The late 1920s are recognized as one of the highpoints of Mondrian's career. At that time, he attained a level of purity, balance and ideality in his painting that has inspired many critics to speak of his style of this period as classical. Indeed, with reference to the present work, the authors of the catalogue of the recent Mondrian exhibition have stated:
The years 1929 to 1932 constitute a distinct period representing the peak of Mondrian's classicism. By 1929, each of the compositional types invented since 1921 have been refined to the highest degree of balance and economy... Although Mondrian always worked in series, never before did he show such concentration and consistency within a single type: he varied the colors from one canvas to the next and adjusted the thickness of the lines, each alteration necessitating another, but he retained the same compositional scheme throughout. Paradoxically, the very subtlety of these adjustments demonstrates the degree to which each of these apparently similar works actually stands alone, while also casting light on others in the series. (exh. cat., op. cit., The Hague, 1994-1996, p. 237)
The classical purity of this period can be seen in nearly every element of Composition No. III, including its structure, palette, and brushwork. Its composition is of breathtaking simplicity and equilibrium. Yet its subtle asymmetry--both the dominant vertical and horizontal lines are off the central axes--creates a dynamic rather than static image; it is not frozen but vital and fluid. Mondrian scrupulously avoided symmetry in his works, declaring, "All symmetry shall be excluded." Yves-Alain Bois has written about Mondrian's compositions of the late 1920s:
It is the [compositional] type that sees the most fruitful developments. He begins with the 1929 Guggenheim Museum painting (fig. 1), slightly displacing the intersection of the two bisecting axes toward the center: the result is a larger red rectangle in the upper right corner (Composition No. III [the present painting])...[this] magisterial type marks the conclusion of his neo-plastic style. (Ibid., p. 353)
Mondrian, in an account full of poetic imagery, has given the best description of the combination of balance and motion in the paintings of this period:
This equilibrium is clearly not that of an old gentleman sitting in an armchair or of two equal sacks of potatoes on the scales. On the contrary, equilibrium through equivalence excludes similarity and symmetry, just as it excludes repose in the sense of immobility. (Quoted in ibid, p. 356)
The classical structure of the canvases of 1929-1932 inspired Theo van Doesburg, one of the founders of Neo-Plasticism, to compare Mondrian to Poussin.
The purity of Mondrian's palette is another remarkable element of his works of this period. Beginning in 1920, the artist increasingly featured primary colors in his paintings. This marked the culmination of the search for pure color that had characterized his oeuvre since the end of the first decade of the century. This reduction to absolute chromatic ideality paralleled Mondrian's search for the pure compositional structure underpinning visual reality. The resulting emphasis on black and white, with accents in red, blue and yellow, is radical in the original sense of the word: that is, the artist has pared down his composition to the root. Black, white and red have a quintessential quality that is illustrated by several facts. Black and white, of course, are the first chromatic tones that humans can see as infants; and in languages that have only two color terms, the terms' basic meaning is black and white. Red is the third color that infants see; and in all languages in the world with three color terms, the third term is red. Moreover, in Greco-Roman art theory, the ability to handle black, white and red was considered a distinguishing feature of great painters; and in fact, many of the masters of Western painting since the time of Giotto are singled out by their especial brilliance in the manipulation of these three pigments. (Think of Titian's whites, Manet's blacks or Caravaggio's reds.) Mondrian as well is distinguished as a great painter by his handling of white, black, and the primary colors, especially red.
The nearly invisible brushwork of the present painting is typical of Mondrian's works of the late 1920s and early 1930s. With reference to another painting in the same series, Hans Jaffé has commented:
There is another aspect to be seen in this and other paintings of these years, contrasting with the paintings of the early twenties. This is the fact that the brush stroke is worked away as far as possible. In this respect, too, Mondrian wanted to put greater stress on the objectivity of the equilibrium, of the harmony, that he was seeking. As he felt it, subjectivity, individual feeling, with all its arbitrariness and whimsicality, penetrated even into the brush stroke, and he tried to banish this individual element, which can only disturb the universal harmony, from his work. The works of this period thus belong to the purest and most austere in the development that began in 1921 and continued until the end of Mondrian's stay in Paris. (H. Jaffé, Mondrian, New York, 1970, p. 142)
The conceptual and visual brilliance of Mondrian's works of this period was immediately recognized, and a number of his canvases found buyers of great distinction. One variation of the present painting was purchased in 1929 by the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam (fig. 2); and in 1930 Henry Russell Hitchcock selected and Philip Johnson purchased Composition No. II (fig. 3). (Hitchcock and Johnson in 1931 began planning the epochal exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, The International Style, in which they named the Neo-Plasticist architect Oud one of the four founding figures of modern architecture along with Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe.) Johnson donated Composition No. II to The Museum of Modern Art in 1941.
The provenance of the present work is also of great distinction. In 1930 Mondrian gave this painting to his close friend Michel Seuphor (fig. 4), who later wrote one of the major studies on the artist. Seuphor, a critic, aesthete and writer, had met Mondrian in April 1923. Soon after, Seuphor began to help Mondrian with the editing and translating into French of his theoretical texts. In 1926 Seuphor wrote an avant-garde play, L'Ephémère est l'éternel, for which Mondrian designed the sets (fig. 5); unfortunately, the play was never staged and performed. A photograph of Mondrian's studio from 1929 shows one of his models for the set design together with another painting in the same series as the present work (fig. 6). Mondrian and Seuphor also collaborated on a tableau-poème in 1928 entitled Textuel (fig. 7).
Seuphor, moreover, photographed Mondrian's studio in the rue du Départ, Paris (fig. 8), and wrote one of the most detailed accounts both of the studio and of the artist's working methods:
The room was quite large, very bright, with a very high ceiling. 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 gray and white pasteboards. Another easel rested against the large rear wall whose appearance changed often, 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 gray. Such was the studio where Mondrian lived for thirteen years and where he painted his most "classical" works. (M. Seuphor, op.cit., pp. 159-160)
Mondrian said of his studio on the rue du Départ, "Here, in this room, the abstract has become real for me" (quoted in C. Blotkamp, Mondrian, The Art of Destruction, London, 1994, p. 158).
In 1930 Seuphor founded the avant-garde group Cercle et Carré, whose members included Mondrian, Léger, Kandinsky, Arp, Le Corbusier and Schwitters. After one exhibition and three issues of a magazine by the same name, the group dissolved. Mondrian wrote a long essay, "L'art réaliste et l'art superréaliste (La morphoplastique et le Néo-Plastique)," for the second issue of the magazine, published on April 15, 1930. In this essay, he explained that Neo-Plastic art aimed at the representation of an ideal and quintessential level of reality rather than of the physical, natural world:
The new painting, although called abstract, is abstract only in comparison with natural reality. And if, as Neo-Plastic, it is preparing the superreality of the future, it is "real" because it expresses this reality. Neo-Plastic could even better be named "Superrealist Painting"... The artist quickly perceives what appears in nature only as veiled in form: universal plastic expression. (P. Mondrian, The New Art--The New Life, The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, Boston, 1986, p. 230)
(fig. 1) Piet Mondrian, Composition (Composition with Red, Blue, Yellow and Black), 1929
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
(fig. 2) Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II (Composition with Yellow and Blue), 1929
Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
(fig. 3) Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II (Composition with Blue and Red), 1929
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 4) Mondrian with Michel Seuphor and Enrico Prampolini in his rue du Départ studio, Paris, circa 1928
(fig. 5) Piet Mondrian, set design for Michel Seuphor's play L'Ephémère est l'éternel
(fig. 6) Mondrian's rue du Départ studio, Paris, circa 1929
(fig. 7) Piet Mondrian and Michel Seuphor, Textuel, 1928
Private Collection (Christie's, November 30, 1992)
(fig. 8) Mondrian's rue du Départ studio, Paris, late 1920s
(Photo by Michel Seuphor)