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Benjamin Belovich Belovich 1

Visual Culture of the Modern and Contemporary

Professor Erick Wilberding

26 April 2017

A Critical Analysis of Piet Mondrians

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey, and Blue

The motto of minimalist art, Less is more, is very much present in the De Stijl

movement of 1917 1931. Piet Mondrian, a major contributor to this period coined the term

Neo-Plasticism to refer to this new movement, which is often characterized as a non-

representational, elegant yet simple art form. Mondrians paintings during this period consisted

of a white ground, horizontal and vertical black lines which were then filled with the three

primary colours. Specifically, his painting Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black,

Grey, and Blue, (1921), housed at the Galleria Nazionale dArte Moderna in Rome, is just

one of many examples of the De Stijl style and Mondrians excellence and precision. This

painting tells a deep and emotional story, through its use of raw colour and geometric

simplicity. It allows the viewers to see a snapshot of the world through the artists eyes. Broadly

speaking, Mondrians goal, when creating not only Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow,

Black, Grey, and Blue, but any of his De Stijl paintings, was to create an analytical and

essentialist conception of painting. Reducing forms to purely geometric (based on the right

angle) and using pure, untouched primary colour. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the style that

gave it its name: De Stijl (The style).

Right angles have always played an important technical, structural, and formal part not

only in art and architecture, but all over the world. The many right angles in Mondrians
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Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey, and Blue show that perhaps he is

using simple non-representational and simple shapes to act as the universal language. As right

angles, specifically squares, are balanced and symmetrical, creating an entire painting using

them is in a way, an allegory, to show peace, harmony, and balance in ones life. When looking

directly at the small painting, one will notice the focal point, which is the largest red square, in

the upper left quarter of the canvas. It is properly balanced by the other small rectangle in the

bottom right quarter. The eye is first drawn to the large red square, then continues to navigate

its way up to the yellow (in the top right quarter) and the subsequently down to the lone

rectangle of dark blue (in the bottom right quarter). It is felt, after carefully and intrinsically

decomposing the painting in the museum and taking many notes, that the thick, black

brushwork effectively defines the borders, and is successful in breaking up the differently

coloured geometric figures. If the black border work was not included by Mondrian, the

painting would look incomplete, and the squares and rectangles would be hard to define by the

eye, losing the paintings order and balance. Comparably, the black brushwork on the canvas,

indeed is very minimal but it is masterfully applied to become the defining feature of the work.

You will notice that Mondrian did not paint the borders of the canvas. This technique allows

the geometric shapes to appear infinite, and to the viewer, flow off the edges of the canvas

without a defined closed border.

Philosophically speaking, in always painting forms by horizontal and vertical lines

(during this period), Mondrian gives the viewer a summary of all existing possibilities,

allowing him/her to create a story for themselves. The basic colors allow for a summary of all

existing possibilities, as the composition ultimately becomes an expression: Mondrians

personal interpretation of the non-objective language due to its tendency towards essentialism.

This effectively suppresses all unnecessary and emphasizes the central elements.
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Shortly after Mondrian moved to New York City in 1943, he painted Broadway Boogie

Woogie. Even though it retains some elements of the De Stijl style, as seen in the

aforementioned Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey, and Blue, it is an

unconventional outlier to the style, as it strays away from the traditional conception of the

classic Mondrian painting. Even though it was not viewed in person, research and background

of the painting was obtained. Broadway Boogie Woogie is meant to represent a street map of

New York City and features identical colours, identical geometric squares and rectangles, but

lacks the black border brushwork. Instead, Mondrian choses yellow borders, representing the

Manhattan streets. This is what divides the geometric figures apart from each other. Even with

this division, Broadway Boogie Woogie is an overall more chaotic painting for the viewer.

There is much more movement and flow (as represented by the small squares which sit on the

yellow borders, somewhat resembling an optical illusion). The heavy movement and flow in

this painting is an obvious symbol, by Mondrian, for the hustle and bustle of New York City,

a city which he loved dearly. Balance, unity, and harmony (clearly a favourite attribute to

paintings by Mondrian) are also retained in Broadway Boogie Woogie. This is evident in the

equal placement of the plethora of red, blue, yellow, and white geometric rectangles and

squares. Therefore, it is undoubtedly quite simple to identify a Mondrian painting if you are

familiar with the De Stijl movement.

Lastly, it is worth noting the difficulty of decomposing modern art, due to its features,

or lack thereof. Modern art frequently lacks an explicitly stated message and often times, it can

contain elements that are not related to the artists message at all. For example, Piet Mondrians

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey, and Blue, compositionally, is more

challenging to break down than for example, Caravaggios The Calling of Saint Matthew,

(1600). In the Baroque style, it is easy to see the figures, their expressions, and the message of

the painting because it is explicitly depicted for you. In Caravaggios linear painting, it is easy
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to see the moment at which Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow him, as it is clearly there

for you. However, this is not the case in Mondrians Composition with Large Red Plane,

Yellow, Black, Grey, and Blue. There are no figures, no depth of field, no objects that resemble

anything in our real world. All we are able to do, without knowing the artists intentions, is to

take an educated guess based on the formal elements of the painting, the elements and

principles of design and the way the artist paints, leaving modern art a true modern mystery.

In conclusion, Piet Mondrians Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey, and

Blue is a fine example of the Dutch De Stijl, or Neo-Plastic style. Mondrian uses only the

primary colours (with white and black) to create a simple, balanced painting with so much

hidden meaning. Even though the true meaning is unknown, we know that Mondrian must have

been a perfectionist because of his repeated patterns of geometric simplicity. His paintings

create an analytical and essentialist style. He was a master at reducing forms to purely

geometric (based on the right angle) and using pure, untouched primary colour. Perhaps it was

the simplicity of the style that gave it its name: De Stijl (The style). It is because of these

reasons, that the Dutch De Stijl movement is a personal favourite art movement. Mondrian

once said that The emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object.

Therefore, the object must be eliminated from the picture.


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Bibliography

Mondrian, P. (1921). Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue.
Museo Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, Italy.
Mondrian, P. (1942-3). Broadway Boogie Woogie. Museum of Modern Art, New York City,
New York.