Mondrian Returns to France

When the war ended in 1919, Mondrian returned to France, where he would remain until 1938.

Immersed in the crucible of artistic innovation that was post-war Paris, he flourished in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that enabled him to embrace an art of pure abstraction for the rest of his life. Mondrian began producing grid-based paintings in late 1919, and in 1920, the style for which he came to be renowned began to appear.

In the early paintings of this style the lines delineating the rectangular forms are relatively thin, and they are gray, not black. The lines also tend to fade as they approach the edge of the painting, rather than stopping abruptly. The forms themselves, smaller and more numerous than in later paintings, are filled with primary colors, black, or gray, and nearly all of them are colored; only a few are left white.
During late 1920 and 1921, Mondrian's paintings arrive at what is their definitive and mature form to casual observers. Thick black lines now separate the forms, which are larger and fewer in number, and more of them are left white than was previously the case. This was not the culmination of his artistic evolution, however. Although the refinements became more subtle, Mondrian's work continued to evolve during his years in Paris.
In the 1921 paintings, many of the black lines (but not all of them) stop short at a seemingly arbitrary distance from the edge of the canvas, although the divisions between the rectangular forms remain intact. Here too, the rectangular forms are still mostly colored. As the years passed and Mondrian's work evolved further, he began extending all of the lines to the edges of the canvas, and he also began to use fewer and fewer colored forms, favoring white instead.

These tendencies are particularly obvious in the “lozenge” works that Mondrian began producing with regularity in the mid-1920s. The "lozenge" paintings are square canvases tilted 45 degrees, so that they hang in a diamond shape. Typical of these is Schilderij No. 1: Lozenge With Two Lines and Blue (1926), also known as Composition With Blue and Composition in White and Blue, which is currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the most minimal of Mondrian's canvases, this painting consists only of two black, perpendicular lines and a small triangular form, colored blue. The lines extend all the way to the edges of the canvas, almost giving the impression that the painting is a fragment of a larger work.

Although one is hampered by the glass protecting the painting, and by the toll that age and handling have obviously taken on the canvas, a close examination of this painting begins to reveal something of the artist's method. Mondrian's paintings are not composed of perfectly flat planes of color, as one might expect. Brush strokes are evident throughout, although they are subtle, and the artist appears to have used different techniques for the various elements.

The black lines are the flattest elements, with the least amount of depth. The colored forms have the most obvious brush strokes, all running in one direction. Most interesting, however, are the white forms, which clearly have been painted in layers, using brush strokes running in different directions. This generates a greater sense of depth in the white forms, as though they are overwhelming the lines and the colors, which indeed they were, as Mondrian's paintings of this period came to be increasingly dominated by white space.

Schilderij No. 1 may be the most extreme extent of Mondrian's minimalism. As the years progressed, lines began to take precedence over forms in his painting. In the 1930s, he began to use thinner lines and double lines more frequently, punctuated with a few small colored forms, if any at all. Double lines particularly excited Mondrian, for he believed they offered his paintings a new dynamism which he was eager to explore.

Only after Mondrian's return to Paris in 1919 did this tendency reach its culmination in the style to which he gave the name neoplasticism. From 1922 on he worked exclusively with vertical and horizontal lines and with white, black, and the three primary colors—the strongest and purest possible contrasts. In all but a few of his last works, he divided his pictures asymmetrically by a grid of heavy black vertical and horizontal lines, with certain rectangles painted a uniform intense red, blue, or yellow and all the other areas left a brilliant white. But within these limitations he achieved a wide range of effects by varying the proportions, the choice and distribution of the colors, and so on. Although he painted some pictures on canvases of square format hung diagonally, he always kept the lines strictly vertical and horizontal and indeed resigned from de Stijl in 1925 because Van Doesburg had introduced diagonal lines.