See Mondrian's work at the Stedelijk Museum - free entry with the I amsterdam City Card

Moving away from mimicry

Born in Amersfoort in 1872, Mondrian was a pioneer of 20th century abstract art, and one of the founders of De Stijl (or Neoplasticism). Mondrian and his contemporaries were proponents of pure abstraction, and the movement – arguably a reaction to Modern Baroque – believed that this simplification was necessary to communicate a truly universal beauty.

But Mondrian’s earlier works were quite different, and like many abstract artists his primary skillset was built around copying the natural world. After graduating from Amsterdam’s Royal Academy of Visual Arts, the artist was exposed to (and heavily influenced by) Post Impressionism, and he was fascinated by how much more he could express through intensifying light or colour. He soon abandoned mimicry altogether, including the need to paint with realistic colours, something you can clearly see in his Evening: Red Tree (1908-1910) at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, in The Hague.

Red Tree by Piet Mondrian
Evening: Red Tree

Paris and Picasso

Mondrian’s style took a sharp turn when he moved to Paris in 1912. Already heavily influenced by the Theosophist quest to simplify the universe, the artist was stunned at how cubism treated surfaces and planes, and its use of a limited colour palette. 1912 is also the year he painted The Gray Tree, a painting that beautifully illustrates his further movement towards abstraction.

The Gray Tree is a subtly oval, two-dimensional reduction of a tree, using only greys and black. It is one of Mondrian’s first experiments with cubism, and had clear echoes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. In later paintings of that series, the form of the tree is further reduced until it is barely discernible, and the spotlight is instead shone on the structure, organisation and arrangement of the vertical and horizontal lines; a foreshadowing of what would later become Mondrian’s unique and most identifiable style.

Gray Tree by Piet Mondrian
The Gray Tree

The Netherlands and World War I

It was Mondrian’s ill father that brought the artist back home, but it was World War I that kept him here. His time in the Netherlands was pivotal, as two Dutch contemporaries convinced him to further restrict his colour palette (thank Bart van der Leck for that) and simplify his images down to flat lines and colours (Theo van Doesburg’s influence); the three of course went on to found what we now know as De Stijl. Mondrian would continue his process of simplification, even eliminating diagonal lines, ever on the quest to achieve perfect harmony and express universal beauty.

Composition II in red blue and yellow by Piet Mondrian
Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow

Balance and universal beauty

Mondrian believed that abstraction through reduction, both in life and art, eliminated unnecessary complication and brought out what was true and essential. His views have both critics and proponents, but the balance and harmony in his most identifiable works are undeniable – even empirically so: studies have shown that an overwhelming percentage of people prefer his original art when compared to slightly modified versions, or even copies of the original (versus the originals themselves). For this reason alone (and if you haven’t already) it’s essential to see Mondrian’s works in person, and not settle for any less.

Where to see Mondrian’s work

Mondrian’s masterpieces are spread across the country and the globe, but there are a few places you should visit during your time in Amsterdam. These include the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum. If you’re heading out of the city then the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, in the Hague, has an extensive Mondrian collection and is a must-visit. And a smaller, more specialised collection of Mondrian and contemporary works can also be found at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo.

More museums included in the I amsterdam City Card