Art · The Comfort Zone

Piet Mondriaan: Mill In The Sunlight 1908.

Molen Bij Zonlicht, 1908.

It's as if the painter can't trust his viewer to see what has been painted. But then, with the Dutch, who are a bone headed lot at the best of times, these painters might have had a point.
Piet Mondriaan: Molen Bij Zonlicht.
Collectie Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

I didn’t go to the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague on Saturday to see the Mondriaan exhibition; I went to see the paintings by Isaac Israel and his friend George Breitner. But to get to this exhibition I had to go through the Mondriaan exhibition and it stopped me in my tracks. The exhibition is entitled, “De Ontdekking Van Mondriaan” or ‘Discover Mondrian‘.

A discovery it certainly was! I’ve never seen many of his early paintings, and they are astonishingly good. I shan’t dwell on them because Mondriaan (who dropped an ‘a’ after he moved to Paris in 1911) is better known for his abstracts. Those are for another post, though. What I want to examine in this post is why he chose the path to abstraction rather than of painting the world around him. Reality by any other name.

It was an off hand comment by one of the commentators of the exhibition that gave me the clue as to what was going on in Mondriaan’s life at the time. He was a painter, and by the age of 14 he knew this is what he wanted to devote his life to. I’ll add that Isaac Israels who is but seven years older, was a well rounded painter by the age of sixteen just as Mondriaan was himself. This was raw talent if ever there was.

So what made such an incredibly talented painter turn away from the source of all that is beautiful? The key is in this painting of a windmill. I don’t know which one it is, and it isn’t the one at Gein that he often painted.

There are several striking issues with his depiction: it has the strident, almost explosive power of a van Gogh. Mondriaan saw the exhibition of van Gogh’s work in 1905 (the man had been dead for a decade before he became famous) and like so many others, was inspired by the forceful nature of the colours.

At the time, Mondriaan was painting the evening light, trying to capture the mood – the ‘sphere’ as the Dutch call it – of the end of the day. His colours being subtle and profound, not to say moving. There is a genuine communication of what the artist saw and what is evoked in the mind of the viewer.

Delineating things in his mind meant Vincent van Gogh wanted to compartmentalize that which should be free.
Vincent van Gogh: Langlois Bridge At Arles, 1888.
Note the dark lines along the top of the bridge: in the intense sunlight of southern France, these would not be seen.
Collectie Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

Mondriaan was not satisfied with this, though. Just depicting something was simply not enough: he needed to enhance it somehow. Not to exaggerate as such, that would come later, but to make the mood more obvious. That is to say, he added something to his paintings that wasn’t there. In the way Vincent van Gogh added lines to his painting of the bridge at Arles when there weren’t any in reality. He needed to show the bridge was there by adding black lines to draw the viewers’ attention to it – when it was already the centrepiece of the painting! It was unmissable; but that’s not how people think, and my upcoming post on the new livery of the Dutch railways will explore this phenomenon in a less serious way. There is something about the modern artist that is trying to tell the viewer to see what is obvious and in plain sight.

It’s as if the painter can’t trust his viewer to see what has been painted. But then, with the Dutch, who are a bone headed lot at the best of times, these painters might have had a point.

The Windmill.

The painting itself is bold and colourful. Mondriaan worked with a palette of three colours: red, yellow and blue. This was a little like Tom Thomson who painted with four colours – albeit he mixed them to achieve an effect that is truly majestic. Mondriaan on the other hand kept the colours pure and the result literally hits you between the eyes. Subtle it is not, but then, that’s what modern art is all about. Anything that doesn’t have impact is boring.

Which is what Mondriaan is all about, isn’t it? He chose to embellish the things he witnessed and recorded in paint – rather than offer an honest appraisal. It has to be added that shadows are a peculiar beast and with the sun directly behind the mill, it’s possible that it could have had a reddish tone to it – but not the dazzling red he employed here.

Thus we have two elements at play: Mondriaan was bored with the plodding reality of a rather flat and plodding country studded with interminable windmills. His response to this was to improve on it by painting something that wasn’t there.

What Is Wrong With Reality?

a wonderfully emotional painting by mondrian
Piet Mondriaan, The Fen By Saasfeld, 1907.
The evening light is to me wastly more powerful than the glaring red of the windmill.
Collectie Gemeentemuseum den Haag.

Mondriaan was an excellent painter, he just got bored with the dullness of the world around him. This is the key to understanding our modern world, though. Reality isn’t that interesting. Especially around here where it’s flat and the only hill is the wooden platform that the windmill stands on. The truly human thing to do is to work with that dullness in a way that allows one to be at peace with it. I’ll add that this is something that I have been able to do, albeit somewhat late in life. For me the dewdrops in the morning sun are my wealth, my diamonds.

They weren’t for Mondriaan. He wanted to improve on it. Rather than deal with reality, he preferred an illusion. In painting the windmill in a bright red, he was imposing his own needs over what he saw with his eyes. Now to be fair, nobody had done anything remotely as exciting as this before! Indeed, I have no problem with people trying out the possibilities in art or anything else. But with one proviso: that they accept that reality is, well, real. It’s no good to pretend that the windmill was red when the boring reality was that it was a muddy brown and had been for years. The miller was either too poor or too bored to be bothered to paint it.

Mind you, there’s always the possibility that it was actually painted red! I’ve never seen any red ones here, though, but I don’t live in Noord Holland where Mondriaan was painting. To be honest, in my village there aren’t any windmills at all…

Even so, the colours Mondriaan used were depictive rather than reflective, if you understand me. Mondriaan was trying to tell a story here rather than relate the boring facts. Telling stories is fine, just as long as they remain stories and people don’t wander around thinking that everybody they meet might just be Jack the Ripper – which is precisely what happened in the London of the late 1880s. The story became the reality in the mind of the newspaper reader! This led directly to the phenomenon of stoning dachshunds in the park a generation later…

Is it any surprise that Mondriaan should become ensnared in his own illusions, his own way of painting? There is another side to this, though, and it is the insidiousness of the illusion. In being the way he wanted to paint, it was comfortable to do so – it pleased him to do so. He was literally painting within his comfort zone. Wallowing in it, more like.

There is a problem, though. That in itself becomes rather dull… after all, there’s just so much you can do with your own imagination when that is all you are relying on. This is what happens when you have developed your own style, after all. The likes of Tom Thomson and JMW Turner solved this riddle by going out and finding something to inspire them again – just as I do. Mondriaan had already boxed himself in with his comfy illusions and it was all he wanted, irrespective of what would make him a better artist.

Mondriaan could only go one way: inwards. As he retreated inwards from the reality around him, his colours became more intense – that is to say, unnatural. Rectangular blocks of pure red, grey and yellow predominated along with various grids of black lines. You can already see the genesis of this in the rectangular clouds in his painting of the windmill. This was inspiration, but it was one that depended on his own abilities to come up with bright ideas, rather than absorbing them from outside. Further to this, he couldn’t think of what to call his new creations! All he could call them was “Composition.” Well, it’s better than the modern standard: “untitled.” The ultimate in abstract art, a painting that is so abstracted from reality that the painter couldn’t even think of a name for it.

You cannot get more pathetic than that, can you?


The exhibition ‘Discover Mondrian‘ is at the Gemeentemuseum den Haag until the 24th of September (click here for info). I hadn’t expected to say this, but it really is worth a visit; these paintings are not on show very often and it really shows the transition in Mondrian’s life.


13 thoughts on “Piet Mondriaan: Mill In The Sunlight 1908.

  1. Having spent 3 years in my youth trying to be a painter, struggling with the content of visual art, I was very interested to read your reflections on Mondrian.
    I have no problem with people making images such as Mondran’s compositions in Red, Blue and Yellow. However I found that once I had seen one such ‘composition’ there was really very little point in seeing another. Your ‘comfort zone’ comment is enlightening – maybe this is why the paintings became so uninspiring.
    I had a similar reaction to many of the so-called ‘abstract’ painters of the last century, from De Kooning through to Pollock. Once I had seen one or two images by each painter they did not interest me very much.
    This wasn’t true of all the painters who moved away from making easily recognisable ‘depictions’. I found most of Rothko’s paintings worth contemplating, and I mean contemplating. I spent long periods contemplating every Rothko I could find (- which wasn’t many in 60’s London!).
    I very often asked myself what it was in a particular image that moved me, whether it was Picasso, Klee, Rothko or Gwen John. What made me want to go to the Tate every weekend when I was not working?
    And for me, this became the key to all visual art – ‘Does it move me? Does it evoke feelings in me? Can I understand how and why it moves me?’
    Whether it was Michelangelo or Mary Potter. I would not willingly spend time with it unless something in it could waken my soul life.
    After I had seen one ot two of the later Mondrians the others failed to interest me.
    Having read your post I would love to see his early work and next time I am in The Netherlands I will make an effort to do so, so thank you for this interesting post.

    P.S. We have an English painter who followed a similar trajectory to Mondrian, Victor Pasmore. He was a fine atmospheric painter of people and land/seascapes, but made quite an abrupt change to ‘abstraction’. His abstract works are, at best, interesting, but lack the nuance and vitality to be found in his early work.


    1. Thankyou for your response, you raise some interesting points that are subtly different from my own understanding.

      You say, ‘Does it move me? Does it evoke feelings in me? Can I understand how and why it moves me?’ And you might ask, what is art? What is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or Shakespeare’s Othello? They too will move you – if you are movable, that is. Rudolf Steiner spoke about Shakespeare saying that even when performed poorly, the power of the words and the interactions of the players would make an impression on the audience.

      I don’t discuss music much on this site any more; it is transitory and far harder to describe… but that is the point, isn’t it? The feelings evoked within you are transitory, they only happen in that one circumstance. Whilst it is the painting (read art) that evokes these, it is the recipient in which they are raised – the painting itself is fixed, finished and dead. The painting was alive when the paint was still wet and the energetic Frans Hals was using a wallpaper brush to evoke the subtlest of gestures.

      It is sad that someone as talented as Mondrian was should turn away from it. Whilst his painting of the Ven at Saasfeld isn’t as immediate as Tom Thomson’s Maple Wood, it is still dramatic and it is moving. It has to be noted here that when a painting evokes something in the human soul, it will be the same thing every time. What’s more, it was this which lived in the soul of the artist.

      That, sir, is what communication is all about. Rudolf Steiner often said that he was lecturing to four or five people in his audience. When you understand that communication has to do with pure feeling, you will be able to discern that odd sentence that was the cornerstone of the entire lecture. Because it was this that Rudolf Steiner had to say to the few true listeners. You cannot do this by reading his words alone, you must be able to enter into the atmosphere that Steiner created – which is hard given that the lectures are mangled by both transcription and translation.

      What was it that frightened Mondrian off? Why didn’t he wish to express himself any more? That is, after all, what he did. His later paintings – and collating my photographs of them was difficult and boring because they were all “Composition [required colours] [date]” They had been standardized… and that is as far as I go, when speaking in public. You also know that these paintings didn’t move you. There are very good reasons why they didn’t move you the not least of which was that Mondrian wasn’t putting himself in them. He wasn’t communicating! He wasn’t taking a risk by saying something to you…

      Risk and trust are the two ends of the same stick. The problem here is that stick is you, it is personal and for those who take no risks, it is extremely painful to be reminded of this. The character, the expressiveness of Socrates stands out like a sore thumb; the lack of expressiveness in the Athenian council does not. What is painful is to be told that you are one of the inexpressive in this world, that you killed expressiveness in order that the youth of Athens should remain happy in their inability to express themselves. The Athenian council thought they were doing the right thing; they couldn’t have been more wrong. Socrates was wise enough to know that any city council would have acted in the same way (ahem!)

      I’ll let you decide which side you stand on.


  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response.
    You say, about the van Gogh, ‘ [Vincent van Gogh: Langlois Bridge At Arles, 1888.]…..
    Note the dark lines along the top of the bridge: in the intense sunlight of southern France, these would not be seen.’
    What a painter puts into an image is rarely what is seen, even a painter such as Norman Rockwell, who at first sight appears to be emulating a photograph. What is put in is the painter’s interpretation or attempt to ‘recreate’ in some way what is seen. A way to understand the dark lines on the top of the bridge is that they serve the function of making the bridge stand out against the sky. He may have wanted to do this because the bridge colouring is very close in tone to the background sky colour.
    Another reason van Gogh may have used those dark lines might be a compositional one.
    When looking at the whole canvas there is a darker colouring used as the edge of the canal, more or less under the black outlines used on the bridge. It has the effect of leading the eye strongly towards the structure of the bridge. The slightly darker edge reappears again nearer to the bridge where we see the edge of the canal against the bridge abutment wall. The break in the darker edging emphasises the bright stream of light coming under the bridge, reflecting off the canal water.
    He outlines in black the footpath entrance to the bridge, but does not need to continue immediately with his outline as the yellow wall stands out well against the blue/green vegetation in the distance. Following along the path pedestrians would walk towards the bridge we find a small cluster of people starkly drawn in dark colours and then we reach the infrastructure of the bridge itself – all outlined in dark colours, which as you say, no-one would actually see in the intense sunlight of southern france.
    So why did he do this?
    I think there may be a number of things at work. I suspect that by 1888 van Gogh had already seen Japanese woodcuts and was very struck by the way they are composed, the elements chosen to include in the image and what to leave out, and the dynamic effect of the outlining used to define where one shape begins and another ends.
    Secondly, maybe van Gogh wanted to make the structure appear very stark among the gentle colours of sky, canal, wall and canal bank.
    Whatever he was doing he created a wonderful light-filled image of human activity and endeavour, which I find heart-warming, it is as if he felt the light penetrating the earth , water and sky. And maybe he loved the beauty of that simple mechanism balanced so wonderfully that an adult could probable raise or lower the deck using one hand.

    I hope you don’t mind me writing such a long reply which doesn’t actually answer what you said to me!

    Regarding the Athenian council I would not have supported their action against Socrates, but they did make quite a good fist of fledgling democracy on other occasions.


    1. You say there may be a few things at work here. The first and most important of which is that van Gogh felt the need to embellish nature. Whatever the reasons he might (or might not) have given, all of them would have pointed to one thing: he liked what he saw. On his painting.

      We are dealing with van Gogh’s unconscious sympathies here: the things he likes but has no explanation for why he (for example) embroiders the truth of the bridge. Say what you like, van Gogh painted in this way because it pleased him to do so. I want to add here that unconscious sympathies are an insidious part of our lives; if for the only reason we like our illusions. That is a far more difficult issue to deal with than one’s fears. You should know what I am alluding to.

      So I raise the corollary – which is directly related to this post, which is all about embroidering – why was van Gogh not satisfied with the truth of what he saw with his two eyes???

      Would van Gogh, had he lived, become yet another abstract artist?

      In a post that has been published privately, I spoke of van Gogh’s use of swirls in his paintings. I’ll not discuss the exact nature of what he did because that is beyond the remit of this blog, that is to say, of things I no longer discuss publicly. Suffice it to say that van Gogh did not know why he painted in this way. Because if he did, he wouldn’t have. He painted – naturally, out of his own “free will”, it was his own choice to paint in this way – he painted out of his subconscious. He was not aware of what impelled him to paint in this way.

      As I say, had he been aware, he would not have done so. As a final note, art is healing by its nature. Yet Vincent van Gogh took his own life in late July 1890. Had he been aware, had he been conscious of what he was doing, his art would have been a solace – as mine is to me – and he would have burst into the public world with something truly useful to say.


      1. ‘As a final note, art is healing by its nature.’ That is the kind of art that I seek out also. I would include many of van Gogh’s paintings in that category, whereas you seem to have a different feeling about his work.
        I enjoy reading about your responses to art, I visit art galleries regularly myself.


      2. My point still stands: had van Gogh’s work been healing to him, why then did he seek suicide as a solace? He had so much to offer the world, and was not done away with in the way Tom Thomson was (because of his stand on pacifism that irked the aggressive, nationalistic nature of the time).

        There is a more insidious side to this, though. What is it in the works of van Gogh that gives you solace? What are you seeking in them that speaks to your sympathies but does not speak the truth?

        It is only in recognizing that which gave me solace in his works that allows me to create things that give me true solace. It has been a painful path to tread. Ask yourself why you do not wish to tread it too. I cannot do this for you; and am banned on other sites because I suggest it.


  3. I suppose that is your way of measuring people. I try not to make assumptions about people who I have never met.
    I like to dialogue with people who seem to share my interests, and I have found something of interest in many of your postings, from economics to engineering, from railways to art, people etc, etc.
    I am never sarcastic or elliptical and do my best to be congruent. When I said, ‘I am glad that your art is a source of solace to you.’ I meant it. Your sentence seemed to imply you felt in need of solace and I felt glad that you had found something that gave that to you.
    You have often mentioned your liking for conversation, but I am left feeling that you don’t like debate, which is something I do.


    1. You say you never make assumptions about people you’ve never met. But then, nor do I.

      Can you tell me what you will look for in someone who doesn’t have the necessary quotient of self-reflection?


  4. As regards treading painful paths, I do believe that you have trod a very painful path, but the ‘narrow gate’ (Matthew 7:13) of the path to the self is different for everybody.


    1. Rudolf Steiner didn’t write his Knowledge of the Higher Worlds because the principles are different for each of us. He wrote it because they are the same.

      What leads a person to read this book will be different; their reaction to it will be the same. What a person does with the understanding they gain from it will be different; the understanding itself will be the same.

      Life is simple when you understand that we must all eat and breathe; life is complex when people do things that have never been done before.


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