Piet Mondrian’s “A Dialogue on Neoplasticism”

Translated from the Dutch by Hans L.C. Jaffé.

In De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York:1971).

• • •

A = A singer

B = Neoplastic painter

• • •

A: I admire your earlier work.  Because it means so much to me, I would like to understand your present way of painting better.  I see nothing in these rectangles.  What are you aiming at?

B: At nothing different than before.  Both have the same intention but my latest work brings it out more clearly.

[118]

A: And what is that intention?

B: The plastic expression of relationships through oppositions of color and line.

A: But didn’t your earlier work represent nature?

B: I expressed myself by means of nature.  But if you observe the sequence of my work carefully, you will see that it progressively abandoned the naturalistic appearance of things and increasingly emphasizes the plastic expression of relationships.

A: Do you find, then, that natural appearance interferes with the plastic expression of relationships?

B: You will agree that if two words are sung with the same strength with the same emphasis, each weakens the other.  One cannot express both natural appearance as we see it and plastic relationships, with the same determinateness.  In naturalistic form, in naturalistic color and in naturalistic line, plastic relationships are veiled.  To be plastically expressed determinately, relationships can be represented only through color and line in themselves. In the capriciousness of nature, form and color are weakened by curvature and by the corporeality of things.  To give the means of expression of painting their full value in my earlier work, I increasingly allowed color and line to speak for themselves.

A: But how can color and line in themselves, without the form we perceive in nature, represent anything determinately?

B: The plastic expression of color and line alone is to establish oppositions by means of color and line; and these oppositions express plastic relationship.  Relationship is what I have always sought, and that is what all painting seeks to express.

A: But painting was always plastically expressed through nature, and elevated us to the ideal through the beauty of nature.

B: Yes, to the ideal through the beauty of nature; plastic expression of the ideal is quite another thing than the simple representation of natural appearance.

A: But doesn’t the ideal exist only in us?

B: It exists in us and outside us.  The ancients said that the Ideal is everywhere and in everything.  In any case, the Ideal is plastically manifested aesthetically as beauty.  But what did you mean a moment ago by ‘the beauty of nature’?

A: I had in mind a statue containing all the beauty of the human form.

[119]

B: Well.  Think for a moment of masterpieces of the so-called realistic schools which show none of this ideal beauty and nevertheless express beauty.  Comparing these two types of art, you easily see that not only the beauty of nature but also its so-called ugliness can move us, or, as you say, elevate us toward the Ideal.  Neither subject-matter, the representation, nor nature itself creates the beauty of painting.  They merely establish the type of beauty that determines the composition, the color, and the form.

A: But that is not how a layman thinks of it, although what you say seems plausible.  Nevertheless I cannot imagine relationships expressed otherwise than by means of some subject-matter or representation, and not just through a composition of color and line alone; just as I can’t appreciate sounds without melody — a sound-composition by one of our modern composers means nothing to me.

B: In painting you must first try to see composition, color, and line, and not the representation as representation. You will finally come to feel the subject-matter a hindrance.

A: When I recall your transitional work, where color that was not true to nature to some extent destroyed the subject-matter, I do see more clearly that beauty can be created, in fact even more forcefully created, without verisimilitude.  For those paintings gave me a far stronger aesthetic sensation than purely naturalistic painting.  But surely the color must have a form?

B: Form or the illusion of form; anyway, color must be clearly delimited if it is to represent anything.  In what you call my transitional work you rightly saw that the subject-matter was neutralized by a free expression of color.  But you must also see that its plastic expression was determined by form which still remained largely true to nature.  To harmonize the color and the form, the subject-matter of the painting — and therefore its form — was carefully selected.  If I aimed, for instance, to express vastness and extension, the subject was selected with this in mind.  The plastic idea took on various expressions, according to whether it was a dune landscape, or the sea, or a church that formed the subject.  You remember my flowers: they too were carefully ‘chosen’ from the many varieties there are.  Don’t you find that they have yet ‘another’ expression than my seascapes, dunes and churches?

A: Indeed.  To me the flowers conveyed something more intimate, as it [120] were; while the sea, dunes and churches spoke more directly of ‘space.’

B: So you see the importance of form.  A closed form, such as a flower says something other than an open curved line as in the dunes, and something else again than the straight line of a church or the radiating petals of some other flowers.  By comparing, you see that a particular form makes a particular impression, that line has a plastic power, and that the most tensed Line most purely expresses irnmutability, strength and vastness.

A: But I still don’t understand why you favor the straight line and have come entirely to exclude the curved.

B: In searching for an expression of vastness, I was led to seek the greatest tension: the straight line, because all curvature resolves into the straight, no place remains for the curved.

A: Did you come to this conclusion suddenly?

B: No, very gradually.  First I abstracted the capricious then the freely curved, and finally the mathematically curved.

A: So it was through this abstracting that you came to exclude all naturalistic representation and subject-matter?

B: That’s right, through the work itself.  The theories I have just mentioned, concerning these exclusions, I developed afterwards.  Consistent abstracting led me to completely exclude the visible-concrete from my plastic, In painting a tree, I progressively abstracted the curve; you can understand that very little ‘tree’ remained.

A: Bur can’t the straight line represent a tree?

B: True.  But now I see something is lacking in my explanation: abstraction alone is not enough to eliminate the naturalistic from painting.  Line and color must be composed otherwise than in nature.

A: You mean that what the painter calls composition also changes?

B: Yes, an entirely different composition more mathematical but not symmetrical — is needed to plastically express equilibrated relationship purely. Merely to express the natural with straight lines still remains naturalistic reproduction even though die effect is already much stronger.

A: But won’t such abstracting and transformed composition make everything look alike?

B: That is a necessity rather than hindrance, if we wish to plastically express what all things have in common instead of what sets them [121] apart.  Thus the particular, which diverts us from what is essential,

disappears: only the universal remains.  The expression of objects

gives way to a pure plastic expression of relationships.

[From De Stijl, Vol. II, No. 4, pp. 37-39]

[contd.]

A: It became clear to me from our talk yesterday that abstract painting grew out of naturalistic painting.  I think I saw it more clearly because I know your earlier work.  I gather that abstract painting is not just intellectual, but is as much the product of feeling?

B: Of both: deeper feeling and deeper intellect.  When feeling is deepened, in my eyes it is destroyed.  That is why the deeper emotion of Neoplasticism is so little understood.  But one must learn to see abstract-real painting, just as the painter had to learn to create in an abstract-real way.  It represents a process of life that is reflected in the plastic expression of art.  People too often view the work of art as an object of luxury, something merely pleasant, even as a decoration — something that lies outside life.  Yet art and life are one; art and life are both expressions of truth.  If, for instance, we see that equilibrated relationships in society signify what is just, then one realizes that in art, too, the demands of life press forward when the spirit of the time is ready.

A: I am very sympathetic to the unity of art and life: yet life is the main thing.

B: All expressions of life — religion, social life, art, etc. — always have a common source.  We should go into that further, but there is so much to say.  Some have felt this strongly and it led one of us to found De Stijl.

A: I have seen De StijI, but it was difficult for me to understand.

B: I recommend repeated reading.  But the ideas that De Stijl expounds can give you no more than a conception of Neoplasticism and its connection with life: Neoplasticism’s content must be seen in the work itself. To truly appreciate something new, one has to approach it with intuitive feeling, and one must look at it a great deal, and compare.

A: Perhaps so; but I feel that art will be much impoverished if the natural is completely eliminated.

B: How can its expression be impoverished if it conveys more clearly what is most essential and proper to the work of art?

A: But the straight line alone can say so little.

[122]

B: The straight line tells the truth, and the meaning you want it to have is of no value for painting; such significance is literary, didactic. Painting has to be purely plastic; and in order to achieve this, it must use plastic means that do not signify the individual.  This justifies the use of rectangular color-planes.

A: Does this hold for classical painting — in fact, for all previous painting — which has always represented appearance?

B: Indeed, if you really understood that all pure painting aimed to be purely plastic.  Then the consequent application of this idea not only justifies universal plastic means, but demands it.  Unintentionally, naturalistic painting gives too much prominence to the particular.  The universal is what all art seeks to represent.  Neoplasticism is justified then, in relation to all painting.

A: But is Neoplasticism justified in relation to nature?

B: If you understood that the new plastic expresses the essential of everything, you would not ask that question.  Art, moreover, is a duality of nature-and-man, and not nature alone. Man transforms nature according to his own image; when man expresses his deepest being, thus manifesting his inwardness, he must necessarily make natural appearance more inward.

A: You don’t despise nature?

B: Far from it: for Neoplasticism too, nature is that great manifestation through which our deepest being is revealed and assumes concrete appearance.

A: Nevertheless, to follow nature seems to me the true path.

B: The appearance of nature is far stronger and much more beautiful than any imitation of it can ever be: if we wish to reflect nature fully we are compelled to find another plastic.  Precisely for the sake of nature, of reality, we avoid its natural appearance.

A: But nature manifests itself in an infinite variety of forms; do you show nothing of this?

B: I see reality as unity; what is manifested in all its appearances is one and the same: the immutable. We try to plastically express this as purely as possible.

A: It seems reasonable to base oneself on the immutable: the changeable offers nothing to hold on to.  But what do you call immutable?

B: The plastic expression of immutable relationships: the relationship of two straight lines perpendicular to each other.

[123]

A: Is there no danger of becoming monotonous by so consistently expressing the immutable?

B: The danger exists, but the artist would create it, not the plastic method. Neoplastic has its oppositions, its rhythm, its technique, its composition — these not only give scope for the plastic expression of life, or movement, but they still contain so much of the changeable, that it is still difficult for the artist to find pure plastic expression of the immutable.

A: Nevertheless, in what little I have seen of Neoplasticism, I noticed just this monotony; I failed to experience the inspiration, the deep emotion that more naturalistic painting gives me.  It is what I fail to hear in the compositions of modern music; as I said earlier, the recent melody-less tone-combinations fail to stir me as music with melody does.

B: But surely an equilibrated composition of pure tone-relationships should be able to stir one even more deeply.

A: How can you say that, not being a musician!

B: I can say it because — fundamentally — all art is one.  Painting has shown me that the equilibrated composition of color relationships ultimately surpasses naturalistic composition and naturalistic plastic — if the aim is to express equilibrium, harmony, as purely as possible.

A: I agree that the essence of art is the creation of harmony, but…

B: But harmony does not mean the same thing to everyone, and does not I speak to everyone in the same way.  That is why it is so easy to understand that there are differences in the methods of plastic expression.

A: Then this leaves room for naturalism in painting and melody in music.  But do you mean they will be outgrown in the future?

B: The more purely we perceive harmony, the more purely will we plastically express relationships of color and of sound: this seems logical to me.

A: So Neoplasticism is the end of painting?

B: Insofar as there can be — no purer plastic expression of equivalent relationships in art.  Neoplastic was born only yesterday and has yet to reach its culmination.

A: Then it could become completely different?

B: Not completely.  But in any case, Neoplastic could not return to naturalistic or form expression: for it grew out of these.  It is bound to the fixed law of art which, as I said, is the unity of man and nature.  [124] If in this duality Neoplasticism is to create pure relationships and therefore unity, it cannot allow the natural to predominate: therefore it must remain abstract.

A: I see more and more now that I thought of painting as representation of the visible, whereas it is possible in painting to express beauty in quite another way.  Perhaps one day I will come to love Neoplasticism as you do, but so far…

B: If you see both naturalistic painting and Neoplasticism from a purely plastic point of view — that is, distinct from subject-matter or the expressive means — in both you will see but one thing: the plastic expression of relationship.  If from the point of view of painting you can thus see beauty in one mode of expression, you will also see it in the other.

A: Let us go on with our conversation.  So it is reality that you wish to express plastically — I thought you wanted to express the soul of things.

B: Actually neither.  If we mean by reality the external, the appearance of things, then this cannot be expressed plastically by itself; for man also is inwardness, that is, both soul and spirit.  Nor — because man is at the same time outwardness — can the inward be expressed by itself. Painting has always taken the middle way, more or less: but because it expressed itself through form, it revealed mainly the life of the soul.

The life of the soul is the life of human feelings. To plastically express the soul of things means to express our soul. And this is not the highest goal of art.

A: Is it not the soul that makes man human?

B: The soul? The sages speak of the soul of animals. It is spirit that makes man human. But the task of art is to express the super-human. It is intuition.  It is pure expression of that incomprehensible force which is universally active, and that we can therefore call the universal.

A: But you place such high value on consciousness?

B: Certainly.  But I said ‘art is intuition’; the expression of art must be conscious.  Only when the mind consciously discerns the true nature of intuition can intuition act purely.

In unconscious man, the ‘unconscious’ is vague and clouded; in conscious man it has become more clearly determined.  Only conscious man can purely mirror the universal: he can consciously become one with the universal, and so can consciously transcend the individual.

A: Can he thus become objective, so to speak?

[125]

B: Precisely.  With our unconscious we always subjectify the universal.  If we designate the universal as the spiritual, then pure spirituality is only possible insofar as we can become objective about ourselves and everything around us.

A: And the Primitives — isn’t their art purely spiritual?

B: Yes, but only to the extent that the Primitives express spirituality through objective plastic, through composition, through tension of form, and through relative purity of color. Because of its subject-matter, however, it remains religious art.

A: Wouldn’t profane art, then be just as spiritual?

B: All true art is spiritual, no matter what subject-matter it represents.  It reveals the spiritual, the universal, as I have said, by its mode of plastic expression.

A: I am now beginning to prefer spiritual art — the angels and the saints of the Primitives bore me; they strike me as too sentimental.  I prefer realistic painting.

B: Realism has the advantage of purer objective vision, and I see realism as the basis of the new painting.  As a man of our time, you prefer realism rather than the Primitives because you see the predominating inwardness of the latter.  But it is also because you do not see it plastically; you see the subject-matter too much.  I too, if I stood quite far from one of the paintings and could no longer perceive the composition, the tension of form and purity of color — I assure you, I too would see only the floating robes and the folded hands.  But don’t forget that this art was created in a religious age: an age of limited form.

A: Then is their art as antiquated as the religion of that time?

B: The art, like the religion, is not outdated for all; but only for those who are conscious of a new era.  Both religion-in-form and art-in-form are still necessary for most people today.  Religion-in-form and art-in-form are not only expressions of life but are its means of development; like abstract-real painting, they exist for the living of life.

A: Were the Primitives right for their time, then, just as you think your ideas are right for the future?

B: Most assuredly.  To the religion-of-form there corresponds an art-of-form: subject-matter was of prime importance at that time.  But just as the spirit of the age, and therefore religion, became more abstract, subject-matter had to disappear.

[126]

A: We have returned to our starting point: subject-matter! I still cannot accept art without subject, but it is now clear to me that this depends on the spirit of the age.

B: Then you will have to agree that logically the age’s changing consciousness can cause subject-matter to disappear.  I repeat: when the spiritual was dominant as religion, the spiritual was strongly expressed as such; later, in a more secular age, the world itself had to be predominant in art.  Once again, this took place through subject-matter.

A: Now you blame everything on subject-matter! But didn’t you say that all art expresses the universal despite subject-matter — and therefore also in subject-matter?

B: I also said that in the art-of-form, subject-matter contributes to the expression of harmony insofar as ‘subject-matter’ contains the determinants of composition, color and line.  For the sake of clarity, I spoke only of our objection to subject-matter for our time.  But I was going to add that, as the spiritual merged with the secular, it became more and more apparent that the spiritual did not dwell in the religious subject-matter exclusively; otherwise, with the decline of religious subjects, all spirituality would have gone out of art.  The realization that subject-matter served only to determine composition, color and line, led to an increasingly pure aesthetic plastic vision.

Consequently, subject-matter vanished completely, leaving pure composition in color and line — and thus relationship — to plastically express both the spiritual and the natural.  Neoplastic expresses both the spiritual and the natural.  Neoplastic expresses a more equilibrated relationship of nature and spirit, in the sense of the universal.  The universal plastic means is just as much outwardness, nature, as is natural appearance, or subject-matter of any kind.  But by being outwardness interiorized to the maximum, it can most purely manifest the inward, the universal.

February 1919 [From De Stijl, Vol. II, No. 5, pp. 42-53]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 17, 2010.

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