(Case Histories in the Pathology of Modern Art, No. 1)
What are we to make of Modern Art? We can actually learn a lot by looking at the things said by the artists while promoting their art and by the critics who support them. And we can even learn something useful by looking at the artists’ personalities.
Mondrian’s father was a schoolmaster who wanted him to become a teacher, but Mondrian was intransigent—one might even say, passive-aggressive: he wanted to be an artist, and after reluctantly getting a teaching degree in art, he refused to teach. Eventually, his father gave in and allowed him to go to the Academy of Fine Arts, where he found himself doing many of the things he had been taught to do before! His early work is mediocre naturalism, but in 1908, at the age of 36, he began to paint in taches. (In painting, taches refers to touches or blotches of paint that aren’t blended together.) This probably had its roots in the Impressionist style of Monet and the early Renoir (who probably invented it but abandoned it when he recognized it destroyed the form of the subjects).
Then Mondrian began to borrow from many others, and in 1911 he shaved off his beard and changed his name from Mondriaan to Mondrian. Perhaps this was his rite of passage. He went to Paris and painted in a cubist manner, reducing forms to aggregations of lines which had only a faint resemblance to the subjects he was painting. Eventually the subjects disappeared entirely, and he painted compositions made up of lines. Under the influence of Bart van der Leck, he abandoned lines in 1917 and began to paint squares and rectangles using only a few colors applied in flat blocks.
At this point, we need to side-track for a moment to look at another source of influence. He had joined the Theosophical Society of Holland in 1909, and had read books by Madame Blavatsky, the notorious medium who performed paranormal seances. A founder of the Society, she claimed that Theosophy was the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, and that it reached out to “ancient wisdom.” (This, from someone who knew very little science or philosophy!) Through it, she said, one could transcend ordinary states of consciousness and perceive the underlying ultimate reality. And she claimed to be able to get in contact with the ancient sages during seances!
Now things begin to gel. In 1917, Theo van Doesburg published an art review called De Stijl (pronounced duh stale), and both Mondrian and van der Leck were members. Frank Elgar, who wrote a book on Mondrian for the Praeger World of Art series translates part of the manifesto as follows. (Elgar is the source of all of the following quotations.)
“What we want is a new aesthetic based on pure relationships of lines and pure colors . . . . At the present time not only is pure beauty necessary to us, but it is, in our estimation, the only means capable of a pure manifestation of the universal force which is to be found in all things. It is identical with what was revealed in the past under the name of Divinity . . . .”
And in the first issue, Mondrian wrote:
“The truly modern artist is consciously aware of the abstraction in an emotion of beauty; he consciously acknowledges that the emotion aroused by beauty is cosmic, is universal. This conscious acknowledgement leads to an abstract plastic expression, limited only by what is universal.”
Mondrian called this, Neo-plasticism, a term he borrowed, indirectly, from M.H.J. Schoenmackers, a Theosophist he had met in 1916 (?). Schoenmackers had said:
“Only now are we learning to translate reality in our imagination by constructions controllable by reason in such a way as to recover these same constructions in the concrete attributes of nature, thus achieving a penetration of nature by means of plastic vision.”
If you find all of this to be vacuous, pretentious, polysyllabic drivel, you are right, but it is the sort of thing art theorists like. Elgar sums up the materials and techniques of neo-plasticism for us
“It is a theory founded on horizontal-vertical dualism, or the right angle, on the exclusive use of the three primary colors and the three non-colors, black, white, and grey. That is all neo-plasticism is.”
And he tells us how it works:
“Reduced to the most elementary figures and colors, to the simplest geometrical forms, Mondrian, in his painting, has condensed a seething mass of forces, compressed an accumulation of energy, and mastered perfectly well the occult powers of the universe.”
“Where ordinary people would be able to see nothing, he was able to see the infinite struggle between cosmic forces.”
This might be seen as a sort of bastardized Theosophy, and only one more thing is needed to show how completely ridiculous it all is. Elgar spells it out for us.
“His work is a challenge which was beyond the powers of any of his successors to accept, for, as he himself declared, his work marks ‘the end of painting.’”
So that’s it. There is no need for anyone to paint anything anymore. Painting has no future because Mondrian has exhausted all of the truly meaningful possibilities, and he has done this with the right-angle, three colors, and three “non-colors.” Hmmmm.
The kind of thinking shown in the quotations given above is just a tiny sample of the kind of claptrap that underlies all of Modern Art—that stuff didn’t just happen. It came buttressed by manifestoes and theories—but “theory” of this kind, is not based on facts, as the theories of science are, but on the egotistical assertion and lack of critical acumen possessed the artists and theorists. But we have now reached the point where the manifestoes are unnecessary. All a would-be artist needs to do is something that no-one has done before . . . at least in the same way. It doesn’t need an explanation. As Marcel Duchamp said, art is whatever the artist says it is—which is to say that it has no particular value at all, and novelty has come to mean creativity.
The essay, “Lichtenstein,” is Case No. 2 in Case Histories in the Pathology of Modern Art.
Note Frank Elgar, “Mondrian.” Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, New York, 1968. This is a fairly old book, but that is all the better for showing how the claims and arguments made by art critics facilitate the acceptance of the -isms that are now commonplaces in the arts. Critical statements made last year or last week are likely to make no more sense, but they may avoid the most nonsensical claims that were made before. The book is well-illustrated, and Elgar writes well.