Piet Mondrian’s “No Axiom but the Plastic” (1923)

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

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

• • •

Our time sees the impossibility of holding universally valid principles.  It sees the untenability of a fixed view of the perceptible, of an unshakable conception.  It accepts no human opinion as serious or true.  It sees everything ‘relatively.’ This view grew out of art, philosophy, science (the theory of relativity, etc.), and out of practical life itself.  We are beginning to break with tradition.  We no longer want to build on doctrines, or even on logic.  Nevertheless, by understanding the relativity of everything, we gain an intuitive sense of the absolute.  Moreover, the relative, the mutable, creates in us a desire for the absolute, the immutable.  The human ego desires the immutable.  Because this is unattainable, we return to the relative and try to perpetuate it: since that is impossible, we again seek the immutable and even ignore the mutable.  So it has been throughout the centuries.

The desire for extremes caused the tragic in life, in art, expressed as the lyrical.  Until the present, culture was based on the relative and on a traditional representation of the absolute, which became axiomatic; this representation of the absolute was ‘form,’ just as the relative is ‘form,’ and constantly changes.  In art, both were always cloaked in form: the relative always dominated. Therefore art was always more or less descriptive (lyrical), even when symbolic.  In the symbolic, the purely plastic becomes impure because the symbolic manifests itself not as art but as truth — therefore impure, untrue, because then the element of form becomes ‘a form’ (in the cross, for example).

Today we see a resistance to such ‘representation,’ to this disguising of [189] the absolute as well as to the naturalistic capriciousness of the relative.

The masses, however, believe that only the relative can be knowable because it is directly perceptible.  But although they deny it, they feel unconsciously, intuitively, the need to emphasize the absolute, the need to abstract the natural.  They are also compelled to do this because of external pressures — the new necessity.

Our products show this, as well as the general search for clarity and purity in everything.  The relative in our environment, at first predominantly natural, is now assuming an increasingly mathematical appearance.  Thus the absolute is beginning to express itself more purely all around us.  There is increasing homogeneity between man, who is now outgrowing his formerly dominating naturalness, and his environment.  Within this relativity, a new relativity is slowly growing in which the absolute is also expressed.

This greater equilibrium already plastically expresses the character of the future.  Thus the search for extremes is abolished: equivalence between relative and absolute becomes possible.  But far more purely than in our environment, equilibrated relationship between the relative and the absolute has been achieved in art, the field of intuition.

The freest art, painting, could be the most consequent.  Gradually but rapidly, natural appearance was abstracted in the plastic: form as well as color.  In Cubism, form was broken up and tensed.  Neoplasticism broke with form altogether by abstracting it and reducing it to the pure elements of form. The closed curved line, which did not express plastic relationship, was replaced by the straight line in the duality of the constant perpendicular position, which is the purest plastic expression of relationship.  From this it constructed its universal plastic means, the rectangular color-plane. Through the duality of position of the straight, it expresses equilibrium (equivalence) of relative and absolute.  It opposes the color plane to the non-color plane (white, grey, black), so that through this duality, the opposites can annihilate one another in the multiplicity of the composition.  The perpendicular position expresses the constant, the rhythm of the composition expresses the relative.

Thus painting shows plastically that the manifestation of both relative and absolute can be plastically expressed through the straight. Thus, equivalence as well as opposition and variety.  This is possible only through the straight. The straight cannot be made more abstract: it is the most extreme possibility of the purely plastic.


Thus in Neoplasticism, a principle has been plastically expressed: immutability, constancy.  Color and line and composition have fixed laws.

This principle of equilibrated relationship of relative and absolute, seen purely plastically, can become a general principle of life.  It states that for the fully-human man pure equilibrium can only be achieved through the most deeply interiorized naturalness within us and around us, and by intuition becoming conscious within us.  Thus, through the equivalence of the dissimilar.

Paris 1923 [From De Stijl, Vol. VI, No. 6/7, pp. 83-85]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 19, 2010.

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