When Mondrian arrived in Paris, the artworld was dominated by the figures of Picasso and Braque. He reworked the Cubist style, which favored drawing over color, to depict trees and still lifes using a grid of black lines that outline the contours of things. The tangle of houses in Paris suggested him how to insert elements of daily life into the Cubist grid, while the peeling walls and remnants of tapestries from demolished buildings he saw from the window of his studio in Montparnasse seemed to him like giant abstract paintings.
In 1914 he had to return to Holland because his father was sick, and with the outbreak of the World War I he was forced to stay there for a period. He returned to Domburg, where his true artistic life had come to light, literally. In the past, sitting beyond the sand dunes observing the pier and ocean, he had tried to fix the impression of those colors. Now everything looked different: in his notebook he drew an oval that contained a dense network of short horizontal and vertical lines, reducing the sea view to an abstract model that evokes the rhythmic motion of the waves. Mondrian reached a new figurative form, devoid of a center and even of the classical composition, using the void and the flatness of the surface.
A Chinese company sells smartphone skins and cases whose printed graphics reproduce famous paintings. The catalog online counts over a thousand selectable art images, among which it is possible to find reproductions of Mondrian's works belonging to different periods. Printable on demand, the skins still don't exist except as previews serially built using mockups. The images are cut vertically, re-adapting the work for decorative purposes and degrading the grid. The blurred background recalls a naturalistic landscape, and is repeated identical in all previews. The table gives perspective to an otherwise flat and abstract scene: then you realize that the vanishing point coincides with the camera eye. These trivial images are actually epiphanies of the end of a worldview, the reversal of the gaze and its new eye: EYE is for I.
He met Theo van Doesburg, and they soon became inseparable friends. In 1917 van Doesburg founded De Stijl, gathering around him the best Dutch artists of the time from different disciplines: painting, architecture, theater, poetry, music and dance. The movement denied any natural form in favor of abstraction, proposing a new humanism that would be in harmony with the cycle of the universe. Mondrian concentrated mainly on the theoretical elaboration of the new painting, publishing articles on aesthetics: extreme formal rigor, exclusive use of primary colors, orthogonal lines, shapes limited to the rectangle and square. His intent was to reach the zero degree of painting.
The attitude of the group towards the unity of the various disciplines and the total artwork, pushed Mondrian and van Doesburg to conceive painting in a strict relation with architecture. In fact, both tended to reconfigure the space in which the modern man would have lived. If radical architecture had spread the use of pure colors combined with simple supporting structures, the new abstract painting would have seemed less incomprehensible to the eyes of contemporaries.
One evening at the home of Rietveld, a designer of the group, Mondrian showed everyone the sketch of a chair he had traced in his notebook using the harmonic numbers of the Pavilion. On a side note he wrote: "Sitting on the pier with colors", recalling the summers in Domburg. Rietveld said that the chair would be very uncomfortable, as all the elements were orthogonal to each other, and proposed to tilt the seat and backrest. It was the kind of accommodation that Mondrian would have rejected in the past, preferring the purity of the idea, but on that occasion the group was cohesive. They laughed when someone commented: "Look, it seems just like the pier, Piet-and-ocean!"
In 1918 Mondrian created an emblematic realistic self-portrait, with an abstract painting in the background, portraying himself in the manner of the great masters. The meaning and destiny of painting would have coincided with the artist’s life and work. After some white paintings in which colored squares floated in the void, Mondrian realized that the much sought-after formal solution had already been traced years earlier in his notebook, with the Pavilion of Harmony. Suddenly, painting and architecture merged into one, transferring the grid of black lines and colored rectangles onto the canvas.
In his manifesto on the "end of art", van Doesburg stated that art - even the avant-garde - was hindering the progress of modern life. The separation between art and life had to fall definitively, and this in part was already happening with the reduction of abstract painting to decoration. Mondrian moved away from the De Stijl group, experimenting in the solitude of his studio the personal blurring of art and life. He lived the opposition between the desire to be a great artist and the need to overcome tradition. He would never have accepted to simply become a designer.
Design as a total art program has existed since the days of De Stijl and the Bauhaus - but where did it lead us? In what sense, if there is any, would art have come to an end? And what would come after it? These overwhelming questions have, as always, different answers. First of all, art tout court did not end, as demonstrated by the exponential increase in exhibitions around the world. However, we can think of a secularization of art and the weakening of its magnitude, as sought and theorized by many avant-gardes. Design, on the other hand, represents a scaled approach to the everyday. Its field of applications has widened considerably to reach the most abstract and strategic areas of business. Declaring that "everything is art" makes very little sense today, while affirming that "everything is design" sounds much more convincing.
In his apparent retreat from social life he also avoided to be photographed at work, preferring to control the image he offered of himself to the outside, removing every private aspect. In a 1926 photo orchestrated by himself, we see the empty atelier with one of his abstract paintings on the easel. He wanted to embody his doctrine within the studio, which he had furnished with interchangeable modular elements as in a plastic realization of the Harmony Pavilion. His own person was the object of creation: only the idea of a life dedicated to the purity of form should remain in the collective memory.
His sentimental life was disastrous: women clashed with his mysterious, inaccessible side. A fake flower in his studio replaced the female presence. To compensate for the too strict austerity he frequented jazz clubs but always with distance, without being directly involved in that vital rhythm. Josephine Baker, who was scandalizing the Parisians with her erotic dance, maybe was the absolute antithesis of Mondrian's art. They met one evening after a show, and talked all night long. She wrote a note in his notebook, mocking Mondrian's poor attitude at dancing.
The “monk of painting", as he was maliciously defined, started foretelling the imminent end of the subject. The scenography of his atelier had become a total artwork that had expelled its author, and in which painting was self-generating by infinite variations and repetitions. In an essay of 1931 he announced the next end of art: with an utopian world about to arise, abstract art would no longer be referable to everyday experience, as it would no longer be possible for the artist to paint.