Mondrian Visits Netherlands; World War I Begins

We cannot know what immediate course Mondrian’s painting—as distinct from his ideas about painting—would have followed if the war had not disrupted his artistic pursuits in the summer of 1914.

Summoned to his father’s bedside in July of that fateful year, he was not expecting this duty visit to his family to amount to anything more than a brief interlude. As it happened, of course, he soon found himself trapped in the Netherlands for the duration of the war. As the country was neutral in the war, Mondrian was never in any danger from the military operations that were devastating other parts of Europe. Yet he felt painfully cut off from the important work he had started. Separated from his paintings, which had been left behind in Paris, and from the milieu in which they had been produced, Mondrian lost some of his artistic momentum. Nevertheless, in this period of enforced repatriation he devoted a great deal of thought to formulating his future artistic program.

In this pursuit he soon discovered that he was by no means as isolated in his new artistic and philosophical outlook as he had believed himself to be. ‘The war,’ writes the Dutch historian H. L. C. Jaffé, ‘had brought many Dutch artists who had been working abroad, back to their native country and these came back to the Netherlands charged with the results of their studies and full of new and promising ideas. In the Netherlands they found an atmosphere of spiritual tension, generated by the fact of the country’s being a neutral enclave, an oasis in a continent at war.’ It was thus in the war years that Mondrian came to know, among others, the painters Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck, the architects J. J. P. Oud and Robert van’t Hoff, the designers Vilmos Huszar and Gerrit Rietveld, and the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo—the artists who, with Mondrian, founded in 1917 the avant-garde movement called De Stijl (the Style). This was to have an immense influence not only on the future of abstract art throughout the Western world but also on modern architecture and design and on the aesthetic, social, and pedagogical theories that supported them.

De Stijl was, from the outset, something more than an art movement. It was a social and cultural program, based on a visionary amalgam of idealist aesthetics, industrial mechanics, and utopian politics. Its ambition was to redesign the world by imposing straight lines, primary colors, and geometric form—and thus an ideal of impersonal order and rationality—upon the production of every man-made object essential to the modern human environment. Rejecting tradition, it envisioned the rebirth of the world as a kind of technological Eden from which all trace of individualism and the conflicts it generates would be permanently banished. Its goal was to liberate European culture from the ‘archaistic confusion’ of its past in order to create an entirely new and completely harmonious civilization.

Unlike the Cubists, Mondrian was still attempting to reconcile his painting with his spiritual pursuits, and in 1913, he began to fuse his art and his theosophical studies into a theory that signaled his final break from representational painting. World War I began while Mondrian was visiting home in 1914, and he was forced to remain in the Netherlands for the duration of the conflict. During this period, he stayed at the Laren artist's colony, there meeting Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg, both artists who were undergoing their own personal journeys toward abstraction at the time. Van der Leck's use of only primary colors in his art greatly influenced Mondrian. With Van Doesburg, Mondrian founded De Stijl (The Style), a journal of De Stijl group in which he published his first essays defining his theory, for which he adopted the term neoplasticism.

I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…

I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.”

— Piet Mondrian