Taking a backward step


I’ve always loved Mondrian’s paintings and when I was younger I got a little obsessed with the De Stijl movement, but never really knew why. 

I remember going to a small museum in the Netherlands dedicated to Mondrian. Some of the rooms he would have lived and worked in were recreated there. The contrast between the work he was creating and the ornate, now antiquated, furniture and costumes was a shock. How would it have felt to be creating this work in that world? 

Piet Mondrian - Top Right

Piet Mondrian - Top Right

Piet Mondrian in his studio with Pétro van Doesburg

Piet Mondrian in his studio with Pétro van Doesburg

Context is everything. We can’t see the paintings as they would have been seen then, and we can’t know how the world would be now without these painters who pioneered abstraction in art. 

In ‘Art and Empathy’ I wrote about two kinds of empathy. Empathy with the subject of the art, and empathy with the artist, or the process. 

Maybe this accounts for my being captivated by De Stijl and other abstract artists, maybe I was empathising with their way of seeing the world? Putting myself in their shoes, seeing the world through their eyes. 

With Mondrian’s early paintings you see this process of abstraction happening in various series of paintings of trees, releasing their form and abstracting into the simplest visual elements. 

It feels to me like a backward step, a step back into pure sensation. 

You could say he is doing the opposite of what we do every day. We take simple sensations and create a world of things, and a whole a drama to contain them! 

We experience visual sensations, colour, shape, light, shadow etc and we make them into objects. Once the ‘object’ is seen it is hard for us to take that step back, to just experience the visual sensations. 

This interpretation of visual sensations into objects is just one aspect of the interpretation that is going on all the time. It’s not possible to see the invisible interpreter. But we can try to take that backward step. To see the Pier and Ocean the way Mondrian sees them. 

Utterly awake,
senses wide open.
Utterly open,
non-fixating awareness.
— Tibetan teaching, unknown source.
Piet Mondrian - Pier and Ocean

Piet Mondrian - Pier and Ocean