TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1979

On Mondrian’s Diamonds

SOME OF MONDRIAN’S DIAMOND-SHAPED paintings contain compositions that are unique to his oeuvre. His involvement with the diamond shape spans 40 years, and, considering his extreme stylistic changes, one can find a continuity between the first diamond, those in between, and the last. Most importantly, concentrating on the diamonds, one can trace the artist’s changing attitude toward the plane of the canvas.

In the National Gallery’s exhibition of Mondrian’s diamond paintings eight of the 16 known diamonds were shown, with eight drawings, and other supporting material (the fragility of some of Mondrian’s paintings prevented more from being shown). The exhibition was prompted by the National Gallery’s acquisition of Diamond Painting in Red, Yellow, and Blue, of 1921–25.

I should explain at the start why I emphasize the term “diamond” rather than the customary “lozenge.” A proper lozenge is a shape with two obtuse angles, that is, angles greater than 90 degrees, whereas all the interior angles in Mondrian paintings are right angles. The diamond shape in the artist’s early rectangular paintings is formed through the joining of two triangular configurations. In 1925 Mondrian himself referred to a diamond-shaped piece as a losangique pyramidal, “losangique” translating as diamondlike and “pyramidal” implying a triangular shape. This reference seems to imply that the artist continued to think of the diamond as two triangular shapes, an upward pyramid and a downward one. The diamond shape can also be looked at as a rotated square (as in a baseball “diamond”), and Mondrian referred to it as such in 1943.

The diamond has compositional potential that is not inherent in the square. For example, longer horizontal and vertical lines are possible, the longest being the two diagonals, which if drawn in, would form a cross. The cross, which has philosophical and theosophical significance, is implied by the diamond; that is, by reversing the above procedure and drawing four straight lines from the furthest points on a cross one would have a diamond. (The same could be said about the vanes on the windmills that Mondrian painted when they were in a frontal, horizontal/vertical position.) Only two horizontal and two vertical lines of the same length are possible in the diamond shape if the lines are drawn from edge to edge; and when a vertical or horizontal line crops the edge, the resulting triangular shape has two 45 degree angles and two equal sides.

Mondrian’s involvement with the diamond shape is manifest in two of his early paintings, House on the Gein, 1900, and Evolution, 1911. It is an oversight for E.A. Carmean, Jr., and Trinkett Clark to mention House in their catalogue essay without discussing it in detail, and they do not even mention Evolution. The former painting presents the frontal view of a house by a riverbank, together with the house’s reflection. The house has a sloping roof that comes close to the ground. The resultant shape is a diamond formed by the image of a real house and the illusion of a house. Hans Jaffe has already noted that the remarkable thing about this painting is the diamond composition of the house and its reflection.1 Furthermore, the reflection of certain elements—door, window—of the house in the lower triangle enhances the flatness of the diamond shape. The House diamond is Mondrian’s first, later we will return to the similarities between it and the artist’s last diamond painting Victory Boogie-Woogie and its preparatory drawing.

Evolution, a painting representing the evolution of being according to theosophical concepts, contains Mondrian’s first geometrical diamonds. It also reveals an early use of the color primaries which, along with shape, had theosophical symbolic meaning. The painting is a triptych in which a female figure symbolically represents three different states of being—the material, the spiritual, and the state of happiness or divine fulfillment which is attained when the former two states are combined within one person.

The material state, represented in the first panel, is symbolized by an inverted triangle, a shape that occurs on the woman’s nipples, with two black inverted triangles placed symmetrically over the woman’s shoulders in a red (sensual) field. In the middle panel, representing the spiritual state, triangles are seen in the same places but they point upward, and those over the shoulders are white within a yellow (spiritual, intellectual) shape. The third panel, where a harmonious, enlightened state is represented, has upright and inverted triangles joined to form diamond-shaped nipples, and over the shoulders are triangles interlaced within a blue (divine) star shape, constituting the theosophical symbol for unity. The diamond shape, here formed by two shapes symbolizing opposing forces, also seems to signify a unity.

Mondrian joined the Theosophical Society in 1909 and was greatly influenced by its tenets (Malevich and Kandinsky were also involved with theosophy). He was certainly aware of theosophical symbolism, such as the fact that “the white triangle—called the upper refers to the spirit, and the lower, or dark one to matter; interlaced they signify . . . that spirit and matter are coeternal and ever conjoined.”2 This is a common theosophical concept and, while it does not refer to the diamond specifically, it is easy to see how the symbolically consistent fusion of the two triangles should be possible. Black and white also have their own explicit theosophical meanings. And two famous theosophists, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, wrote on the specific referential qualities of the primaries: in short, red is representative of the sensual, yellow stands for the intellectual and for “pure reason directed to spiritual ends,” and blue signifies the religious and/or divine.

Furthermore, Madame Blavatsky wrote in her In the Secret Doctrine (1889) that the vertical straight line symbolizes the male, spiritual element, and the horizontal line the female, material element; the crossing of these lines, sometimes creating the cruciform, represents the coming together of these two forces. Mondrian wrote similarly about the vertical/male/spiritual line and the horizontal/female/material line in his notebooks of around 1913, prior to his plus and minus paintings; he also discussed the importance of male/female principles in art in his Neoplasticism articles for DeStijl in 1917–18. From early in his career the diamond, the primaries and horizontal versus vertical lines all represented the dual nature of the universe: the artist felt it necessary to embody these oppositions in his works of art.

The diamond had been used by Dutch artists for portraits and, more important, in the form of escutcheons, or coats of arms in a diamond shape, hung high on columns in 17th-century church interiors. Meyer Schapiro points out the possible relationships between the escutcheons and Mondrian’s diamonds, using a Saenredam Interior of the Church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem, and also mentioning an Emanuel de Witte painting, to illustrate the similarities.3 Carmean, in the National Gallery catalogue, points up the issue of hanging. The escutcheons hung on columns above eye level, and photographs of Mondrian’s studio reveal that he hung his diamonds high on the wall. More revealing are his directions for hanging one of the diamonds: “When hanging the picture, [place] the center no lower than the eye level of a man standing up, and if possible, with the bottom corner coming at eye level . . .”4

Church art, and how it was hung, influenced another artist at this time. Malevich, inspired by Russian icons that hung in churches above eye level and also in the corner of rooms, hung his Black Square (1915) in a corner above eye level in the “0,10 Last Futurist Painting Exhibition” in 1915 in Petrograd. It is not presently known whether Mondrian was aware of Malevich’s painting (and its hanging), but it is interesting that both artists used traditional practices for innovative purposes. It is also interesting to note that the escutcheons in Saenredam’s Interior appear to be diamonds within diamonds (like a square within a square?).

Mondrian’s first two diamond-shaped paintings, which are the only paintings after 1915 and in the Neoplastic style that contain diagonals, reflect an immediacy unusual to the artist’s later work. In Composition in Black and Gray, 1919, the second of the two, the artist rubbed or brushed in the white ground unevenly. He then divided the plane into 64 equal squares (seen on the diagonal) that are, obviously, proportionate to the whole surface: the initial division thus relates to the shape as well as the orientation of the plane. The diagonals of the squares-horizontal/vertical lines-are then painted in, dividing the plane into 256 triangular units. And this division creates two types of intersections (points), one consisting of two lines, which is a miniature of the diagonals of the larger diamond, and the other made up of four lines, creating an asterisk or star symbol.

Star is a key word, since the stars and the sky (Mondrian referred to the sky as a “vast, flat plane”) may be connected with the inspiration of the paintings. Carmean notes the following passage in the artist’s “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality,” (1919, 1920):

Now we never see a point, but points. And these points create forms. The line appears plastically between two points; between several points, several lines. And the starry sky we look up at is now showing us innumerable points. All are not equally accented: one star shines more brightly than another. And these uneven light values produce forms in their turn. Think of the constellations: they too are forms.

And later in the same text: “When we saw the starry sky we were not bound to any form, and we could easily turn to the spontaneous creation of forms.”5 The latter remark describes Mondrian’s process. Where the grid lines cross each other they create flickers of light; the artist directly and spontaneously joined certain points using a thicker line to create square and rectangular planes (forms). There was no going back in this composition, as each move was irreversible. The thicker lines create a larger “flicker” than the thinner lines; the thicker lines also appear to lie on top of the thinner ones, so that two levels of depth are established. A similar, but more complex layering, will be seen later in Victory.

Mondrian’s interest in the modern urban environment and in technology also pertains directly to Composition in Black and Gray. In “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality” an abstract-realist painter, “Z,” talks with an art-lover, “Y”:

Z: The engineer, for instance, devotes his life exclusively to construction, and he creates pure relations by sheer necessity, and necessity too is truth. Take for instance the Paris subway: the beauty of the construction, which might be too cold to satisfy an artistic sensibility, is made alive by the lights—which are there merely because they are a necessity. Modern engineering works have the special merit of being pure expressions of a modern necessity: old forms and styles are abandoned more and more—again out of necessity, for the new materials require new forms of construction.

Y: How beautiful, this spectacle of spontaneously developing beauty.6

With the words “pure,” “beauty” and “truth,” words generally applied to his art, the artist also reveals his esteem for engineering and construction. The initial grid in Composition served as the foundation on which the artist built the final structure. Mondrian also mentions the electric lights (flickers), which were to be a source of inspiration throughout his career.

The next two diamond paintings were started in a similar way as the above two, but in the new pieces all the diagonals were painted over, with the remaining horizontal/vertical planes being painted in with color, white and gray. While the majority of Mondrian’s paintings from 1915–19 were self-contained, in these two paintings the lines begin to extend beyond the plane, creating “leftover” space or cropped planes around the perimeter and suggesting space beyond the painting plane.

Diamond Painting in Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921–25, the artist’s sixth diamond, reflects the stylistic characteristics of his Paris period, roughly 1921–36. Paintings from this phase usually have a central white rectangle (here two), with the color planes positioned around the perimeter. One advantage of using the diamond over the rectangle is that the color planes around the periphery, which are cropped by the edges, take on the shape of equal 45-degree-angled triangles, planes with a stronger sense of shape than the often narrow strips of color that result from cropping within the rectangle.

It is worth examining the artist’s positioning of the color planes. At the base of the diamond, the position closest to the viewer, Mondrian places black, the most recessive value; to the left, higher and adjoining, he places yellow, a warm advancing color, in a small amount; on the right lower edge a larger but more recessive blue plane is set; then on the upper left, a spot farther from the viewer, a warm, advancing red plane is placed. The artist thus positions color with respect to the color’s inherent characteristics, not with his former symbolic reference. However, for Mondrian color had come to represent form, and the noncolors to represent space.

The above painting, in contrast to the centralized, self-contained 1919 diamond, is a fragmented view of a larger whole with the emphasis on the perimeter. What appears to happen in Mondrian’s art as it develops through the 1920s and early ’30s is similar to what happens when one “zooms in” with a camera; as one “zooms” closer a smaller portion of the whole becomes visible. And one gets a closer detail (microcosm) of the larger, here abstract, space (macrocosm). Mondrian was aware of such concepts: he stated, “Each thing is a miniature replica of the whole—a composition. The microcosm is in every respect like the macrocosm . . .”7 Schapiro and Carmean suggest that the move to depict a segment of a whole is related to Mondrian’s involvement with Impressionism, especially that of Degas, who often cropped tables and people with the plane’s edge. Mondrian does achieve a greater frontality as the planes get closer to the viewer; however, he reverts to the traditional use of the plane in creating a glimpse of a larger whole.

In 1925 Mondrian’s theory of the vertical/horizontal was challenged by his friend and fellow artist, Theo van Doesburg, who, in an attempt to increase the dynamism of his art by introducing the concept of the counter-composition, in which the elements are placed on a 45 degree angle. Van Doesburg felt that the horizontal/vertical elements referred to male/female, to landscape (tree/earth) and to classical architecture; thus he reasoned that the oblique, because it was free of such “mundane” or referential associations, was a spiritual element. His writing and painting at this time appeared as a direct defiance of Mondrian’s Neoplastic concepts. As a result, Mondrian’s ten-year friendship and professional association with Van Doesburg came to an abrupt end.

The following statement made by Mondrian in 1943 gives insight into the artist’s attitude toward the plane and the oblique:

Doesburg, in his late work, tried to destroy static expression by a diagonal arrangement of the lines of his compositions. But through such an emphasis the feeling of physical equilibrium which is necessary for the enjoyment of a work of art is lost. The relationship with architecture and its vertical and horizontal dominants is broken.

If a square picture, however, is hung diagonally, as I have frequently planned my pictures to be hung, this effect does not result. Only the borders of the canvas are on 45°, not the picture.8

This is a strong statement of Mondrian’s esthetics. It reveals that he felt that a horizontal/vertical orientation was necessary. In the early Neoplastic paintings of 1915–19, Mondrian had tended to relate the structural elements to the plane; these paintings are largely self-referential. Interestingly it seems that the artist’s concern shifted from relating the marks internally to the plane to relating them externally to the architecture. This shift parallels Mondrian’s decision to use the plane to depict a segment of an external reality. His reference to the “picture” as something independent of the canvas plane reveals that he is thinking in traditional terms, and that he most likely did not conceive of the plane as an entity-in-itself.

That Mondrian did not conceive of the plane as an entity probably explains in part why he did not question its relationship to architecture. The plane’s edges are at 45-degree-angles with the wall plane. Doesn’t this affect one’s equilibrium? If an oblique internal element would, it seems to follow that an oblique edge would. Perhaps Mondrian avoided the pressing question by realizing, subconsciously, that the diamond shape offered him compositional (and symbolic) potential not available in the rectangular format.

Between 1925—after his break with Van Doesburg—and 1933 Mondrian made eight diamond paintings, half of which are black and white. Fox Trot A, 1930, is one of the finest of this group, creating the strongest sense of containment while still implying space beyond the frame. The most extreme is Composition With Two Lines, 1931, which is unique in three ways: first, it is the artist’s most austere composition, containing only two black lines on a white field; second, those two lines define a plane which is larger than the canvas’ plane; and, third, this glimpse of “abstract reality” is as close to the macrocosm as the viewer ever gets.

Although Two Lines is not systemic, there are in it certain decisions that seem more than arbitrary. The composition is asymmetrical on the vertical but nearly symmetrical on the diagonal, and the perpendicular distance from the highest apex to the opposite line is equal to the width of the square. If one reads the three shapes defined by the lines and the canvas edge on the diagonal, one goes from a small triangle to a larger four-sided figure to an even larger five-sided shape. The horizontal line is slightly thicker than the vertical line because the vertical line is slightly more assertive (which might be a result of its relationship to the vertical viewer). The composition’s diagonal emphasis makes it easier to think of the lines as shapes that end at the plane’s edge than as lines that extend beyond the edge.

In defining a plane larger than the canvas plane the artist brings the viewer up against his “abstract reality.” Had Mondrian continued his path of showing less as he got closer he would have had the following choices: he could have “zoomed” in on the lines so that the lines, in their thickness, would have dominated the plane (Van Doesburg did something similar to this); he could have “zoomed” in so that there was either only one vertical line (Newman) or one horizontal line (Noland) or he could simply have depicted the central white space (Ryman). These possibilities would, however, have been unacceptable, as they would have eliminated the duality of opposing forces, Mondrian’s requirement for a work of art.

In the last diamond of the series, Composition with Yellow Lines, 1933, the artist used four yellow lines, two of the same and two of different widths, to imply the outline of a rectangular plane. Through an austere but delicate variation in the thicknesses of the lines he was able to create an asymmetrical order from what is basically a symmetrical composition. The move toward symmetry tends to bring one’s attention back toward the center of the plane and away from the perimeter. One never knows if the interior plane is ever fully circumscribed by the lines as the possible points of intersection lie beyond the plane’s edge. This is Mondrian’s only painting containing lines of one color and lines that do not intersect. In this case, if the lines were completed beyond the plane’s edge, the plane defined by the lines would be slightly smaller than the canvas plane. Mondrian thus began his move back from the abstract space and eliminated his dependence on the black line.

Mondrian’s last stage of development, roughly 1936–44, is often referred to as his New York period, even though he spent 1936–38 in Paris and 1938–40 in London. One reason for this dating is that some of the paintings begun in Paris and London were finished in New York. The significant changes of this period are the increase of linear, sometimes colored, elements; the positioning of color planes without the black outline; and the return to an overall centralized energy. Mondrian only painted two diamonds during this period, the last one being one of his masterpieces. Victory Boogie-Woogie, 1942–44, which was unfinished at the time of the artist’s death, incorporates aspects from the preceding diamonds while transcending them in complexity. Victory is composed in part of pieces of painted tape which were to be removed and painted in with the appropriate color/value: in its present state it has a freshness of approach that relates it to the early House diamond. House, Mondrian’s first diamond, relates in several other ways both to the preparatory drawing for Victory and the finished painting. For example, both the House diamond and the Victory drawing contain oblique marks and circular configurations, marks unique in the diamond paintings. A marking pattern common to all three pieces is the positioning of a rectangle/square within a larger rectangular plane; this takes place in House where a black planar mark is positioned within a blue window plane. Such a marking pattern appears in several places in Victory and its preparatory drawing. The reflections of House are evoked in Victory where the artist positioned four squares, two above and two below the horizontal axis, this horizontal division also implies two joined triangles.

Victory relates to Composition, 1919, in its central overall pattern, its light “flickers” and its layering. However, a spatial hierarchical order is established in Victory by the variation in size and shape, of color and value, and in the position of the rectangular planes. The central, larger white planes seem to emerge as those closest to the viewer; medium-sized yellow, red and blue planes positioned in an allover pattern create their own respective layers. The light “flickers” in Composition, 1919, are made by the crossing of black lines; in Victory the bright and light “flickers,” which form their own constellations, are created by the juxtaposition of red/yellow, blue/yellow, and red/blue, the latter creating a real “light” response. Victory recalls the paintings from the Paris period where the planes are cropped around the perimeter. However, the increase of central linear marks brings attention back to the central area, and, as a result, the composition appears to be both expansive and self-contained. In Victory the layering is very complex: the linear elements themselves become a series of advancing and receding planes.

In Victory Mondrian brought together all of the opposing elements of his earlier paintings. These elements may not have the strong symbolic overtones that they had in Evolution, but they do continue to represent the dual nature of the universe. The artist used all the primaries and white, black, and gray, with the colors representing form and the noncolors representing space; he used horizontal/vertical elements; and he involved both macrocosm and microcosm within one painting. Finally, the diamond shape itself, initially formed by the joining of an erect triangle with an inverted triangle, represented the coming together of opposites in a way not inherently possible with the square or rectangular plane.

The title Victory Boogie-Woogie seems to reflect the artist’s realization that he was achieving goals that he had outlined in the ’teens. Two such goals were universal expression (duality), and the creation of space through advancing and receding planes—the planes achieving their depth through their size and shape, through their color and value, and through their position on the plane. During the 1920s and ’30s the black outline and the cropped nature of the color planes seemed to check the advancing/receding nature of the elements. The painting during this period seems to be flat and wall-like, with the emphasis on lateral or vertical movement. In Victory the space begins to move forward and back, adding a further dynamic to the painting. Mondrian stated in 1943: “Many appreciate in my former work just what I did not want to express, but which was produced by an incapacity to express what I wanted to express—dynamic movement in equilibrium . . . This is what I am attempting in Victory Boogie-Woogie.” The artist, who at 71 was still altering his style in an effort to achieve earlier and later goals, seems to be acknowledging the spatial limitations inherent in the “cropped,” segmented-view paintings.

By focusing on the diamond paintings the National Gallery exhibition has pointed up the unique, often stylistically prophetic, quality of these compositions. The diamonds, which have an inherent dualism, constitute the most austere and complex of Mondrian’s compositions. Through Mondrian’s statements concerning the diamond plane it is possible to deduce that he did not approach the plane as an entity-in-itself. However, with Victory Boogie-Woogie, which was inspired by the music, dance and lights of New York’s urban life, he may have felt that he had triumphed over the limitations he had inherited as a pioneer working in an uncharted direction using only trial and error as his guide. Mondrian realized, within the diamond shape, the visual and philosophical ideals that he had conceived and refined over the preceding 40 years.

Erik Saxon is a New York painter.

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NOTES

1. Hans L.C. Jaffe, Piet Mondrian, New York, 1970, p. 68.

2. William Q. Judge, “Theosophical Symbolism,” from the journal The Path, 1892: in Laxmi Sihare, Oriental Influences on Kandinsky and Mondrian, 1909–1917 (Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University, 1967), p. 228.

3. Meyer Schapiro, “Mondrian” in his Modern Art; 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers, New York, 1978: illus. facing p. 251, with discussion, p. 259 n. 7.

4. Piet Mondrian, Hanging instructions on the back of the painting Composition with Yellow Lines, 1933: from E.A. Carmean, Mondrian, The Diamond Compositions, (National Gallery of Art), Washington, 1979, p. 52.

5. Piet Mondrian, “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality: An Essay in Dialogue Form (1919–1920),” in Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian: Life and Work, New York, 1956, p. 313.

6. Ibid., p. 327.

7. Seuphor, op. cit., p. 306.

8. Piet Mondrian, statement, c. 1943, from “Eleven Europeans in America,” Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art (New York), XII 4–5 (1946), in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 363.

9. Ibid.