The Art of Abstraction: Piet Mondrian’s Influence on Art and Architecture

Abstract art pioneer, Piet Mondrian

It is often said that art imitates life. This is true, but life also draws from art in more ways than one. The focus of this post is to highlight the fertile interaction between art and modern architecture, and the origins of that interaction in the early part of the 20th century.

The Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was a central figure in that process. Along with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Mondrian pioneered abstract art, in which art became less concerned with portraying physical reality accurately than in enabling artists to express their feelings through the use of shapes and colors. Picasso and Braque led the way towards abstraction by championing Cubism. Mondrian began as a Cubist, but experimented with shapes and colors to achieve greater abstraction until he attained what he wanted through a series of “grid paintings” of which the following work is an early example.

Piet Mondrian, ‘Tableau 1, with red, black, blue and yellow’, 1921, oil on canvas, 103 x 100 cm. Gemeentemuseum den Haag, Netherlands.

Tableau 1 was nothing like what artists before him did. All aspects of physical reality were stripped and reduced to a few bold lines and rectangles painted in three primary colors (here, red, yellow and blue). With this style, Mondrian achieved what he long sought – which was to push beyond Cubism’s fragmenting forms towards pure abstraction. What mattered to him was balance and harmony. When asked what he wanted to express in his work, he replied, “Nothing, other than what every artist seeks, to express harmony through the equivalence of relationships of lines, colors, and planes..”

Three years earlier, Mondrian and the poet Theo van Doesburg had founded the arts group De Stijl (The Style) whose mission was to serve as a forum for painters, architects, and designers to share and advance the abstract aesthetic. The group initially drew inspiration from the work of the famed American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). In 1910, Wright had unveiled his design for a house that showcased his vision of a new style of architecture, one based on the concept of stacking flat planes to create a cantilevered effect that is best appreciated when the building is viewed horizontally (see below).

Robie House, Chicago, US. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and exhibited in 1910.

Mondrian’s Tableau 1 may be viewed as a two-dimensional version of Wright’s design. The “new style” of Wright and Mondrian would have a lasting influence on architecture that reverberates to this day. As early as 1923, two members of De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg and Cornelius van Esteren designed a model for a private house that bears more than a passing resemblance to Mondrian’s grid painting and Wright’s Robie House.

Theo van Doesburg and Cornelius van Esteren, model for a private house, 1923. Plexiglass, 65 x 70 x 45 cm. Collection of the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Netherlands.

A year later, we have yet another example of a house design that would not look out of place in a 21st century design magazine.

Schroder House, Utrecht, Netherlands. Designed by Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964). Photo credit: Stijn Poelstra.
Interior of the Schroder House, Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Stijn Poelstra.

Deemed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Schroder House in Utrecht, Netherlands. was in designed in 1924 by the Dutch furniture designer and architect, Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), which makes it nearly a century old. Yet, the house looks as modern as any of today’s minimalist houses, thanks to the Mondrian-esque proportion and the limited palette of primary colors used in the interior. The resemblance to Mondrian is not surprising; Rietveld was also part of the De Stijl art movement, whose artistic influence lives on today in the many sleek buildings we encounter around the world.

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