Stand By Mondrian | Chapter 1 - In Harmony We Trust

Chapter 1 In Harmony
We Trust

In 2017, the Cologne-based publisher Walther König revealed that he had found at a local flea market an original Mondrian’s notebook that was considered lost during World War II. From 1900 and up until his death in 1944, Mondrian wrote down on it notes and reflections relating to his work. He apparently never separated himself from the little brown notebook that secured his most hidden thoughts, including the project we will try to reconstruct here - and with it, the life of an extraordinary figure.

To the great surprise of many Mondrian’s scholars, the evolution of his aesthetic conceptions, which were believed as linear and progressive, began with an idea intimately connected with the final outcome of his artistic research. If it’s well known that his last pictorial work, "Victory Boogie-Woogie", represents a rewriting of the abstract grid stimulated by the frenetic rhythm of New York, nobody knew that many years before the abstract turn his iconic visual grid had appeared in a project for a pavilion.

« Three colors as quarks for the Master [...]
A network of forces, a Pavilion of Harmony »

During the 1900 Paris Expo, the Dutch pavilion presented to the world the reconstruction of the 8th century Sari temple and other religious buildings from the Dutch Indies. The universalist culture that inaugurated the new century with the faith in human and technological progress attracted the young Mondrian. He did not visit the Expo, but quite certainly he saw the photos of the pavilion and discussed of them with friends, as we can deduce from his notes.

In those months Mondrian had just finished a self-portrait and was devoting himself to the study of nature, according to the Dutch School. He wasn't painting like a romantic, as he was looking at the space around him with realistic eyes, opposing modern art and its more avant-garde fringes. From a Calvinist background, he was searching for the essential truth in the appearance of the visible world, approaching theosophy and meditation.

1. Corporate Yoga

The problem of control - of passions, of others’ mind or your own - is a serious issue in the corporate life: just look at the number of stock photos that portray business people in their office practicing yoga with a smile. Therefore, a curious photo depicting the young Mondrian in a meditative pose does not conflict with those he had himself orchestrated in his Paris studio, wearing an elegant suit. The shaman / showman split, reabsorbed through the development of the abstract grid, is consistent with the figure of the shaman of the new economy, whose grid takes the form of increasingly fluid and adaptable organisational charts.

« Know yourself, the true man, the man-god [...] to become God.
I am a God, even though I'm a man of God »

The vision of the Sari temple, reproduced in the heart of Western civilization at its maximum splendor and prosperity, stimulated his imagination: how to make a synthesis between Eastern spirituality and Western rationality? Then he began to write down in a notebook - that notebook - the first ideas about the creation of a “Pavilion of Harmony”, as he called it. He sketched several plans of the Pavilion, which condensed different knowledge and experiences: color theory, the concept of architectural space, ars combinatoria and theosophy.

The Pavilion of Harmony is a space located between the physical and the ideal world, characterized as a place for meditation. Three areas marked by primary colors (red, blue and yellow), separated by the void, are the basic elements of it. Among the notes, Mondrian wrote of "slightly raised modular plinths" covered with colored rugs, on which to place furniture and decorative objects or simply sit and meditate. Starting from a regular grid the three areas can be modified by balancing the relative sizes, so that one color predominates over another. The quest for balance is thus resolved in a dynamic and changeable space, against the rigid and static nature of tradition.

2. Harmoney

Is it really impossible to harmonize capital flows? Full automation and AI processes could implement forms of redistribution while remaining within the logic of competition. Stock exchanges regulated by machines as an "hacking Gekko" strategy: from greed-oriented human competitors to grid-related adversarial algorithms that balance on the global level, according to a perspective of increasing complexity and integration favored by the network. If harmony is a universal law, it will be realized also through the metaphysics of money, however counterintuitive it may seem.

Abstraction did not manifested itself only through the simplification of forms, as the new spirit sought to look beyond. It was not enough to realize harmonious proportions, indeed it was necessary to express plastically the relationship of forces in eternal opposition. In a few sketches, Mondrian had made a fusion between order and chaos, between sensorial appearance and hidden universal laws.

Besides his interests in Eastern philosophies, Mondrian had was quite involved in modern mathematics, particularly in the Cantor’s infinity theory. He was fascinated by the ordering power hidden under the veil of things, as well as by mathematical tricks he used to amaze his friends. The figure of David Hilbert, author of a radical meta-theoretical research on the foundations of mathematics, was one of his heroes. The Pavilion of Harmony contained the power of infinity: Mondrian tried to calculate the number of possible internal configurations, concluding that they were certainly "hundreds of thousands of millions".

« No one shall expel us from the paradise that Cantor has created »
3. In Random Mondrian

Starting from Mondrian's original sketches, it was possible to recreate a simplified model of the Pavilion of Harmony, which closely resembles the subsequent pictorial works. This model is the basis of a web app with which the user can interact to create his own configuration of shapes and colors. The idea of ​​composition has been altered here by a mixed solution of generative art: the grids to be colored are randomly generated, selecting one of the millions of possible combinations. Mondrian's gamification seeks a balance between infinite potential and the intuition of color, both repacked and served in a user-generated fashion.

The grid, which appeared for the first time in this project, was therefore intended as a map of change and of universal dynamism. In all this there was still nothing pictorial. Indeed, the dissatisfaction with his work was at the origin of a profound existential crisis for Mondrian, who in 1903 secluded himself in the solitude of a spiritual retreat, on quest for superior truths beyond the senses.

« Remember Rembrandt: paint a painting as if infinity finally could end and stand »

In the representation of the landscape, and with the desire to become a great artist, he confronted himself with the masters of the past including the beloved Rembrandt, writing in his notebook imaginary dialogues with them. He began to share with the Romantics the doubt if it was still possible to depict nature, and the intuition of the painting surface as the most vivid direct experience in front of him. The definitive conclusion that Mondrian reached is that the paintings did nothing but refer to other paintings, opening up a world of new experiences that was worth exploring.

This discovery fascinated him to the point of abandoning any attempt to directly depict the surrounding landscape, preferring the artificiality of a network of references and visual quotes. The copied landscapes opened up the possibility of an artificial life within the realm of art, where he would have lived for years to come. He began to methodically forget the notions learned during the academy, so that from the technical error could emerge the experience of the image itself.

What obsessed him was the quest for unity between painting and personal experience. His artistic and spiritual path reached a synthesis in metaphysical abstraction, but he was eager to go further. He felt the urgency of a new art, in step with the times. He had no choice but to go where the new art was theorized and practiced: Paris.

— continue to —Chapter 2