Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ecstatic Encounters with Art no.1

Apple Tree in Blossom

Piet Mondrian, Oil on canvas

My first memory of seeing Art is at the Aberdeen Art Gallery and I must have been maybe 7 or 8 years old. My next is going to Arken museum of modern art north of Copenhagen, Denmark when I was 9 or 10. I remember a gold thumb that was about as tall as I was and very detailed with skin texture and thumb print lines. Maybe a model for the thumb at La Défense in Paris? I've been back since and, as an adult, it didn't seem such a magical place, and the thumb was no longer there. I think I was as taken with the white building, blue sky and sunshine as I was with the Art inside. Perhaps a 9 or 10 year old, being more playful than an adult, is more open to cutting edge modern art. It's sad to think that, even as an artist, I haven't kept that same open-minded playfulness but Picasso was right - it is hard to stay a child once grown up.

Although I enjoyed these early encounters with art, I cannot remember many specifics, but my first ecstatic encounter with art was as a 13 year old. My mum (mom) was studying Modern Art with the Open University (a distance learning college in the UK) and was often doing her homework whilst we did ours. She showed me Mondrian's trees - one of which was definitely Apple Tree in Blossom above, and asked me what I thought the painting was of. I knew right away that it was a tree and we had a discussion about the roots of abstraction. I think her studies were the start of my love for abstract art.

Mondrian (1872-1944) was a de Stijl artist and Theosophist who believed "that his paintings could change the objective conditions of human life."
Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

Mondrian came to abstraction from Expressionism, via Cubism applied to nature (his trees). He was very religious and saw his grid paintings as 'icons' for Theosophy.

Recently we discussed Mondrian and the grid in Abstract Essentials at Glassell - how Mondrian looked at man, trees, buildings and their verticality against the horizontal of the flat Dutch landscape - and from his tree and then ocean/pier paintings developed his grids.

"We find that in nature all relations are dominated by a single primordial relation, which is defined by the opposition of two extremes. Abstract plasticism represents this primordial relation in a precise manner by means of the two positions which form the right angle. This positional relation is the most balanced of all, since it expresses in a perfect harmony the relation between two extremes, and contains all other relations."
Piet Mondrian, "Natural Reality and Abstract Reality", 1919
quoted from Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp

He believed that true abstraction should be verticals and horizontals with primary colors only, and argued with his friend Theo van Doesburg, the founder of the de Stijl group about this as Doesbury used diagonals in his work.

"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 lost."
Piet Mondrian, statement, ca. 1943
quoted from Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp

Personally I like the diagonals and the angles in these earlier tree paintings of Mondrian's - the very angles which he later rejected - but I grew up in Scotland which is all angles and slopes, would I feel differently if I came from a flat country like Holland?


  1. You touch on a question that I have often wondered about but have no way of answering - how much does the physical environment/location we live in (or were raised in) affect our art?

    No answers, but an interesting discussion none the less!

  2. I get the feeling that Mondrian's tree here is effected by the space it occupies. There are lots of 'open' shapes and no clear 'negative spaces' hemming it in. There's a wet wind and mizzle. Living in Sunderland there's a lot of mizzle and wet winds.

  3. So, if Laure is right about location affecting our work Yellow, then your work is influenced by mizzle? I agree that it is definitely a mizzly day in Mondrian's painting.

    Speaking of which, I'm sitting here in North Wales looking out at a mizzle myself.

    It's hardly a scientific proof but I think my fascination with trees dates back to long walks in the woods as a child. Some of which were pretty mizzly. We used to have 'picnics' sitting in the car looking out at the rain, hoping for a break in the clouds.