Feb 242014

Inspiration: Piet Mondrian

The Slow Fade



Inspiration Piet Mondrian by Adam Marelli

Inspiration Piet Mondrian by Adam Marelli


Our brains make powerful associations with shapes, colors, and patterns.  We are visual beings who are programmed, to a lesser extent, to make meaning of the things we see.  But how does an artist make visual contributions if they see the same things as an accountant?

This is Piet Mondrian, an artist...not actually an accountant, but you would never know by this picture. Piet Mondrian by André Kertész

This is Piet Mondrian, an artist…not actually an accountant, but you would never know by this picture. Piet Mondrian by André Kertész

The Museum Walls

When I would visit museums as a child, the canvases of Italian, Spanish and Dutch painters were endlessly fascinating.  The swinging nudes, the battle scenes filled with decapitated soldiers, and the dramatic illustrations of bible stories (though I was extremely skeptical of my Christian upbringing) had me transfixed on art’s ability to be more interesting than life (or at least my life.)  But no matter where I went, or who told me it was important, the world of abstraction did not appeal to me.

Composition 8 by Vassili Kandinsky

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky

The grids of circles, squares and rectangles looked like a life-sized coloring book for a wallpaper convention.  Artists from Ellsworth Kelley to Wassily Kandinsky left me scratching my head.  Why would anyone want to paint a square?  It seemed like a pointless task, especially when you could paint dancing nymphs, terrible warlords, or the far reaches of the human imagination?  Then one day during high school, things started to become a little clearer through the canvases of Piet Mondrian.

Together with a good friend, my sister and my mother’s car, we drove to MoMA to see Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”  The day was transformative…not only did I slightly rear end a limo at the toll booth, I also managed to park in front of the Czech Embassy and have my mother’s car impounded.  Two hundred and thirty dollars later, it was the most expensive trip to a museum I’ve ever had, but worth every penny.  In the end we got the car back, the scratch on the bumper was hardly visible, and we all agreed that my mother would be more interested in our art findings than the mysterious charge from the NYC Department of Transportation on her credit card.

Piet Mondrian Self Portrait (left) and Stammer Mill with Streaked Sky (right.)

Piet Mondrian Self Portrait (left) and Stammer Mill with Streaked Sky (right.)

Circle makes a Square

Back to the art…most abstract artists, like Piet Mondrian, were not always so abstract.  They came from the same Classical European painting tradition that fed Velasquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt.  They were not painting abstraction because they could not paint portraits and still lifes, but rather, they wanted to emphasize a different aspect of our visual world.  For those of you who have not been tortured with the slide lectures of an art history degree, think of it this way:

Abstraction, when it is done well…is like

making a painting of DNA rather than making

a portrait. Both approaches are equally valid,

they just emphasize different things.


To understand how or why Piet might have moved to pure geometry, I wanted to look at one of his early paintings that gives us a flash of insight as to his growth as an abstract painter.

Gone Fishing by Piet Mondrian.

“Going Fishing” (1898-1900) by Piet Mondrian.

Going Fishing

At first glance it would be hard to guess that “Going Fishing” (1898-1900) could have come from the same artist that would make “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1943) four decades later.  While one is a naturalistic view of a fisherman working in a harbor and the other a matrix of squares and rectangles, they actually share a lot in common.  And when we look at them with a transition piece, Piet’s growth from a classical European painter to one of the worlds most famous (and dare I say loved) abstract artists becomes a little less mysterious.

"Tree" by Piet Mondrian

“Tree” by Piet Mondrian

It’s not until we start describing “Going Fishing” in words, that we can easily understand that Piet was working in squares his entire life.  What he changed about the square was how he employed it on a canvas.  In his early work, we can see him painting pictures of  squares.  The floating docks and boats, all blocks set afloat on water, are an exercise in squares and rectangles.  There is a harbor filled with the platforms being shuffled by a fisherman.  You can almost hear the waterlogged panels as they thud quietly against one another.  It was as if Piet had his muse, but still did not know what to do with it.  The boat, the floating pads, and the single man possess the DNA of his later paintings, except he switches the immediacy of his subject when he comes to America.

"Broadway Boogie Woogie," (1943) by Piet Mondrian.

“Broadway Boogie Woogie,” (1943) by Piet Mondrian.

The Grid of New York City

New York City is a like a muse who occasionally likes to slap her artist around.  It can be a rough relationship.  Harsh at times, New York City offers an energy that is unique.  There is something about the city that caught Piet, just as it caught everyone from Walt Whitman to Andy Warhol.  So as he left his native Europe for New York City (in the 1940’s), we see how he stopped painting pictures of “square objects” and opted for directly painting the squares.  Can you see the influence of the city on Piet?  The colors, the grid, the lights, the rhythm…it’s all there (and on the section too).

Renoir once commented that, “You look at a painting, you live with it.”  I’d love to live with both of these paintings, but unfortunately one is at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris and the other is at MoMA in New York City.  So maybe they will have to live only in our imagination.  Though what could be a better reason for a trip to Paris than to see “Going Fishing” again in person.  Sounds like something I might just do.


Next time you are feeling like you are out of creative juices, have a look through the works of someone like Mondrian.  Find encouragement in his growth and range which developed over the course of his career, because chances are you are just like him.  You know what you want to do; it’s been in your work since the beginning, it just needs to take a new form.

While I still enjoy my Renaissance Masters, my tastes in art have evolved tremendously over the last twenty years.  As a high school art student, I would never have described a bunch of squares as remotely interesting, let alone influential.  They were too abstract for my sensibilities at the time.  All of art will never be interesting all at once.  As we change, the art changes too.  Now, I can’t imagine life without a bit of abstraction here or there.  For what it does, as the DNA of art, it does so well.  Although too much time at the microscope is bound to burn you out eventually.

Best-Adam Marelli


Additional Reading...

Additional Reading…

Additional Reading


  15 Responses to “INSPIRATION: Piet Mondrian”

  1. It may be well to reread in Charles Bouleau’s “The Painter’s Secret Geometry” what he reveals about “Broadway Boogy-Woogy.” Every line is in a phi relationship with another or more than one other line. This composition is very strictly planned and one of my favorite examples to tout identifying the visual structure of an image as a necessary part of analyzing it or interpreting it.

    Another case in point, I just spent two half days in the Art Institute of Chicago, no small part of which was looking at “La Grande Jatte,” another analysis of which is in Bouleau. In their store is a book on findings during a restoration that verify Bouleau to a degree, that Seurat did use a grid. Note that the painting is of 2×3 dimension and all that that implies for Leicaphiles.

    Cheers, as I continue to enjoy your columns,

    • Hi Tom,

      You are spot on…for anyone who has not read Charles Bouleau’s “The Painter’s Secret Geometry” its worth a read. Warning, its not cheap, but will be good fun if you get one.

      I only touched on it in the article, to avoid things getting too technical when I said its all “on the section.” To those who dont get that comment, it means that all the divisions are on dynamic symmetry divisions.

      Oh and Seurat is just too much fun to work with. One of his drawings made it to the Frick late last year. Blew my mind. It does not read in photographs. Its just brilliant.

      Thanks again for the kind words!


  2. I am still not in love with Mondrian, but I appreciate the lesson here, which I am choosing to read as something about how ones work will evolve and will tend to distill itself to its essence, and one should embrace that change. Roll with it, as they say.

    I know that what I am shooting these days is both much better than what I was doing five years ago, and unrecognizable to the Me of five years ago. I see now, more than before, that this is as it should be

    • Andrew,

      You touch on something very important, which I credit to NYU for teaching me. There will be art that speaks to you…this is the stuff that you say, “I like….” These are the pieces that you live for.

      Then, there will be other pieces, possibly like Mondrian, which are not your thing, but you start to understand something unbelievable from them, or someone else has a huge take away. I think an example for me is Cindy Sherman. I cant stand her work. It does nothing for me. But she did so much for young artists, that Im glad she contributed to the art world. Sure the pictures are dry, half composed and suffer from many of the “arty-non aesthetic nonsense” that governed her trajectory in art…but I gotta hand it to her. Her work really speaks to some people and connects with history that while its not my thing, Im happy its part of the conversation. Maybe Mondrian is like that for you.

      Either way, its great to hear that the you of now is mile different than the you of 5 years ago. It means you are out on the edge, trying new things and expanding your understanding of yourself and the world around you. What could be better?

      Keep it up!


  3. I must say reading your blog gives me inspiration to look at the things differently. I love photography, the way you explain things are brilliant. I started following you after your blog about Cartier Bresson. Hoping for some more insight on other artists or photographers as well (may be on Martin Parr). Thank You very much Sir, really appreciate your work. :)

    • Hi Nilesh,

      Thank you for the kind words and Im pleased that you are finding the site/my writing useful to your photography.

      Can I ask, what stands out for you about Martin Parr? He’s kind of another Cindy Sherman for me, though Im interested to hear your ideas.


  4. Ha! Cindy Sherman is a touchstone for me as well. Like you, I find her work not very interesting. For some reason, though, it was thinking about her and ‘why? how?!!’ that got me to realize that a big part of success even in pure fine arts is simply doing the work.

    It’s hard work to put together a real portfolio of 50 pictures. Not the same picture over and over, not “my 50 best pictures” but a real portfolio of connected work, printed to a reasonably high standard, that makes some sort of statement. Cindy Sherman is many things, but lazy is not one of them. Clearly she works her *** off. And that, ultimately, is something I found to respect about her.

    All this conceptual post-modern crap looks so easy, until you actually try to do it.

  5. Hi Adam,

    with some music from “Luca Sestak · Boogie Woogie Stomp · SummerJazz Pinneberg 2013 · Boogie Woogie Piano” (via youtube) on my ears, Mondrian `s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” came alive – sort of. But I don`t have a clue why “Broadway Boogie Woogie” is a finnished picture and “Victory Boogie Woogie” has not been finnished. What is missing in Mondrians last picture?

    Anyway – interestingly, Harald Mante and his books about photography are deeply influenced by the theòries of Kandinsky and his book “Point and Line to Plane”. Kandinsky wrote in that book, that he was triying to analayze the visual language and mentioned, that much of the knowledge the old masters had is/was lost.

    I wonder if he (Kandinsky) ment the knowledge you teach about the visual language and photography… ;-)



    PS: Thank you so much for your always inspiring blog.

  6. Hi Adam,

    it is nice to read another new great article in the “great composition” section.
    All articles are so enlightening for all us who did not have the opportunity to attend any art school,
    however we love art.
    I hope you continue to give us motives for study.


    • Thank you Eutychia,

      Happy that you are enjoying the pieces…it will save you about 100K in art school fees : )


  7. Adam,

    I remember seeing these works in art class in Grade school! I think I maybe more drawn to the colors than the shapes or squares and circles. Upon reading this I now sort of see the connection, my mind and attention is more attracted to the light and shadow of things… gives me fresh eyes to “look” differently.

    As I was reviewing book suggestions I noticed that the list says “the art of Now by David Hickey, no such book yet was presents itself in Amazon is The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes which is the book I think you wish to share. Correct ?

    • Hi Jeff,

      My mistake on the link. The David Hickey book that I was thinking of, which relates more to Warhol then Mondrian, is called “Air Guitar.” Its an excellent read, but the Robert Hughes “Shock of the New” is what I meant to put in. Hughes, an Australian originally, though he lived the later part of his life in NYC, is wonderfully acerbic and an pleasure to read.

      For leisure, his book Rome, is also quite good.

      As for Mondrian and his introduction in grammar school, Id say thats great you saw his work at a young age. Schools are not populated with an equal degree of artistic coverage. I was lucky to have a high school art teacher and a school that hung very nice reproductions of great art. From Picasso and Degas to Whistler and Piero della Francesca…the walls were always covered with something more interesting than the classes I was trying desperately to sleep through.


  8. Adam,

    According to amazon.com, Bouleau’s book is due in a few months from Dover, obviously at a very affordable price. It should hit the best seller list among art/photography folks, as there will be no excuse not to own it. Any and all art and art history programs should have it in their curricula, in fact, have a semester long course built around it. What with today’s computer/tablet art apps, it should be no problem to give homework problems.

    One thing that has helped my excitement level rise with contemporary art is understanding something about visual structure in an image and trying to figure it out in images. Granted, any attempt in a museum or gallery is just by eye, but to see if rabatment, armature, musical ratios, golden ratios, or what, might be behind how a painting was built adds an extra level or reason to contemplate and enjoy.

    Take care,

    • Hi Tom,

      Great news that Dover is finally publishing Bouleau…as you suggested I hope many people pick it up. Maybe I will do a TV show about the book and its relationship to the art works.

      And as you pointed out, the introduction of these principles can be eye balled. The best way to develop this further is with some tracing paper and a good book. But to get the ball rolling, a good book, a little direction, and some good museums will go a long way.

      It reminds me a bit of the time we spend with the winemakers at Giuseppe Quintarelli, in Negrar (outside of Verona, Italy.) While 4 hours with Francesco wont allow me to make my own wine, a personalized tutorial has given me a better understanding of how he approaches his wines. Art is not too different. Its best to learn about works of art from someone who either draws or paints, preferably both. It makes those museum trips even more rewarding.


  9. http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/0486780406/ref=tmm_pap_new_olp_sr?ie=UTF8

    The above is the link to Dover’s reprint of Bouleau. When I looked at the Bouleau page yesterday, the Dover was not there. Querying customer service, I received the link in reply without explanation as to why they had taken it down. The Dover is due out in August, but, using this link, one can preorder.

    There is a print-on-demand version available now from Allegro Editions, the quality of which I have no idea. I’ll wait for the Dover.

Add Comment Register

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>