s late work, of course, would be tantamount to “hearing the grass grow” beneath the austere radiance of his abstract canvases. To deny such influence altogether, however, contradicts both his own theoretical writings and a lifelong personal involvement with the rural and city environments which so profoundly engaged his visual sensibilities.

––Robert P. Welsh



1. See M. Seuphor, “Introduction,” Piet Mondrian, Paris, Orangerie des Tuileries, 1969, p. 20 and note 13.

2. For this phase-of development, see J.M. Joosten, “Mondrian: Between Cubism and Abstraction,” Piet Mondrian Centennial Exhibition, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1971, pp. 52–66.

3. E.g. in M. Seuphor, Piet Mondrian: Life and Work, New York, 1956, compare illustrations pp. 111 and 131.

4. The use of these sites has been documented by the present writer in Piet Mondrian: 1872–1944, Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1966, Nos. 72, 73, 76–78, and in “Mondrian,” Revue de l’Art, No. 5: 1969, pp. 99–100.

5. Montjoie, No. 13, March 18, 1913.

6. “Giovanni” in the Algemeen Handelsblad, Oct. 18, 1912, and Mondrian letter of Jan. 29, 1914, to H.P. Bremmer in J.M. Loosten, “Documentatie over Mondrian,” Museumjournaal, XIII: 1968, p. 211.

7. This and subsequent “5: c.c.” numbers refer to the illustrated “classified catalogue” in Seuphor, Mondrian, pp. 357–95.

8. An inscription on the stretcher in Mondrian’s hand indicating “No. 2, Windmill” was apparently added for a one-man exhibition at the Walrecht Gallery, The Hague, summer 1914.

9. Undated letter, apparently from 1918, to Theo van Doesburg. This and other letters to van Doesburg mentioned in the present text are kept by Nelly van Doesburg, Meudon, France.

10. R.P. Welsh, “Mondrian and Theosophy,” Piet Mondrian Centennial Exhibition, pp. 35–51.

11. Schoenmaekers preferred to call himself a “Christosoph,” but his own philosophy was heavily dependent upon earlier Theosophic teachings.

12. Namely, in the centerfold diagram of “Hindu Cosmology.”

13. See R.P. Welsh and J.M. Joosten, eds., Two Mondrian Sketchbooks, Amsterdam, 1969.

14. In letter to Bremmer cited note 6, above.

15. Two Mondrian Sketchbooks, p. 68.

16. Resp. 5: c.c. 234–38 and 252–57.

17. From “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,” reprinted in The Documents of Modern Art: Piet Mondrian, ed. Robert Motherwell, New York, 1945, p. 62.

18. Accounts of these subject references were provided the present writer respectively by the late A.P. van den Briel, Sidney Janis, and Miss Charmion von Wiegand.