The late 1920s and early 1930s are universally recognized as one of the highpoints of Mondrian's career. The pictures produced during this period rank among the artist's greatest masterpieces and may be found in prominent museum collections around the world (fig. 1). At this time, Mondrian attained a level of purity and balance in his painting that has inspired many critics to speak of his style as classical. Indeed, the authors of the catalogue of the recent Mondrian exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York 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 ideality of works like the present one reflects the culmination of Mondrian's search for the absolute, a quest that had occupied the artist since the end of the first decade of the century. The structure of Composition with Red, Black and White is of breathtaking simplicity, with line, plane, and color pared down to their most basic units. Michel Seuphor, a critic, aesthete, and writer and a close friend of Mondrian, has provided one of the clearest explanations of the artist's aesthetic principles:
To live, for him, meant to measure the absolute, to try to weigh the imponderable... However surprising it may seem, the absolute is better expressed in pure plasticism than in words. Words are subject to the dictionary, and dictionaries are never more than collections of chance phrases, shaded interpretations, perpetually changing. But red is red for everybody, and white is incontestably and definitively the opposite of black...a right angle is an irreducible opposition of two movements, and four right angles joined together form a cross, which is the perfect equilibrium of various movements canceling each other.
It is precisely by means of the cross, which he represents asymmetrically, and by means of the dynamic equilibrium of this asymmetry, that the art of Mondrian conquers the absolute. (M. Seuphor, op. cit., pp. 144-149)
The emphasis on asymmetry in Mondrian's paintings is essential. The artist scrupulously avoided symmetry in his work: the sixth and final statement in his 1926 manifesto, "General Principles of Neo-Plasticism," reads simply, "All symmetry shall be excluded" (quoted in ibid., p. 166). The equilibrium of the present picture is dynamic and fluid rather than static and frozen. Mondrian himself has given the best description of the combination of balance and motion which characterize his paintings of the late 1920s and early 1930s:
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 exh. cat., op. cit., The Hague, 1994-1996, p. 356)
The process which Mondrian used to achieve this delicate balance is clearly illustrated in the genesis of the present painting. A blueprint for the picture appears in the lower left of a sheet of sketches which Mondrian sent to his childhood friend Albert van den Briel in January 1931 (fig. 2). Above that, in the upper left of the page, is a schematic rendering of a 1928 oil entitled Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (fig. 3), whose composition is similar to that of the present picture. In the accompanying notations, translated in the catalogue of the recent Mondrian retrospective, the artist explains to van den Briel the evolution of the composition. In the 1928 work, he writes, the fact that the principal vertical axis (the line labeled ab) is so much longer than the horizontal a'b' makes the picture "tragic," where tragic is defined as "suffering through the domination of the one over the other." This effect is "diminished" in the later picture, Mondrian continues, by the introduction of an additional horizontal line at the left, the line labeled cd (quoted in ibid., p. 248). Yve-Alain Bois explains this development in greater detail, again stressing Mondrian's insistence on creating a vital equilibrium:
There is now only one color plane and an additional horizontal line on the left. Bringing dynamism to the composition are the extreme variations in the thickness of the lines (two horizontal bars are twice as thick as the verticals); these variations in thickness, which are more pronounced than ever before, create an effect of superimposition reminiscent of his first two diamond paintings (Seuphor, no. 445). He clearly resorts to it here to negate the quasi-symmetry of the central axis, a quasi-symmetry designed to eliminate more effectively the zigzagging cascade effect of the first composition. Combined with the effect of adding the extra horizontal to the left, the quasi-symmetry combats the dynamism of the cascade, just as the dynamism of the superimposition combats the quasi-symmetry. Nothing in this tense equilibrium seems to contradict Mondrian's dialectical conception of the pictorial work... (Y.-A. Bois, "The Iconoclast," in ibid., pp. 353-355)
The purity of the palette which Mondrian employs in Composition with Red, Black and White parallels the studied balance of its composition. Beginning in 1920, the artist increasingly featured primary colors in his paintings. His 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 palette to the root. The nearly invisible brushwork of the present painting is also typical of Mondrian's works of the late 1920s and early 1930s. With reference to another painting from the same period, Hans Jaff 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. Jaff, Mondrian, New York, 1970, p. 142)
The first recorded owner of the present picture was Charmion von Wiegand (fig. 5), an art critic and painter whom Mondrian met in April 1941, just six months after moving to New York. Von Wiegand was deeply affected by her first visit to the studio of the sixty-nine year-old Mondrian, and shortly thereafter wrote in her journal:
These canvases are...a revolutionary act in the true sense of the word, for they have changed me and they react upon their environment, so that they must in the end change life... As an artist, Mondrian is still developing and one feels no sign of age, he is living in the present with the full force of his being. He is an example of the power of the spirit over the flesh... (Quoted in M. Seuphor, op. cit., p. 181)
Von Wiegand became an important champion of Mondrian's work: she edited, translated, and published several of his seminal texts, including "Dialogues on Neo-Plasticism" of 1919 and "The True Value of Oppositions in Life and Art" of 1934, and she wrote several important articles of her own on Mondrian's art, including "The Meaning of Mondrian" of 1943 and "Mondrian: A Memory of his New York Period" of 1961. Shortly after meeting von Wiegand, Mondrian gave her at least two pictures, the present one and a 1914 work in ink and gouache known as Pier and Ocean 1 (Seuphor, no. 395). In his 1956 catalogue of Mondrian's work, Seuphor records five other paintings which were in von Wiegand's collection at that time, including a 1912 oil now hanging in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (Seuphor, no. 347).
(fig. 1) Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II (Composition with Blue and Red), 1929
Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 2) Piet Mondrian, sketch in a letter to Albert van den Briel, 1931
(fig. 3) Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1928 (photographed in Mondrian's studio at 26 rue du Dpart, Paris)
(fig. 4) Left to right: Burgoyne Diller, Fritz Glarner, Carl Holty, Mondrian, and Charmion von Wiegand at the opening of the Masters of Abstract Art exhibition in New York in April 1942. Von Wiegand edited the show's catalogue, which included Mondrian's essay "Pure Plastic Art"