Mondrian Nudes

This page derives from Mondrian References, where a variety of themes relating to Mondrian's life and works are explored.

In quick succession, in 2002 (when at the height of my Mondrian Inclination) I found three books on nude paintings and drawings which make reference to Mondrian and they are explored here. Having found a copy of Yoga Art in February 2010 and devoted a page to that, I was encouraged to seek the two books I did not have and found them both relatively inexpensively.

At the time of writing, I have two of the books and the third on the way. It is easy to be sceptical about the nature of these books and the motives of the authors and I expected them to be more inclined to following the quick buck of prurience rather than producing serious books on art, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The Painting the Nude Handbook

The Painting the Nude Handbook,Ettore Maiotti

This is a genuinely interesting book which takes the reader through the ages of nude representation in art and offers guidance in techniques and in developing an individual approach to the subject. I find it surprising that Mondrian is mentioned, given the level of his skill in representational art, but here it is.

Mondrian's Nudes

When the futurists declared that art was dead they forgot to point out that the art critics had died the day before to help it on its way. Though the role of the art critic has changed radically since then, it is still the critic's prerogative to heap praise or blame upon a certain painting or painter. Listen to what Michel [Seuphor] wrote about the critics in his biography of Piet Mondrian:
"In January 1909 the exhibition held by the trio Spoor-Sluyters-Mondrian at the Municipal Gallery in Amsterdam led to an outcry in the Dutch press. Most of the criticism was directed against Mondrian. He had exhibited a series of new canvases depicting Zeeland and some other earlier paintings of Brabant. Most of them were large sketches made on unprepared board, with large areas completely bare. All the 'great names' came out in force to attack Mondrian: famous writers, writers trying to become famous, well-known journalists and art critics, experts on what was considered good taste. Lesser-known critics were generally more prudent, saying that maybe they had not understood properly. On the whole, they served the history of art better than their more illustrious colleagues. The great writer Frederik van Eeden, for example, in an article for a magazine (Health and Decay in Art), said that 'in Mondrian the decline is tragic and terrible; his original talents were so great that he had farther to fall. Some of his early paintings are truly magnificent and his vision of nature is grandiose and noble. At times his use of colour is marvellous. But there is no trace of all this in his latest works. Who or what has made him lose his head? Probably Van Gogh. It is in any case clear that, whatever the reason may be, he has totally lost his balance and has begun scribbling in an abominable way'. Later, still referring to Mondrian, he speaks of stupidity and lack of sensibility. Israel Quierido, another great Dutch novelist, agrees with Van Eeden: Mondrian, according to Quierido, is sick, even degenerate. A few years later Erich Wichmann wrote: 'Mondrian? just a beautiful corpse'. Just Havelaar, a famous essayist and intellectual, said that 'Mondrian has never been a very good painter' (Het Vaderland, March 8, 1922).
In 1910, a year after the Exhibition, Mondrian made an important contribution to the Luminist exhibition, again in the Municipal Gallery of Amsterdam. Once more, he became the object of the critics' wrath. N.H. Wolf, a very well-known critic who also claimed to be a friend of Mondrian, wrote that 'his work is that of a sick person, someone who is not normal', adding that 'it is not even art any more'." [I think that's the end of the Seuphor quote]

Anyone who loves art also loves nature. We get the same thrill from gazing at a landscape bathed in full sunshine or in a certain light as we get from looking at a picture painted, say, by one of the Impressionists. One day, a few years ago, as I wandered around the countryside looking for inspiration for a painting, totally inundated by the sensations that only nature can give, I bent down to pick up a small leaf of a pear tree. The leaf was oval and curved slightly inward and its colours ranged from green to red with small brown patches. That tiny leaf contained all the shades of Autumn. That well-known shape and those hues seemed to me to represent an entire landscape. That day I gathered stones, leaves and roots. I felt the same sensation later on looking at paintings by Kandisky, Klee and Mondrian; I began to understand what abstract art was all about.

Nude 1908-11 - black chalk, 86x42 cm
Now let us take a look at the first nude painting by Mondrian.
It is a black chalk drawing on straw-paper carried out with great skill and portrays a female figure leaning against a narrow door, perhaps the door of a cupboard. The anatomical construction is very clear and the lines in the shaded areas outline the muscles.
Spring c.1905 - charcoal on cardboard, 69.5x46 cm
Mondrian's second nude is entitled Spring and manages to express more sensations than the first. The figure is drawn by means of a sequence of wavy lines which are then repeated in the space external to the figure itself, thus creating the sensation of something growing vertically upwards while being blown horizontally by a light breeze, exactly like a spring flower in a field.
Nude, 1912 - oil on canvas, 140x98 cm
A third study by Mondrian concludes this journey towards abstraction. In this painting we can still recognize the general image of the first. The one eye is balanced by the sensation of the other looking out into the unshaded area. It feels as if the inner soul of the figure is looking out to discover what lies beyond her body. The body itself is made up of coloured blocks which become rhythmical squares. The construction lines lead through various shades of grey to the bottom of the picture which thus dominates. The figure emerges from the semi-darkness and her soul appears to be deciding whether to come out into the light or go back into the dark.

Eroticism in contemporary art

Eroticism in contemporary art, Volker Kahman

This is not so much to my taste. Kahmen sees nudity (and sometimes eroticism) everywhere, though perversely, hardly at all in the Mondrian landscapes included in the book (only in the penetrating pier. There are many good pictures in the book but most are only shown in black and white.

In Alphabet of passion ( Alphabet der Leidenschaft ) 1961 Konrad Klapheck painted 'twenty bicycle bells in a regular row, which were partly meant to suggest a landscape'. In his monograph on Klapheck, Jose Pierre wrote of this picture: 'Are we not being offered a catalogue of love positions here? ... The propeller shape represents the male element and the lever shape represents the female element. The cogwheel, the symbol of physical union, could represent the orgasm- or alternatively it could stand for the child, the visible result of the embrace.' This interpretation would seem to be justified by the title, especially as each single bell has its own individual character.
A button which binds two halves together by penetrating a hole has sexual significance, even if it is not fastening up the flies of the trousers, as in Domenico Gnoli's Waist line' 1969
In Claes Oldenburg's Soft typewriter, 1964 the hard buttons of the typewriter keys are embedded in the soft trough of the instrument.
In Arman's picture Accumulation, 1963 a fetishistic collection of buttons is covered with a sticky substance which keeps them together - and at the same time this collection is very pleasing to the eye.
In White lights, 1959 Marc Tobey carries this idea a stage further: two elements, a dot and a dash, fill the space and the two different kinds of tension create an aesthetic texture which may, by association of ideas, suggest a night sky filled with stars.
In The sea (Il mare) c. 1914 Piet Mondrian creates sensual tension within a large oval form by juxtaposing horizontal and vertical elements, while relating each of these elements to the oval which surrounds them. Here the detail of the sea is extended to include the water, in the lower half of the oval bowl, and the sky in the upper half of the oval bowl. The streak on the horizon has the most important function, for it marks the beginning and the end of the two bowls.
Similarly, in Achrome, 1959 Piero Manzoni relates the play of the folds to a horizontal symmetrical axis, but in this case the halves only open after suction from above or from below, for the zone shows a detail and the points of tension lie outside the picture.
Mondrian later introduced a kind of rhythm into the arrangement which we saw in The sea: in a charcoal drawing which is also called The sea (Il mare), 1914 he joined the verticals and horizontals in such away that the horizontal parallel elements determine the appearance of the drawing. The water moves horizontally, but the tension arises from the vertical stress of the crests of the waves. Thus we have the feeling that the oval encloses a living organism.
If a pier penetrates into the ocean, as in Pier and ocean, 1914, the wave rhythm becomes disorderly - only when the line of movement has reached the horizon line does it try to compensate by smoothing the mirror of the sea.
Giuseppe Capogrossi creates his pictures from a single shape which resembles a rake with four prongs. But in a drawing dated 1964 we can see how much sensual tension is contained in the prongs of this shape. The ones at the bottom of the picture are posed like a row of pin men, but each shape seems to be waiting for its complementary half. The missing half resists the idea of joining up and tries instead to achieve symbiosis with the shapes in the upper half of the picture. It is not certain which connections will be stable, for everything is in a state of fluctuation and tension.
Dieter Stein's use of colour gives his work a visual sensuality - indeed the organic quality of his pictures comes from their colour composition. We can contrast this with an early work by Gotthard Graubner dated 1960, which is almost monochrome and in which we can distinguish nothing but overlapping, cloud-like zones
Richard Oelze obtained the same effect in a drawing c.1935, expanding the surface of the picture into a sensual, vibrating area of colour.
Dieter Stein builds up spots of colour, layered on top of one another, which create a whole series of different spatial relationships. In a work of 1967 he combines strongly coloured elements inside a conical gusset. It looks almost as if the colours arc being swallowed up and reduced, so that when they have been purified and reduced they can trickle through the lower cleft between the wide, protruding thighs.

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page created 11th March 2010
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