Painted in 1929, Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black is the inaugural canvas in a sequence of paintings–nine in total, all close variations on the same compositional type–that represents the very peak of Mondrian’s classicism and the culmination of the entire previous decade’s efforts. The artist had relocated definitively from Holland to Paris exactly ten years earlier and within months of his move had achieved his canonical neo-plastic vocabulary, a radically reduced set of formal means comprising straight black lines and planes of primary color or “non-color” (white, black, and gray). The difficult task that Mondrian set for himself thereafter and tirelessly pursued was to endow each of these elements with maximum intensity, while combining them in a dynamic, non-hierarchical equilibrium. With the present painting and the ensuing variants, produced over the course of three exceptionally productive years, Mondrian refined these means to the highest degree, attaining a level of purity and balance that would remain virtually unsurpassed in his subsequent oeuvre, as he began instead to explore denser and more syncopated rhythms.
Mondrian’s starting point for this powerfully distilled and exquisitely resolved composition was a pair of intersecting black lines that meet just below and to the left of the middle of the canvas, which itself is perfectly square. The artist had experimented intermittently since 1927 with the use of two principal axes to divide the picture from edge to edge, but these had typically crossed high up on the canvas. It was not until he painted the present composition, which has as its closest immediate precedent Composition, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black in the Guggenheim (1929; Joosten, no. 206), that Mondrian lowered this central crossing, creating four quadrants of similar–but still not identical–dimensions and proportions. Seeking to balance this subtly asymmetrical black crossing while also ensuring that its cruciformity was not unduly emphasized, Mondrian’s next step was to give additional weight to the lower right quadrant of the composition. He did so by subdividing it into a large square, which is bordered on the right by two small, vertical rectangles and on the bottom by two small, horizontal ones. The present painting is the only one in the sequence to feature this exact composition and is unique in this respect; in all the subsequent versions, Mondrian removed one short black line to leave a single open rectangle beneath the inscribed square.
Asymmetrical cross, heavy bottom right quadrant–Mondrian now had a twin disequilibrium, which he turned to color to resolve, opposing a large red rectangle in the top left corner with smaller yellow, blue, and black rectangles at the bottom right. “The result is the height of equilibrium, an apogee,” Yve-Alain Bois has proclaimed. “Could he go any further in this direction?” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 356). Mondrian himself, however, took pains to point out that this delicate relational balancing produced a dynamic rather than a static image, not frozen but vital, tense, and fluid. “This equilibrium is clearly not that of an old gentleman in an armchair or of two equal sacks of potatoes on the scales,” he wrote. “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).
Mondrian immediately recognized the rich potential of this new compositional type and embarked upon an extended sequence of variations, of which fully half are housed in museum collections today (Joosten, nos. 215, 221, 225, 227-228, 230, 232, 234). He gradually altered the proportions of the rectangles, increasing the width of the stacked vertical planes at the right. He experimented with thinner and thicker lines and above all with different chromatic arrangements. In one version, he elaborated the bottom left quadrant instead of the top left with color; in another, he admitted only a single color accent, in one of the small vertical rectangles, while in yet a third, he abandoned the opposition between color and non-color entirely and used gray for the largest “color” plane. “Although Mondrian always worked in series, never before did he show such concentration and consistency within a single type,” Joop Joosten has written. “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” (ibid., p. 237).
The refined and harmonious balance that Mondrian painstakingly sought and achieved in this sequence of paintings is far more than merely a formal exercise. Rather, the canvases represented for the artist a microcosm of his utopian vision of the world. “Balance through the equivalence of nature and mind, of that which is individual and that which is universal, of the feminine and the masculine–this general principle of Neo-Plasticism can be achieved not only in plastic art, but also in man and society,” Mondrian wrote in “The General Principles of Neo-Plasticism” in 1926. “In society, the equivalence of what relates to matter and of what relates to mind can create a harmony beyond anything hitherto known” (quoted in M. Seuphor, op. cit., 1956, p. 168). “To be concerned exclusively with relations,” he continued four years later, “while creating them and seeking their equilibrium in art and life, that is the good work of today, that is to prepare the future” (quoted in ibid., p. 168).
Within months, if not weeks, of completing the present painting, Mondrian sought to put this new and authoritative compositional type on public display. In October 1929, he showed four paintings in a major exhibition of abstract art, E.S.A.C. (Expositions Sélectes d’Art Contemporain), at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; the present canvas was part of this group and is the only one of the four that has been identified with certainty. The organizer of the exhibition was the Dutch avant-garde painter Nelly van Doesburg, whose husband Theo, the founder of De Stijl, had been Mondrian’s closest intellectual companion and comrade-in-arms during the formative years of his mature style. Theo and Mondrian had suffered a rift in 1924–van Doesburg’s flamboyant personality had proven to be a poor match for Mondrian’s own introverted character, and Mondrian was dismayed when van Doesburg introduced the diagonal line into his work, an inexcusable breach of neo-plastic principles–but they reconciled in May 1929 after accidentally encountering one another at a café in Paris. “In spite of the differences,” van Doesburg wrote in his diary, “a more profound friendship has now become possible” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 57).
Nelly van Doesburg originally intended E.S.A.C. to be an itinerant exhibition, which would begin in the Netherlands and then tour throughout Europe, changing locations each month. In the end, however, she was only able to arrange one other venue, the Pulchri Studio, an artists’ society in The Hague; all four of the paintings that Mondrian had contributed to the show traveled there in December. In a review of the Hague exhibition in the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, the critic A.M. Hammacher devoted special attention to the present Composition No. III: “It is important to examine the paint surface and the manner of painting (lovers of fury, passion, and gesture do not attach importance to such matters). For instance, in the third composition, it can be clearly seen how the white planes not only differ from each other in surface, but also in the ‘quality’ of their whiteness. Horizontal, vertical, and crossed ways of painting are visible, as a result of which the three almost identical parts differ greatly as to their effect” (quoted in J.M. Joosten, op. cit., 1998, p. 144).
In between the two legs of the E.S.A.C. show, Mondrian sent another group of four canvases to the Stedelijk Museum for the second A.S.B. (Architectuur, Schilderkunst en Beeldhouwkunst) exhibition, a survey of Dutch avant-garde currents that opened in early November. This group included Composition No. II, with Yellow and Blue, a close variant on the present painting, which the prestigious Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam–recognizing the conceptual and visual brilliance of this new compositional type–immediately purchased from the exhibition, much to Mondrian’s delight (Joosten, no. 215).
The present painting itself also has a provenance of great distinction. At the end of 1929, when the painting was returned to Mondrian, the Amsterdam-based writer and art critic An Harrenstein-Schräder, whose liberal intellectual circle included the van Doesburgs and other members of De Stijl, expressed interest in buying Composition No. III for three hundred guilders. For reasons unknown, this sale did not proceed, and in 1930, Mondrian instead gifted the canvas to his close friend Michel Seuphor, who later wrote one of the major studies on the artist. Mondrian had met Seuphor, a Belgian critic, aesthete, and writer, in April 1923, and the two men rapidly became friends and frequent collaborators. Seuphor helped Mondrian edit his theoretical texts and translate them into French; Mondrian in turn designed the sets for Seuphor’s avant-garde play L’ephémère est l’éternel (1926), which unfortunately was never staged, and in 1928 the two men worked together again to create a tableau-poème entitled Textuel (Joosten, no. 205). A frequent visitor to Mondrian’s spare, almost ascetic studio in the rue du Départ, Paris, Seuphor wrote one of the most detailed accounts of the artist’s distinctive working methods:
“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 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, the ones most justly admired” (op. cit., 1956, pp. 159-160).
In 1930, Seuphor founded the avant-garde group Cercle et Carré, which boasted an illustrious membership of several dozen artists and architects, with Mondrian, Léger, and Kandinsky at the epicenter. Although the group dissolved after only one exhibition and three issues of a periodical by the same name, Seuphor’s initiative paved the way for the new and better organized group Abstraction-Création, which survived until 1936. For the second issue of the magazine Cercle et Carré, published on 15 April 1930, Mondrian wrote a long essay, L’art réaliste et l’art superréaliste (La morphoplastique et le Néo-Plastique), in which he explained his aim and the crux of his achievement in paintings such as Composition No. III. “The new painting, although called abstract, is abstract only in comparison with natural reality,” Mondrian wrote. “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” (The New Art–The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, Boston, 1986, p. 230).
By 1932, Mondrian had come to feel that he had exhausted the potential of the present compositional type, with its now-familiar central crossing and inscribed white square, which had seen such astonishingly fruitful development during the preceding three years. Taking this classical configuration, of which he remained justifiably proud, as his springboard, he began to double the lines, a strategy that proved to have far-reaching consequences for his art. First, he replaced the single horizontal axis with a pair of thin, closely spaced black lines (Joosten, no. 231). Then he experimented with doubling both arms of the central crossing or all the lines in the composition (nos. 242-243, 248-249). Thus galvanized, he went on to triple and even quadruple lines, narrowing and widening the intervals between them as he proceeded, creating new relationships among the well-established expressive means (nos. 246-247, 255-256, 259, 267; Art Institute of Chicago and Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, Washington, D.C.).
Although these formal investigations introduced a new freedom and vitality into Mondrian’s work, heralding the increasingly complex rhythms that would characterize his later oeuvre, they did so at the cost of the spare and reductive purity that make the paintings of 1929-1932 so stately and sublime. Never again in his career would Mondrian achieve this same degree of concentration and clarity; the classical type, which has its inception in the present painting, was the apex. “Thus he finishes with the magisterial type that marks the conclusion of his classic neo-plastic style,” Bois has declared. “Thereafter, the ontological premises of neo-plasticism are devastated at breakneck speed. The classical type serves as a solid platform on which Mondrian can test his sabotage” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 357).
Mondrian in his studio, 1934. Photograph by A.E. Gallatin
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1927. Cleveland Museum of Art.
Piet Mondrian, Composition, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black, 1929. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Sketch in a letter by Mondrian to Albert van den Briel, 1931. Location Unknown.
Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Yellow and Blue, 1929. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, 1930. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.
Piet Mondrian, Composition A, with Red and Blue, 1932. Kunstmuseum Wintherthur.
Piet Mondrian, Composition (No. I) Gris-Rouge, 1935. Art Institute of Chicago.
Piet Mondrian’s Paris Studio, 26 Rue du Départ, Installation view with four paintings to be sent to The Amsterdam ABS exhibition in November 1929.
André Kertész, [Piet Mondrian, Enrico Prampolini, Michel Seuphor], 1926. Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimone, Charenton-le-Pont, France.