Painted in 1927, Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue encapsulates the purity, elegance and extreme rigor of Piet Mondrian’s unique aesthetic as he explored the limits of Neo-Plasticism, the revolutionary approach to abstraction he had pioneered towards the end of the First World War. Using only the fundamental elements of painting—the straight line, primary colors and the three non-colors of black, white and grey—Mondrian believed that he could create an idealized pictorial form of pure equilibrium that would reintegrate a fundamental sense of beauty into life. “The task today, then, is to create a direct expression of beauty—clear and as far as possible ‘universal’,” Mondrian wrote. “It will be a purely plastic beauty, that is, beauty expressed exclusively through lines, planes or volumes and through color—a beauty without natural form and without representation. It is purely abstract art” (“Purely Abstract Art,” 1926, reproduced in H. Holtzman and M.S. James, The New Art—The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, London, 1986, p. 199).
It is not enough to place side by side a red, a blue, a yellow, and a grey, because that remains merely decorative. It has to be the right red, blue, yellow, grey, etc.: each right in itself and right in relation to the others.”
As the 1920s progressed, Mondrian worked to constantly develop and refine these principles, reaching what has been termed his “classical phase” towards the end of the decade, in which he attained a level of purity and balance that would remain virtually unsurpassed in his subsequent oeuvre. Dating from this key period of his career, Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue is filled with a dynamic internal energy, in which each line, each plane, each color is brought to life by its relationship to the other elements within the painting. Indeed, it is the effect achieved through their union and orchestration, that stands at the very core of Mondrian’s creative vision. As John Milner explained: “all that changes [in Mondrian’s work] is the number of elements, the proportions of the parts, and the rhythm they establish. This was enough for Mondrian. Here were the fundamentals of his paintings. Their relationships stood for all that existed, and he could see in those infinite relationships the visual evidence of his view of the world, his own cosmology” (Mondrian, London, 1992, p. 163).
By 1926, Mondrian had pared down the sparse pictorial logic of Neo-Plasticism to its barest essentials, reducing some compositions to only two or three elements, as seen in the austere simplicity of works such as Tableau I: Lozenge with Four Lines and Gray (Joosten, no. B176; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). However, in a great flurry of activity at the beginning of 1927, the artist’s paintings gradually grew more complex and intricate once again, as the number of forms, colors, and planes increased in each work. Despite their apparent simplicity, these compositions spring from a complex system of balance and imbalance, symmetry and asymmetry, related proportions and contrasting forms. At the beginning of February, the artist wrote to the architect and fellow De Stijl artist J.J.P. Oud that the twenty canvases he was working on at the time were proving much more demanding and time consuming than he had first imagined, and as a result would not be ready for exhibition for a further two months.
The first thing to change in my painting was the color. I forsook natural color for pure color. I had come to feel that the colors of nature cannot be reproduced on canvas. Instinctively, I felt that painting had to find a new way to express the beauty of nature.”
Included within this grouping was Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue, which was one of a small sub-series of paintings executed in this same elongated, rectangular compositional format. Subdivided into six planes, the canvas features the classic trio of primary colors, each bordering a plain white space. The black lines dividing these planes of color vary in width, lending a subtle sense of depth and dynamism to their forms, and granting the thicker lines a greater power and solidity within the composition than their counterparts. Having said this, unlike other compositions from this period where these black lines appear to continue infinitely beyond the space of the canvas, here they appear to taper off towards the edge in places, allowing the bright primary colors they border to interact directly with their neighboring planes of white. This is most noticeable to the right of the composition, where tiny slivers of bright red pigment are visible at the very edge of the canvas, acting as tiny pops of unexpected color that bring a new energy to the composition.
At this time, Mondrian was completely immersed in the world of Neo-Plasticism, having extended these principles to the arrangement and form of his own living space. In his apartment and studio at 26 rue du Départ in Paris, he covered the white walls with colored cardboard shapes, arranged, like his paintings, according to his carefully worked-out Neo-Plastic principles. He painted all the objects in the studio, including the few pieces of furniture he had and his treasured gramophone player, in primary colors, so as to create what he described as “a new design for living.” Entering from the dark hallway, the bright, immaculately ordered space astonished visitors—Alexander Calder, recalling his pivotal first visit to the studio in 1930, wrote of the impact this experience had on his creative imagination: “It was a very exciting room… I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate. And he, with a very serious countenance, said: ‘No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast.’ … This one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract.’ So now, at thirty-two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract” (Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, New York, 1966, p. 113).
Another visitor to the rue du Départ was the artist, critic and author of one of the first monographs on Mondrian, Michel Seuphor, who wrote one of the most detailed accounts of how the artist used the space. “The room was quite large, very bright, with a very high ceiling,” Seuphor recounted. “Mondrian had divided it irregularly, utilizing for this purpose a large black-painted cupboard, which was partly hidden by an easel long out of service; the latter was covered with big grey and white pasteboards. Another easel rested against the large rear wall whose appearance changed, for Mondrian applied to it his Neo-Plastic virtuosity. The second easel was completely white, and used only for showing finished canvases. The actual work was done on the table. It stood in front of the large window facing the rue du Départ, and was covered with a canvas waxed white and nailed to the underside of the boards. I often surprised Mondrian there, armed with a ruler and ribbons of transparent paper, which he used for measuring. I never saw him with any other working tool. […] He had two large wicker armchairs, also painted white, and, on the scrupulously clean floor, two rugs, one red, the other grey. Such was the studio where Mondrian lived for thirteen years, where he received so many visitors, and where he painted his most ‘classical’ works, the ones most justly admired” (Piet Mondrian, Life and Work, New York, 1955, pp. 158-160).
It was in that legendary studio that Mondrian would paint until 1936, often living in very difficult financial conditions. Considered today as fundamental statements in the history of Modern Art, Mondrian’s Neo-Plastic paintings from the 1920s were largely ignored by his contemporaries. For years, the artist painted flower pictures and watercolors in order to support himself. In 1923—barely four years before Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue was painted—Mondrian almost decided to abandon painting altogether, after his work had failed to sell at a De Stijl exhibition held at Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie L’Effort Moderne. By 1926, however, the situation had started to change.
The layperson does not understand that Mondrian works for months at a time on a single canvas, adjusting each line by tenths of a millimeter before his eye is completely satisfied. That is to say, Neo-Plasticism is not a mathematical joke or party game but a living, rhythmical game of relationships in which intuition plays a major role.”
Seuphor explained: “The year 1926 was important in Mondrian’s life. That year he was visited by Miss Katherine S. Dreier, who bought one of his large, lozenge-shaped canvas, which was exhibited that same year in Brooklyn, at the International Exhibition of the Société Anonyme. In the book, published on the occasion…, the courageous organizer of the exhibition wrote: ‘Holland has produced three great painters who, though a logical expression of their own country, rose above it through the vigor of their personality—the first was Rembrandt, the second was Van Gogh, and the third is Mondrian…Mondrian, who, starting from that strongly individualistic expression, has attained a clarity that has never been achieved before him’” (ibid., pp. 163-164). Finally, the artist was beginning to receive the attention he deserved.
Shortly after its creation, Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue was shown, along with seventeen other works, at a small exhibition organized by the Dutch painters’ association, Hollandsche Schildersvereeniging, De Klomp. However, the event did not end well for Mondrian. In a letter to Albert van den Briel, the artist explained: “I arranged to pick up my work on Monday at 10 o’clock. When I arrived there wasn’t a single Dutch person. The hall, which, as it turned out, had only been rented for one evening, had been cleaned up by the French personnel. I found my canvases in the laundry closet. Everything was damaged with dents from nails and one was ripped. You may imagine that I was shocked” (quoted in J.M. Joosten, op. cit., 1998, p. 136). Thankfully, Mondrian was able to repair the damage, reporting in a letter to Oud that he had repainted the majority of the canvases within a month, “and now I comfort myself with the thought that they have ripened in the process” (quoted in ibid., p. 328).
With their iconic color combinations and carefully balanced geometric grids, paintings from the height of Mondrian’s Paris years, including Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue, would prove revelatory for the French designer Yves Saint Laurent, who famously paid homage to the De Stijl artist in his 1965 autumn/winter collection. At the time, the designer was searching for a freshness in his work, as he sought to compete with the likes of Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges, who had both eschewed tradition and ushered in a new age of Haute Couture in their introduction of the “cosmonaut” dress and mini-skirt respectively. Though Saint Laurent had partially completed his new collection by the summer, less than a month before it was due to be shown to the public he set about re-designing certain pieces. “Mondrian was my last minute inspiration,” Saint Laurent would later explain, in France Dimanche. “Nothing was alive, nothing was modern in my mind except an evening gown I had embroidered with paillettes like a Poliakoff painting. It wasn’t until I opened a Mondrian book my mother had given me for Christmas [Michel Seuphor’s tome Piet Mondrian Sa vie] that I hit on the key idea” (quoted in A. Madsen, Living for design. The Yves Saint Laurent Story, New York, 1979, pp. 114-119).
Mondrian is purity, and you can’t go any further in painting. The masterpiece of the twentieth century is a Mondrian.”
Cut in the popular A-line “shift” style and made from a light wool jersey with a silk lining, the elegant simplicity of the sleeveless gowns were a perfect base for Mondrian’s bold aesthetic. Each dress boasted a unique arrangement of colored panels, some using a simple combination of just one primary color with the black and white grid, others using large panels of red, yellow and blue in an a-symmetrical arrangement that evokes Mondrian’s most complex compositions. However, like the Dutchman’s paintings, the dresses’ intricate construction belied their apparent simplicity – each individual panel was carefully stitched into position using invisible seams, a feat of dressmaking achieved by the skilled craftspeople in Saint Laurent’s atelier. Though these colorful grid dresses numbered only six out of the final eighty looks included in the autumn/winter show on the 6th of August 1965, they proved the most eye catching, and the collection as a whole soon earned the moniker “The Mondrian Collection.” Hailed for their streamlined silhouettes, dynamic patterns, bright pops of primary colors, and nuanced take on the minimalist aesthetic, the Mondrian dresses were enthusiastically praised in newspapers, journals and magazines around the world, cementing Yves Saint Laurent’s reputation and allowing him to breakthrough onto the international stage.
Dresses from the collection were featured in a host of important fashion magazines over the ensuing months, most notably gracing the cover of French Vogue in September 1965, bringing the new designs to a wide audience of eager young fashion lovers. It was in this way that the “Mondrian dress” became such a cultural phenomenon. The designs were soon adapted by ready-to-wear manufacturers, and eagerly snapped up by the bourgeoning market of young consumers across the globe. As a result of the success of the collection, Mondrian, who was still largely unknown in Paris during the early 1960s, quickly became a household name, leading to the opening of the first retrospective exhibition of his work in France in 1969. Yves Saint Laurent’s passion for Mondrian would continue for the rest of his life, underpinned by his deep appreciation and understanding of the painter’s theories and approach to making art. By the time of his death in 2008, the designer and his partner Pierre Bergé owned a number of De Stijl compositions by the artist, including three of Mondrian’s famous grid paintings.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).