Mondrian’s return from the Netherlands to his studio in Paris (fig. 4) in 1919 marked the beginning of a period of intense activity devoted to developing the style that would dominate his work of the 1920s. The return to an urban environment was a crucial influence; as the artist himself commented: ‘In the metropolis, beauty expresses itself more mathematically; therefore it is the place out of which the mathematically artistic temperament of the future must develop, the place out of which the New Style must emerge’ (P. Mondrian, De Stijl, I, 132). Whilst the outlines of Neo-Plasticism had been articulated two years earlier with the publication of De Stijl, an aesthetic manifesto created in collaboration with Theo van Doesburg, it was in his austere Parisian studio that Mondrian painted his first Neo-Plastic compositions using a completely abstract, geometric pictorial language (figs. 1-3).
From 1920 onwards Mondrian confined his pictorial lexicon to planes of pure primary colour, planes of non-colour and black lines, abandoning the modular grid and colour gradations which characterised his works from 1918-19. Over the next decade the artist sought to refine this new vocabulary to the highest degree of balance and economy. Mondrian created several series of similar works, with each new canvas featuring minor variations; the precise shades of the primary colours, the thickness of the black lines, and the size and shape of the geometrical grids that delineate his compositions. Each work is a unique attempt to express a principle of equilibrium borne out of opposing elements that was the essence of Neo-Plasticism.
In 1926 Mondrian published ‘General Principles of Neo-Plasticism’ in a special issue of the periodical Vouloir, stating that ‘The Plastic means must be the rectangular plane or prism in primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and in noncolor (white, black and gray)’ (P. Mondrian, ‘General Principles of Neo-Plasticism’, in Vouloir, 1926, quoted in Harry Holtzman & Martin S. James (eds.), The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, Boston, 1986, p. 214). Executed in the following year, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue is a quintessential example of these principles, combining primary colours with a soft grey tone as well as black outlines. Shortly after its execution, the present work, together with some twenty other recent works, was shown at a one-day exhibition held on 12th March 1927, organised by De Klomp, a new association of Dutch painters living in Paris.
Having focused on a series of lozenge-shaped canvases in 1925 and 1926, executed in response to the work of Theo van Doesburg, in 1927 Mondrian returned to the square format, producing a group of oils, including the present work, centred around the idea of the dominant white or grey shape, with smaller squares and rectangles in primary colours placed along the edges of the composition. Mondrian’s paintings of this period are among the purest and most balanced of his career. John Milner wrote about the present work: ‘Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue indicates a new attitude and a gradual return to complexity, playing off the balance of the ‘dominant cross’ format and the ‘presented square’ format. There are also thicker short lines and slenderer long lines. The crossover of the longest lines again largely determines planes diagonally opposite, balancing a large white square against a small coloured plane which here extends down the left of the main white plane throwing its top left corner into relief, only to be stopped effectively by a thick short horizontal’ (J. Milner, op. cit., pp. 179 & 181).
Despite being at the vanguard of modernism, Mondrian’s Dutch background and Puritan upbringing were formulative influences on his ideas and work. Brought up in a strict Calvinist household, Mondrian’s aversion to the attractions of sensory perception, attachment to strict discipline and technique and wish to depict a universal reality beneath the phenomenal world are all rooted in the Dutch Calvinist tradition. A religious impulse was at the core of his art, and underlay the utopian direction of his social theory; as he comments in De Stijl, ‘Art, although an end in itself, is, like religion, a means by which the universal may be revealed, that is to say, plastically contemplated’ (P. Mondrian, De Stijl, vol. I, p. 52). It is this concern with revealing the universal principles beneath surface reality that link him to the Dutch tradition of Vermeer, Heda and van der Heyden, artists whose work is united by a serene sense of compositional balance and spatial order.
Mondrian infused this religiously inspired Dutch aesthetic with a radical, modernist fervour. The experience of the First World War convinced him that mankind needed to outgrow the wasteful disparities of individualism towards a new universal harmony. This social vision was based on the notion that subjectivity and materialism led to the social disequilibrium that underpinned the cataclysmic events of 1914-18. His art is a messianic vision based on the conviction that ‘a feeling for beauty freed from matter could regenerate this materialist society’ (P. Mondrian, De Stijl, vol. III, p. 44). The austere geometry of his compositions constitutes a blueprint for a new society: ‘The pure plastic vision should set up a new society just as in art it set forth new plasticism. This will be a society based on the equation of the material and the spiritual, a society composed of balanced relationships’. This work can therefore be seen as a step on Mondrian’s dialectical pilgrimage towards a modernist utopia.
The first owners of the present work were Werner Max Moser and Silva Moser-Schindler, who acquired it in 1929. Werner M. Moser (1896-1970) was a Swiss architect and professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, whose most famous work is the modern campus of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, as well as numerous churches, schools and residential buildings in Switzerland. In the 1920s he spent three years living in the United States, where he worked in the studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. After his return from the US, Moser established himself among distinguished proponents of Swiss modernist architecture. Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue has remained in Moser’s family until 1990, when it was sold at auction in London.
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