Object of the week: Composition B (#2) with Red

Published 2 June 2014

To celebrate the opening of two major Mondrian exhibitions, we look at one of the Dutch master's most minimal compositions and explore the optical effects and spiritual movements that inspired it.

Few artists have ever created works as instantly recognisable as the Dutch painter Pier Mondrian. With a few exceptions, all of his works are variations on a distinctive theme: a white canvas divided by a series of horizontal and vertical black lines to create 'panes', which are either left white or filled with colour.

The son of a drawing teacher, Piet Mondrian was introduced to art at an early age. His early works were representational, embracing a number of Post-Impressionist styles from Pointillism to Fauvism, but by 1913 he had already begun to develop his own distinctive style and aesthetic.

De Stijl – 'the style' – was inspired by Mondrian's experiences with the Dutch Theosophical Society and the related Anthroposophy group. His spiritual and aesthetic beliefs were finally reconciled during his stay at the Laren artist colony during the First World War, where he created his theory of 'Neoplasticism'. In a letter to HP Bremmer in 1914, Mondrian wrote:

'Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…

'I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.'

The character and movement of the grid canvasses belie the simplicity of their compositions. The perceived movement may be partially explained by an optical effect known as the Hermann grid illusion. Named after its discoverer, the 19th-century German scientist Ludimar Hermann, the illusion is characterised by the appearance of ghostlike grey dots at the intersection of lines on a monochrome grid, which disappear when the viewer looks directly at them, making the grid shift and dance as the viewer's focus moves.

Following the end of the war, Mondrian returned to France and began creating his now-distinctive grid paintings. While the grid format would stay with Mondrian throughout his career, he continued to develop his underlying aesthetic. Composition B (#2) with Red was created in 1935 following his publication of The True Value of Oppositions in Life and Art, which urged the rejection of forced 'equilibrium' in favour of a true, dynamic unity. He began to question the value of symmetry – note the uneven spacing of the two pairs of black lines dividing the canvas, and the single red block unbalancing the composition.

Two major exhibitions in 2014 celebrate Mondrian's work: Turner Contemporary's free Mondrian and Colour, and Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool – get 50% off entry with a National Art Pass.

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