our last episode about Mondriaan, in which an expert almost collapses
when Kate calls the work rigid, we got a lot of questions from our
They say: "the comparison between Mondrian and Van Gogh's art ends with a merit judgment: Van Gogh is better than Mondrian. Why is this necessary? They are different artists."
And they say: "please explain me a little bit more about how you think about Mondriaan and his rigidity, how does it exactly work according to you?''
This is our responce to those questions:
This early work (fig.1) of Mondriaan shows you his inclination towards "balance" or "fairness" in a composition, which results in a rigid treatment of his composition, because he treats his composition as a "fair game" between for instance "light" and "shadow": every blob of light MUST be countered with a block of shadow. The painting is sort of split in half by a diagonal from top left to bottom right, one side being "shadow", the other "light, and between those two halves there is also an equal exchange of small light blobs against small shadow blobs. It shows you that Mondriaan has a simplistic moral approach to his composition, where he accepts without reflection that "balance is good" and "equal distribution of two "opposing" components is also good". Which means that he ends up with a rather inane and superficial painting, in which light and shadow are nothing more than opposites of each other.
Piet Mondriaan, Ven bij Saasvel, 1907
This is where the Van Gogh comparison becomes relevant, because van Gogh has a far more advanced awareness of his composition, both in a philosophical, and technical sense. Instead of casting concepts such as light and darkness as oppositions, he is able to show the multiple traits of both light and shadow, and how their behaviour is related to the seasons, and the region, and even the particular objects that they "fall" on: he seems to truly understand the way in which light, on a sunny day in Anvers (fig.2), is able to completely dominate a field, where its' hard to even find a bit of shadow, and the way in which a tree can seem friendly, because it offers you shadow. And how the same tree may be disappointing once you've reached it, because it won't be able to cure your inner restlessness of the summer months.
fig.2 Vincent Van Gogh, Olive trees with yellow sky and sun, 1889
Mondriaan realises that he will never be able to master such complexity, since his default philosophical mechanism is always to want to reach for a "complete solution": all the apples must be the same (fig.3), light and darkness must be opposites (fig.1), the whole scene must be emotionally rendered in rainbow colors (fig.4) (this is his theosophical phase), the whole tree must be abstracted in the same way (fig.5), etc.
In the end he reaches for his final complete solution, in the form of his assumption that 1: the ultimate abstraction is the most simplified abstraction, and that 2: geometric shapes are the most simplified abstraction. (fig.6) Both of these assumptions will never reach the state of "fact", and yet Mondriaan needs this suggestion of logical inference for his work to prevail over all other works of art, and he needs it to prevail, because if it doesn't prevail, it crumbles, and all that's left are these horizontal and verticals that have no appeal on their own accord. So the appeal of Mondriaan's work is this false suggestion of logical inference and scientific objectivity in the form of rigid formality, which attests of nothing else but of a desire for purity and a very limited (because rigid) philosophical capability to deal with this desire.
I will give Mondriaan this: I think the desire for purity is a human trait, and throughout history people have tried to satisfy this desire in various ways; Mondriaan is one of those who has tried and failed. My preference always goes out to artists who are able to appreciate purity for what it is, namely a desire. Amongst those artists are van Gogh, but also for instance Lev Tolstoy, who struggled with it his whole life, and whose reflections on it (for instance as Lewin in Anna Karenina) are very interesting.
In conclusion, Mondriaan's type of abstraction was an infertile creative act, that has run dry with the death of its own generation. All previous KIRAC episodes are testimony to the attempts and failures of young artists to successfully grapple with the dogmas instilled by Mondriaan and colleagues. To say that the comparison between Mondriaan and van Gogh warrants no judgement of merit because they are different, reveals a religious conception of the word "different". It implies that because things are different they are as good as each other. It is this deeply religious principle of equality and humility that drives the prevalent default mechanism of wanting to look at art as a noncommittal, indiscriminate plain of isolated historical facts, separate from all other realms of human experience where we constantly pass judgements of merit to enable meaningful consequence in thought and action. Like any other field, art needs judgement to thrive, and to deny art its selective nature is to tie it down to the level of generalized mediocrity. This final analysis corresponds with the tendency of democratic avant-garde gatekeepers, such as our own Hans Janssen, to languish in the contradiction of their own bland relativism by favouring Mondriaan, not because it is in any way more successful, but because it is inherently more democratic. For, however much Hans Janssen would like to claim that Mondriaan's art is the result of a genius at work, it is in fact the typical result of persevering mediocrity, attainable only by those without talent.
Fig. 3, Piet Mondriaan, Mand met appelen, 1891
Fig. 4, Piet Mondriaan, Bos bij Oele, 1908
Fig. 5, Piet Mondriaan, Blossoming apple tree, 1912
fig.6 Piet Mondriaan, Composition en rouge, jaune, bleu et noir, 1926