Painted in 1930, Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow is an historic example of the radical Neo-Plastic aesthetic that Piet Mondrian had developed during the previous decade and which reached a pinnacle at this time. Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow forms part of a group of fewer than a dozen paintings from the late 1920s and early 1930s in which he used approximately the same armature of black lines with different colour effects, revealing his own satisfaction with this grid format. In part because of these works, this period of his career has been described as, ‘the peak of Mondrian’s classicism’ (Y.A. Bois et al., ed., Piet Mondrian 1872–1944, exh. cat., New York, 1994, p. 237). Other examples of works from the group are now in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, the Kunstmuseum Winterthur and the Beyeler Foundation, Riehen. Of these, several feature repetitions or variations of the same format; however, Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow is the only one to balance the colour in the upper left area with another in the lower right: in many of the other pictures from this group, the right-hand colour element is shown in the upper of the two small planes.
For Mondrian, the Neo-Plasticism which he pioneered was a means of bringing equilibrium to art and to life. Over the previous decades, he had developed an increasingly spiritual understanding of the role of art and its ability to contain universal truths. Already a trained and experienced artist at the turn of the century, he had begun to imbue his images of the Dutch landscape with an increasing mystical glow in the early 1900s. This became all the more marked during his trips to Walcheren, an artists’ colony which he had first visited with Jan Toorop. There, he had become intrigued by the almost formal manner in which landscape could be divided into various
elements, and pared down to the horizontal and the vertical. The focus on these lines saw Mondrian gradually dissolving the world, for instance in his seascapes, into a shimmering, grid-like latticework that was the precursor of his Neo-Plasticism.
Mondrian had moved to Paris only a couple of years before the First World War; he had intended to make the French capital his base, but had been visiting his native Netherlands at the outbreak of hostilities, and so did not go back until after the end of the war. It was in 1919 that he returned to France, re-immersing himself in the avant garde and fully advancing the ideas he had developed during the war years, in isolation from the pioneers of Cubism in France who had earlier influenced him. Now the grids of his ‘Cubist’ works were freed from form, paving the way for the Neo-Plastic ideas that underpin Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow.
Only a year after Mondrian had painted Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow, he wrote that, ‘the new art uses forms in the manner of art (not in the manner of nature): it employs them only for their purely plastic value. It has realised what the art of the past attempted to do. In the new art, forms become increasingly neutral in the measure that they approach the universal’ (P. Mondrian, The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, H. Holtzman & M.S. James, ed., London, 1986, p. 246). Mondrian felt that form, and the depiction of form, essentially obstructed the ability of line and colour to express equilibrium. This equilibrium was to be sought as a type of enlightenment, a state that rose above the ‘tragic’, which itself was a state of disequilibrium..
Similarly, by painting a composition that was devoid of representation, that had been stripped of any sense of fictive space, Mondrian was creating a work that avoided emotions and subjectivity. He did not want to root himself in figuration, but instead sought to create an artwork that was more universal, that was not tied to interpretations but that instead was grounded, as much as art can be, in
universal truths. To this end, his palette had gradually been refined over the decade he had spent based in Paris, and many of the half-tones that had earlier featured in his work had been replaced by the primary colours, alongside black, white and occasionally grey. Similarly, all except right-angled lines had been expunged from his vision: the only diagonals appeared occasionally in works painted on escutcheon-like diamond canvases, yet even in them, the lines were either rigidly horizontal or vertical.
In Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow, that rightangled structure can clearly be seen in the lines, most of which are of approximately the same width, which act like the leading in a stained glass window, emphasising the purity of colour within each grid, be it yellow, blue or white. Nonetheless, this format of painting, as exemplified here and in the other works using a similar template,
manages to give a sense of the diagonal by other means, lending a feeling of upward motion that may relate to Mondrian’s desire for Man to rise to a higher form of existence, as reflected in some of his Theosophist beliefs and illustrated in earlier works such as Evolution.
In Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow, the lower-left and upper-right sections appear to be squares, the latter larger and therefore giving a sense of progression. This is echoed by the shapes on the other side. In the context of these pictures, this composition has sometimes been referred to as ‘scissored’ because of the way that the square surface area has been divided. It is through this scissoring that Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow achieves its delicate yet poetic balance, its sense of equilibrium, and
therefore contains some of the idealism sought so avidly by Mondrian. In Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow, this is all the more the case, as the presence of the colour in the lower-right section, rather than the one above it (as is the case in its fellow works) heightens the directional sense of the picture, emphasising its diagonality and therefore its sense of rising thrust.
Mondrian’s dedication to his Neo-Plastic concepts was reflected in his life as well as his art. He was fascinated by jazz and dancing, enjoying the disruption of melody and seeing it as a near parallel to the abandonment of form in his pictures. Many of his works were named after dances and music, such as the foxtrot or boogie woogie. In his beliefs, he wrote extensively, trying to preach his new
gospel, a notion that perhaps had its beginnings in his Calvinist upbringing. Certainly, the austere structure of pictures such as Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow can be seen to have Calvinist overtones as well as revealing an artist who was removing all that was superfluous in the quest for an underlying truth, a process that found its parallel in the search for common denominators that
underpinned Theosophy, where various religions were viewed as incorporating beliefs that might point towards a single one.
For Mondrian, the structures that formed the foundation of his paintings also extended to his life. This was palpable not only in his love of jazz, but also in the rigour of the decoration of his studio in Paris. Hilla Rebay, who visited him there with Félix Fénéon and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in June 1930, the year that Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow was painted, would write to Rudolf Bauer, saying of
‘He hardly paints. He constructs 2 or 4 squares, but he is a wonderful man, very cultivated and impressive. He lives like a monk, everything is white and empty, but for red, blue, and yellow painted squares, that are spread all over the room of his white studio and bedroom. He also has a small record player with Negro music. He is very poor, and already 58 years old, resembles Kandinsky but is even better and more alone. Moholy loves him and venerates him in his quiet, intense way’ (Rebay, quoted in Y.A. Bois et al., ed., Op. Cit., p. 240).
Rebay bought one of Mondrian’s works, in part ‘to keep the wolf from the door of a great, lovable man’. Indeed, he was financially embattled enough that the following year, a group of his friends and admirers including Hans Arp, Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy all joined forces to raise funds for him through a lottery. Part of this was due to Mondrian’s painting process: during this period, he created only around ten paintings per year (only nine are listed from 1930 in the catalogue raisonné of his work). This reflects the rigour that he applied to his work while also explaining the relative rarity of his pictures.
This studio, with its moveable squares affixed to the walls, was photographed in 1929 with several of Mondrian’s works in the foreground, including one that resembled Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow (this is in fact believed to have been the similarly-named Composition No. 2 with Yellow and Blue of 1929, now in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen). Pictures of Mondrian’s studio were published several times during his life, including in Palet in 1931, which reproduced the photograph in question. It revealed
the immersive manner in which Mondrian lived his life, surrounded by his beliefs.
This studio impressed many of its visitors, not least Alexander Calder, who met Mondrian in 1930 and visited his working set that year, around the time that Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow was painted. For him, the studio was a revelation and an epiphany: ‘My entrance into the field of abstract art came about as a result of a visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian in Paris in 1930. I was particularly
impressed by some rectangles of colour he had tacked on his wall in a pattern after his nature. I told him I would like to make it oscillate – he objected’ (Calder, quoted in C. Giménez & A.S.C. Rower, ed., Calder: Gravity and Grace, London, 2004, p. 52). Calder would go on to create his ‘Mobiles’ following this encounter - putting fields of colour into motion. However, for Mondrian, his objection
was that the colours were already fast enough. This is exemplified in Composition No. II with Blue and Yellow, where the two fields of colour, the blue and the yellow, which have an intense dynamism that is propelled by their containment within the black-bounded planes.