Thursday, April 02, 2009


Piet Mondrian (1872 - 1944)

Excerpts from Mondrian's essay Plastic Art & Pure Plastic Art, which first appeared in 1937 in the British journal Circle. 


"Although Art is fundamentally everywhere and always the same, nevertheless two main human inclinations, diametrically opposed to each other, appear in its many and varied expressions. One aims at the direct creation of universal beauty, the other at the esthetic expression on oneself, in other words, of that which one thins and experiences. The first aims at representing reality objectively, the second subjectively. Thus we see in every work of figurative art the desire, objectively to represent beauty, solely through form and color, in mutually balanced relations, and, at the same time, an attempt to express that which these forms, colors, and relations arouse in us. The latter attempt must of necessity result in an individual expression which veils the pure representation of beauty."

"The laws which in the culture of art have become more and more determinate are the great hidden laws of nature which art establishes in its own fashion. It is necessary to stress the facts that these laws are more or less hidden behind the superficial aspects of nature. Abstract art is therefore opposed to a natural representation of things. But it is not opposed to nature as is generally thought. It is opposed to the raw primitive animal nature of man, but is one with true human nature. It is opposed to the conventional laws created during the culture of the particular form but it is one with the laws of the culture of pure relationships.
      First and foremost there is the fundamental law of dynamic equilibrium which is opposed to the static equilibrium necessitated by the particular form.
      The important task then of all art is to destroy the static equilibrium by establishing a dynamic one. Non-figurative art demands an attempt of what is a consequence of this task, the destruction of particular form and the construction of a rhythm of mutual relations, of mutual forms or free lines. We must bear in mind, however, a distinction between these two forms of equilibrium in order to avoid confusion; for when we speak of equilibrium pure and simple we may be for, and at the same time against, a balance in the work of art."

"In order that art may be really abstract, in other words, that it should not represent relations with the natural aspect of things, the law of the denaturalization of matter is of fundamental importance. In painting, the primary color that is as pure as possible realizes this abstraction of natural color. But color is, in the present state of technique, also the best means for denaturalizing matter in the realm of abstract constructions in three dimensions; technical means are as a rule insufficient."

"According to our laws, it is a great mistake to believe that one is practicing non-figurative art by merely achieving neutral forms or free lines and determinate relations. For in composing these forms one runs the risk of a figurative creation, that is to say one or more particular forms.
      Non-figurative art is created by establishing a dynamic rhythm of determinate mutual relations which excludes the formation of any particular form. We note thus, that to destroy particular form is only to do more consistently what all art has done."

"In general, people have not realized that one can express our very essence through neutral constructive elements; that is to say, we can express the essence of art. The essence of art of course in not often sought. As a rule, individualist human nature is so predominant, that the expression of the essence of art through a rhythm of lines, colors, and relationships appears insufficient. Recently, even a great artist has declared that 'complete indifference to the subject leads to an incomplete form of art.'
      But everybody agrees that art is only a problem of plastics. What good then is a subject? It is to be understand that one would need a subject to expound something named 'Spiritual riches, human sentiments and thoughts.' Obviously, all this is individual and needs particular forms. But at the root of these sentiments and thoughts there is one thought and one sentiment: those do not easily define themselves and have no need of analogous forms in which to express themselves. It is here that neutral plastic means are demanded.
      For pure art then, the subject can never be an additional value, it is the line, the color, and their relations which must 'bring into play the whole sensual and intellectual register of the inner life...,' not the subject. Both in abstract art and in naturalistic art color expresses itself 'in accordance with the form by which it is determined,' and in all art it is the artists task to make forms and colors living and capable of arousing emotion. If he makes art into an 'algebraic equation' that is no argument against the art, it only proves that he is not an artist."

"It is therefore a mistake to suppose that a non-figurative work comes out of the unconscious, which is a collection of individual and pre-natal memories. We repeat that it comes from pure intuition, which is at the basis of the subjective-objective dualism.
      It is, however, wrong to think that the non-figurative 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 receives from the outside is not only useful but indispensable, because it arouses in him the desire to creative 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. 
That which distinguishes him from the figurative artist is the fact that in his creations he frees himself from individual sentiments and from particular impressions which he receives from outside, and that he breaks loose from the domination of the individual inclination within him.
      It is therefore equally wrong to think that the non-figurative artist creates through 'the pure intention of his mechanical process,' that he makes 'calculated abstractions,' and that he wishes to 'suppress sentiment not only in himself but also in the spectator.' It is a mistake to think that he retires completely into his system. That which is regarded as a system is nothing but constant obedience to the laws of pure plastics, to necessity, which art demands from him. It is thus clear that he has not become a mechanic, but that the progress of science, of technique, of machinery, of life as a whole, has only made him into a living machine, capable of realizing in a pure manner the essence of art. In this way, he is in his creation sufficiently neutral, that nothing of himself or outside of him can prevent him from establishing that which is universal. Certainly his art is art for art's sake ... for the sake of the art which is form and content at one and the same time." 

Broadway Boogie Woogie, o/c, 1942-1943, 
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Image courtesy of Mark Harden's Artchive

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