PIETER CORNELIS “PIET” MONDRIAN
1872 (March 7): Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan (he would change his last name into “Mondrian” in 1911 ) was born in Amersfoort, The Netherlands.
1892: Mondrian was admitted to the Amsterdam Academy of Fine Arts.
1894: Mondrian’s fellow student at the Academy and friend, architect Karel de Bazel, joined the Theosophical Society.
1900: Mondrian went through a religious crisis and abandoned the Calvinist faith of his family. He also read The Great Initiates by French Theosophist Éd ouard Schuré.
1901: Mondrian painted The Passion Flower, a work in which some critics see religious influences.
1908: Mondrian painted Devotion, a work he explicitly connected to Theosophy in his notebooks.
1909 (May 14): Mondrian formally joined the Theosophical Society.
1911: Mondrian completed his triptych Evolution, a powerful statement of Theosophical doctrine.
1912: Mondrian moved to Paris, where he first stayed in a guest room provided by the Theosophical Society.
1914: The journal of the Dutch Theosophical Society, Theosophia, rejected a long article by Mondrian on Theosophy and art.
1915: Mondrian came under the influence of independent Dutch Theosophist, and founder of Christosophy, Mathieu Hubertus Josephus Schoenmaekers.
1918: Mondrian rejected Schoenmaekers and returned to an orthodox “Blavatskyan” approach to Theosophy.
1921: Mondrian wrote to Rudolf Steiner, founder and leader of Anthroposophy, but received no answer.
(ca.) 1930: Mondrian started considering Neo-Plasticism as a new world spirituality superseding a ll religions and spiritual paths, including Theosophy.
1932: Mondrian’s application to join Freemasonry was rejected.
1938: Mondrian moved to London and asked his membership in the Theosophical Society to be transferred to the British branch.
1940: Mondrian moved to New York, where he stopped being active in the Theosophical Society.
1941 (April 12): Mondrian met in New York Charmion von Wiegand, with whom he would start a spiritual, personal, and artistic relationship.
1942: With the help of von Wiegand, Mondrian started working at Victory Boogie Woogie, his last masterpiece and a summary of his mature ideas.
1944 (February 1): Mondrian died in New York.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) [Image at right] was one of the founders of abstract art, and a painter of immense influence on the whole twentieth century modernistic art movement. He was a member of the Theosophical Society for most of his adult life, although in later years he came to regard his own brand of art, Neo-Plasticism, as a new global spirituality superseding all religions and spiritual schools, including Theosophy.
Dutch historian Carel Blotkamp argued that Mondrian is best understood as a man of the Belle Époque. In 1919, he wrote to a Dutch friend from Paris sharing his enthusiasm for the book Comment on devient fée (How to Become a Fairy) by French Rosicrucian novelist Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918). “You will find much of me in this work, Mondrian wrote; he takes inspiration from the same ancient sources (occult)” (Blotkamp 1984:14). It would be difficult to find a book more representative of late nineteenth century occultism, which by 1919 was largely perceived as outdated, but not by Mondrian.
Mondrian was born in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, on March 7, 1972 in a family of art teachers who subscribed to a strict variety of Calvinism. The painter’s first contacts with occultism and Theosophy occurred when he was a student at the Amsterdam’s Academy of Fine Arts between 1892 and 1897. Among Mondrian’s fellow pupils was Karel de Bazel (1864-1932), who went on to become a leading Dutch architect. De Bazel joined the Theosophical Society in 1894. In 1896, he became a founding member of its Vahana Lodge in Amsterdam, together with fellow architects Johannes Ludovicus Mathieu Lauweriks (1864-1932) and Hermanus Johannes Maria Walenkamp (1871-1933). Another prominent Dutch architect, Michiel Brinkman (1873-1925), became the chairperson of the Rotterdam Lodge in 1903 (Lambla 1999:8-9).
According to Mondrian’s friend Albert van den Briel (1881-1971), the painter experienced around the year 1900 a religious crisis that led him to abandon the Calvinist Protestantism of his parents. He studied with great interest the doctrines of Theosophy and of the book The Great Initiates written by French Theosophist Édouard Schuré (1841-1929), to which he continued to refer throughout his life (Seuphor 1956:53-54). Under the influence of a fellow painter, Cornelis Spoor (1867-1928), Mondrian in 1909 both manifested “a sudden interest in yoga” (Bax 1995:292) and finally decided to become a member of the Theosophical Society. He formally joined it on May 14, 1909 (Bax 2006:547).
Mondrian referred in his correspondence and notebooks to several of his paintings as related to Theosophy. They included theearly Devotion (1908), which depicts a girl’s spiritual awakening, and the 1911 triptych Evolution. Mondrian scholar Robert P. Welsh (1932-2000) found religious influences already at work in an early painting, Passion Flower, [Image at right] commonly dated 1908 but in fact, according to Welsh, painted in or around 1901. Although similar in style to Evolution, Passion Flower does not yet allude to Theosophy but to a Christian mysticism and symbolism. Welsh finds in Passion Flower a “still basically ethical or Christian content,” perhaps with a moralistic element, as the painter had heard thathis model had been “infected with venereal disease” (Welsh 1987:167).
Welsh also suggested that the triptych Evolution [Image at right] should be read in a sequencegoing from left to right and then to the centre, depicting the three stages of the Theosophical enlightenment (Welsh 1971:47-49).
In 1912, when Mondrian arrived in Paris, where he would read Cubism through Theosophical lenses, before moving to his own studio he decided to stay in a guest room at the headquarters of the French Theosophical Society (Blotkamp 1994:59). When he returned to the Netherlands, Mondrian kept a portrait of Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), co-founder of the Theosophical Society, hung on the wall of his studio in Laren (Seuphor 1956:57).
Mondrian’s theoretical writings are impossible to understand without considering their roots in Theosophy. The earliest effort to present his ideas on abstract art was a long article on Theosophy and art written in 1913-1914 and intended for the Dutch Theosophical journal Theosophia. The text was rejected as too complicated and has unfortunately been lost, but we know something of its content from two sketchbooks compiled in Paris in the same years. Here, we see that for Mondrian Theosophy could help reduce art to “great generalities,” colors and lines, capturing the essential beyond any representation or symbolism (Welsh and Joosten 1969).
Mondrian’s ideas were already grounded in Theosophy before he met, in 1914 or 1915, the controversial Dutch esoteric author Mathieu Hubertus Josephus Schoenmaekers (1875-1944), a former Catholic priest and Theosophist who had developed his own esoteric system known as Christosophy. Hans Ludwig Cohn Jaffé (1915-1984) insisted on Schoenmaekers’s crucial influence on the development of Mondrian’s mature worldview and art, and on the foundation in 1917 of the movement and journal De Stijl. The very term “Nieuwe Beelding’” translated into English as “Neo-Plasticism’” was coined in 1916 by Schoenmaekers (Jaffé 1956). In 1916, van Doesburg described Mondrian as “obsessed by the theories of Dr. Schoenmaekers” (Blotkamp 1994:111), but the obsession was short-lived. By 1918, the artist came to refer to Schoenmaekers as an “awful man” and to conclude that, if the former priest wrote anything valuable, he derived it from Blavatsky (Blotkamp 1994:111). She taught, Mondrian argued, that cosmic harmony, truth, and beauty were one. They might be reduced to two simple elements, one male, vertical, represented by the line, and one female, horizontal, represented by color and background (Bax 2006:234-39).
Theosophy was one among different elements that lead to Mondrian’s move from symbolism to abstract art, to his theorization of Neo-Plasticism, and to his co-operation and later break, in 1924-1925, with van Doesburg. This break is normally attributed to van Doesburg’s insistence in using diagonal lines, rather than simply horizontal and vertical, as Mondrian recommended. In fact, there was more. Although sympathetic to Theosophy, van Doesburg was not a member of the Theosophical Society. In the 1920s, he gradually came to criticize Mondrian’s “rigid” Theosophy (Blotkamp 1994:192) and what he saw as his friend’s increasing transformation of Neo-Plasticism from an artistic movement into a religion.
Michel Seuphor (1901-1999) argued that Mondrian’s religion went from Calvinism to Theosophy and from Theosophy to Neo-Plasticism, which “absorbed” Theosophy and became a global spiritual worldview (Seuphor 1956:58). In fact, Mondrian saw Neo-Plasticism, particularly after his debates with the Dutch philosopher Louis Hoyack (1893-1967) in the 1930s, as a millenarian project for transforming the whole of society. He believed that, just as the Neo-Plastic way of painting had disposed of the old art and created an entirely new one, so Neo-Plasticism would end up destroying the old forms of state, Church, and family and creating new, simpler and better ones. Correctly read, his paintings were a manifesto for this brave new world. “The rectangular plane of varying dimensions and colors, Mondrian wrote, visibly demonstrates that internationalism does not mean chaos ruled by monotony, but an ordered and clearly divided unity” (Mondrian 1986:268). [Image at right]
Most Theosophists rejected these utopian ideas and did not fully understand Mondrian’s art. He came to the conclusion that the powers that be in the Theosophical Society were “always against my work.” His utopian vision of global reform had something in common with certain trends in Freemasonry. Yet, in 1932 he wrote to Hoyack that his request to become a Freemason had not even been considered (Blotkamp 1994:16).
Painful as they were, these rejections did not lead Mondrian to a break with Theosophy. When he moved to London in 1938, he duly asked the Theosophical Society to transfer his name to the local branch (Blotkamp 1994:16). It is also significant that in London his best friend was the painter Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981), a Christian Scientist. Although obviously different from Theosophy, the metaphysical Christianity of Christian Science did interest many Theosophists.
According to American painter Charmion von Wiegand (1896-1983), after he moved to New York in 1940 Mondrian was no longer active in the Theosophical Society. In fact, he “had gone beyond organizations or groups […]. To him, they represented limitations, a division in the total unity he sought to achieve.” Yet, von Wiegand maintained, he had not denied Theosophy but had made it “implicit to his life” (Rowell 1971:77).
Charmion von Wiegand is a very reliable source on Mondrian’s American years. Although her personal papers remain so far unavailable to scholars, those who knew her reported that she was more than a friend to the Dutch painter. Von Wiegand first met him on April 12, 1941 in New York (Hersh 1998:228) and started a close personal and artistic relationship that lasted until Mondrian’s death on February 1, 1944. Von Wiegand came from a family of Theosophists, and later became a pupil of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949), although she described herself at the same time as a Marxist. After Mondrian’s death, she became an important figure in New York’s Tibetan Buddhist scene (Introvigne 2014).
Mondrian also believed himself to be an “old soul,” i.e. in Theosophical jargon to have been “ reincarnated many times” (Rowell 1971:,80-81). Theosophy teaches that old souls are often misunderstood by their contemporaries. Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism was not appreciated by these Theosophists who believed that a Theosophical art should explicitly include Theosophical symbols or rely on “thought-forms,” i.e. shapes and colors of thoughts and feelings perceived by clairvoyant Theosophists and described by Theosophical leaders Annie Besant (1847-1933) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934: Besant and Leadbeater 1905). For many Theosophists, this was Theosophical art. For Mondrian, it was not (Blotkamp 1986:98): pure Theosophical art was indeed Neo-Plasticism.
Early interpreters insisted that Theosophy did not play a significant role for Mondrian. As late as 1990, Yve-Alain Bois wrote that happily “the theosophical nonsense with which the artist’s mind was momentarily encumbered” disappeared quite rapidly from his art (Bois 1990:247-48). This was not, however, Mondrian’s own position. In 1918, he wrote to Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931): “I got everything from The Secret Doctrine ” (Blotkamp 1994:13), referring to a book written by Blavatsky. In 1921, in a letter to the founder of the Anthroposophical Society, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), Mondrian argued that his own brand of art, Neo-Plasticism, was “the art of the foreseeable future for all true Anthroposophists and Theosophists.” Disappointed at not having heard back from Steiner, Mondrian insisted in another letter to van Doesburg, in 1922, that “it is Neo-Plasticism that exemplifies Theosophical art (in the true sense of the world)” (Blotkamp 1994:182).
As mentioned earlier, this opinion was not shared by the leadership of the Theosophical Society in the Netherlands, which led Mondrian to the persuasion that Neo-Plasticism went in fact beyond Theosophy and was capable of offering to the world a new religion. There is no reason, however, not to take Mondrian seriously when he repeatedly stated that Theosophy inspired him in his quest for a reduction of the universe to its primary components, horizontal and vertical straight lines and colors. [Image at right] Accordingly, it is also fair to state that, through Mondrian, the Theosophical Society greatly contributed to the birth of modern abstract art.
All images are clickable links to enlarged representations.
Image #1 : Piet Mondrian.
Image #2: Piet Mondrian, The Passion Flower (1901)
Image #3 : Piet Mondrian, Evolution (1911).
Image #4: Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black (1921).
Image #5: Piet Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie (unfinished, 1942-1944).
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Bax, Marti. 1995. “Theosophie und Kunst in den Niederlanden 1880-1915.” Pp. 282-320 in Okkultismus und Avantgarde: von Munch bis Mondrian 1900-1915. Ostfildern: Tertium.
Besant, Annie and Charles Webster Leadbeater. 1905. Thought-Forms. London: The Theosophical Publishing House.
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Blotkamp, Carel. 1986. “Annunciation of the New Mysticism: Dutch Symbolism and Early Abstraction.” Pp. 89-111 in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, edited by Maurice Tuchman. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Bois, Yve-Alain. 1990. Painting as Model. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.
Hersh, Jennifer Newton. 1998. “Abstraction, Spiritualism, and Social Justice: The Art and Writing of Charmion von Wiegand.” Ph.D. Dissertation. New York: City University of New York.
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Mondrian, Piet. 1986. The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian. Edited by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James. Boston: G.K. Hall.
Rowell, Margit. 1971. “Interview with Charmion von Wiegand.” Pp. 77-86 in Piet Mondrian 1872-1944: Centennial Exhibition. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Seuphor, Michel. 1956. Piet Mondrian: Life and Work. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Welsh, Robert P. 1987. “Mondrian and Theosophy.” Pp. 163-84 in The Spiritual Image in Modern Art, edited by Kathleen J. Regier. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Welsh, Robert P. 1971. “Mondrian and Theosophy.” Pp. 35-51 in Piet Mondrian 1872-1944: Centennial Exhibition. New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Welsh, Robert P. and J.M. Joosten, 1969. Two Mondrian Sketchbooks, 1912-1914. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff International.