The Abstract Art of Living

By patches3gig, February 15, 2014

This was my final paper from HON112. I enjoy analyzing art, and I took the open ended nature of the assignment do just that. I am proud of this paper because I set out to do something crazy, and succeeded. Read on and you will see what I mean:

Since the time of cave men, art has been a cornerstone of human culture and society. Then as now, it is used to communicate information, ideas and emotions in a manner not unlike the compressed language of the poets – a picture is worth a thousand words after all. You can learn a lot about a culture from the art it makes. However, not all art is a depiction of people or events. How do you learn about a culture from a painting that arguably depicts nothing? Piet Mondrian is an early 20th century painter that made a series of works composed entirely of lines and colored patches – many would find no meaning in these pieces, and yet they too tell us about society. In fact, Mondrian’s Lozenge Composition with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow is a powerful statement on the human condition.

Mondrian was part of a spiritualist movement called Theosophy, and his abstract works were meant to be an exploration of his religious ideas and his search for absolute truth. One may wonder how such basic, seemingly nonrepresentational shapes and colors could represent anything, much less anything spiritual. This is likely because of our rootedness in the Renaissance conception of art and religious depictions. When thinking about religious art, one of the first images to come up is probably Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper – it uses the Renaissance methods for creating realism and balance and directly depicts an event from the Bible. The Pieta by Michelangelo is another example of religious art from this period, and again it depicts characters from the Bible (Jesus and Mary). In this tradition, the religious art that is commonly accepted by society actively depicts religious figures and events. In a sense, society today is too rooted in reality to express religious sentiment without resorting to the tenets of the physical world.

Despite this though, these works by Da Vinci and Michelangelo actually share much in common with Mondrian’s Lozenge Composition with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow. As it happens, The Last Supper shares many of Mondrian’s color choices – red and blue recur throughout the piece, yellow is present, the tablecloth is white, and the shadows can be considered black. Is this a coincidence? Probably not. Red is associated with power, passion, love and danger; blue with stability, loyalty, wisdom and truth. Both colors are worn by Jesus and accurately represent what he stands for and the events about to happen to him and his disciples. Da Vinci also painted Judas with a blue shirt, which is ironic since the qualities of blue are an antithesis to his own. Here there is a parallel with Mondrian’s piece: both use contrasts to enhance their meaning (in Mondrian’s work this is not only done with black and white, but with color connotations as well).

Further similarities can be found in the approach to symmetry used and the composition as a whole. Both paintings are near symmetrical with a central focus and variation on either side. Red is used in the central column of both works, and white is most prevalent in the middle. The most interesting correlation between the two however is probably Mondrian’s positioning of black on the left of the painting, and Da Vinci’s likewise positioning of Judas. Black typically has a negative connotation, and is often associated with death – Judas of course was the betrayer of Jesus, and thus this color suits him well.

The Pieta by Michelangelo is even closer in composition to Mondrian’s painting. In fact, it can be argued that they depict the exact same scene. In the Pieta, Mary is the main body of the composition, and Jesus lays across her lap in the horizontal central plane of the piece. In Mondrian’s painting, white is the most prevalent color in the same sectors of the composition. White is commonly associated with purity, goodness, virginity and perfection, each of which are qualities given to Mary as well as her son. Red, as mentioned before, is a symbol of passion and love, and in Mondrian’s composition red occupies the same space that the bust of Mary occupies in Michelangelo’s piece. This again is an appropriate correlation.

Following the positioning of Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture, Mondrian’s piece continues to match that of his predecessor. Black, the color of death, corresponds to the upper body of the dead Jesus in Mary’s arms. Black is also associated with power and mystery. If you, reader, have ever attended a christian church service you must surely know how frequently these two words are used to describe Jesus and the Trinity. The lines of Mondrian’s composition also seem to follow the figure of Jesus’s body: lines are horizontal across where Jesus is laying on Mary’s lap, and transition to vertical on the right side of the composition where his legs hang from the side of Mary’s left leg.

If the previous correlations stand, then the blue in Mondrian’s composition is accurately positioned at Jesus’s feet. Blue is the color faith and truth, and its position in this composition can both reflect on Jesus himself, and also the washing of the apostles feet in John 13.5. Lastly, the color yellow which symbolizes joy is almost hidden at the bottom of Mondrian’s composition. This could be to show that, although happiness appears to be lost, it is still at the base of life. In other words, there is still hope, thus foretelling Jesus’s rise from the dead. This could indeed have been a depiction of the Pieta!

Even if it was not intended to be though, this analysis should at least give you, reader, the impression that it could stand for something and hold reasonable meaning beyond just colors and lines. What more are paintings than colors and lines anyway? This composition merely explores the same principles of conventional art at a base level.

So this is where one can start to see what Mondrian’s composition can tell us about society. In the time of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, art was all about realism. Baccio Bandinelli’s depiction of Hercules and Caecus received flak for muscles “looking like a sack of melons,” and Da Vinci criticized sculpture in general for not being as true to reality as paintings. That was the Renaissance. Now we have Mondrian’s composition, and it looks nothing like reality, and yet it is highly respected. Culture has evolved to appreciate art for its compositional qualities and mood more than just photorealism. This is probably because of the rise of the camera: no longer is painting the most realistic way of depicting life, and thus more and more artists brake dogmas (or make new ones) and branch out.

The use of primary colors is also something to mark, as their vibrance and overall connotations of positivity reflect the mood of the roaring 20s perfectly (this particular composition is dated 1925). As a matter of fact, a later composition of Mondrian’s was entitled “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” confirming the possibility of such an influence. Looking again from a religious sense, primary colors could also represent the divine – all colors come from these three (a trinity by coincidence?) just as in most religions where all things come from or are governed by a divine being or beings.

The shear simplicity of the design also reflects the modern ideas of grandeur. In old times, intricacy and visual complexity were symbols of power – kings wore highly ornamented crowns, churches were huge feats of architecture with hundreds of sculptures, carvings and paintings decorating walls and ceilings, and the rich were richly adorned with robes and jewels. Some of these symbols of extravagance still exist, but we have overall come to view simplicity as more important. The president wears a simple suit and tie, superstars ride in sleek black limos, skyscrapers are highly symmetrical and composed almost entirely of straight or slightly curved steel beams. Mondrian’s composition is part of this trend.

This composition can also tell us a great deal about us as a race. The color white, as said before, is a symbol of purity and goodness, and takes up the most space in the composition. This conveys a sense that humans are fundamentally good. However, when one considers the principles of art, there is a concept of negative and positive space (foreground and background) that applies here. Often, the positive space is in the center of a composition, but in this piece the most color variation and engaging elements are positioned around the outside edge of the painting, thus making the white negative space. This being the case, the inherent goodness of humanity is in the background, the other elements often overshadowing it.

This is a common theme in literary texts throughout the ages – humans are good, but desire and other attributes cause them to be corrupted by the world around them. Dante’s Inferno opens with an illustration of this idea. Dante attempts to climb the hill of enlightenment, but is blocked by three wild beasts symbolizing various temptations and faults of humans. These faults are present in Mondrian’s piece as well.

The first faults, at the top of the composition, is found in the color red. Being the color of blood, red stands for the violent side of human nature. It also stands for lust, a sin that is so key in moral philosophy. Saint Augustine himself admitted to having difficulty overcoming lust in his Confessions. On the flip side however, there is a positive passion that can emerge from red as mentioned earlier in the discussion of the Pieta.

The next fault is found in the color black. Black has long been a symbol of power, and as the saying goes “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is no coincidence that the lines that crisscross this piece are black as well – power and the insatiable desire humans have for it pervades almost every element of our societies. Machiavelli’s the Prince illustrates well just how pervasive that power can be: in every action a ruler makes, Machiavelli urges that they use it to enhance their grip on their people. Although absolute monarchy is a thing of the past, the same deceptions and tactics are used today, even in democracies. I would argue that, in many cases, democratic elections are not so much about what is best for the people, but what is best for the power of the political party. Black is also the color of death and mystery. The fear of death is literally programmed into us all, as survival is our most basic instinct. Mystery is also an integral part of our lives – we are only human after all, and no one can know everything that will happen to us.

The final two colors in the composition represent more positive attributes of humanity, but their placement changes what they mean in the overall composition. Blue is the color of stability, and seeing how precarious interpersonal and international relations can be it is accurately hidden in a corner of the composition. As mentioned before, the color of joy occupies the bottom tip of the composition, showing that even in the mire of negatives that make up human nature, there is always hope.

After some analysis, one can see how this painting can in fact mean something. It turns out that even a seemingly nonrepresentational piece of art can actually be a medium for deep ideas. When regarding this kind of art, many people are too closed minded. Art is like poetry, and as Da Vinci and so many others have said, the eyes are the gateway to the soul – any visual art piece can pass through and touch you as an individual. Mondrian managed to do this with this composition.