I went to an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past weekend: “The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918.” It’s a period of art that I happen to find quite engaging. Many things were changing, and many artists were changing and growing even in that brief period (only as long as the concert career of The Beatles). You can go and play “spot the Picasso” – which painting that looks totally unlike the Picasso in the last room is the Picasso in this room? But even better is “spot the Mondrian.”
If you know the work of Piet Mondrian, you probably know his most famous works, painted mainly in the 1930s. An example is Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue. These paintings are white fields with rectilinear black lines dividing them into rectangles of various sizes, and rectangles of primary colours in some of the spaces between them. It seems pure abstraction, but in it Mondrian aimed to create a “direct expression of universal beauty”: not something unreal but in fact a new realism engaging the underlying universal, as opposed to the particular individual experience presented by “the aesthetic expression of oneself” – i.e., “of that which one thinks one experiences,” but which unavoidably “veils the pure representation of beauty.”
But before Mondrian arrived at this, he moved through phases starting with figurative representation in flat colours, through increased abstraction and via cubism to what might seem a gradual disintegration of form but to him was a stripping away of limiting particularities. You must watch this video, simply a chronological morphing of his paintings one into the next, or you really won’t see:
What has this to do with language? What has this to do with the word Mondrian?
Let us begin with the meandering of the name Mondrian over time. An ancestor of Pieter Cornelis (Piet) Mondrian was Christian Dirkzoon Monderyan. Mondrian himself was born Mondriaan. Consider the metamorphosis of the back half of that name, deryan to driaan to drian, where the tongue has simplified the wave pattern of articulation into a simpler single lap, and then – under French influence, likely – the artist has trimmed the spelling further, which also means a change of sound in the Dutch pronunciation.
Now think of those sounds, of the bits they are made of, how they could be composed further. The consonants are like lines, the vowels like coloured areas. Imagine the lines crossing, spreading, compressing, the colours shifting around: Mondrian, marinade, moderate reminder, ruminate, endure, endear, determine, maunder, meander in dunes of Midian midday until you summon damnation’s andirons or innumerable numinous noumens.
No. Those are all words, words of our modern language, words that have particular pictures and meanings. They are shapes that have been arrived at by the erosion of time and the deliberate simplifications and complications of scribes and lexicographers, but they are figures, and figures in the comparatively complex phonetic repertoire of English. Languages may have simpler vowel sets. Many have five; the simplest have three, and those three are close to the three in Mondrian, with only the rounded back one higher: u i a. The primary colours of vowels. Let us strip the consonants down to a basic set as well: m p n d l s k y w. Now use those to produce phonetic patterns. Sing them in an animated monody of modernity: music is abstracted speech tones, after all. Produce the most basic of phonotactic patterns, the canonic syllable, consonant-vowel. Here is your new universal language:
mu na di li ya nu ka la si mu la ku wi na da pi li sa ku ka ma su ta ya na ya lu si la pu li ka yu da ni ya la sa na pi ya lu ma ka ki ti su ni la ma ti na pi la da ka su la pi ka su mi wa na du pu la pi ta mu nu da li ya nu
Signifying? Ah, but where is the signification? Why? Signification is individual. Significance is individual. Meaning comes at the interface of the person and the form. These patterns, these sounds, will not tell you to close a door, to kiss a face, to bake a loaf of bread. But they may yet bring echoes of patterns of sounds that have meant something to you; they may give a feeling from the arrangements of highs and lows, of stops and nasals, of soft and hard and smooth and spiky. It will be a feeling you know from how you were made, but it will be a feeling you know by what you have come to be. Beauty is an individual experience, infinitely multifarious, an expression of change and variety, no sameness, each individual in each moment in each place creating a new universe from a singularity that as instantly becomes another. What is universal is individuality in its infinite increments of difference.
Mondrian’s paintings, too, are Mondrian’s paintings. The style is individual, instantly recognizable: the aesthetic expression of Mondrian’s self, of who he was, when he was, the world of art and philosophy and politics that he came through, the person he was, even the a he excised from his name. The course of his paintings’ development is like the watercourse of language rolling over the pebble-bed of a billion tongues and itself being smoothed but enriched in the process. And then things happen, a waterfall, rapids, shallows or shoals or trees’ twigs, a sunburst on the surface: a glittering riffle. The man who began with dunes and trees before reaching for the purity of the basic forms at last burst forth with a vibrant explosion, Broadway Boogie-Woogie, lines but with blood or ants thrumming through them, and the incomplete yet deathless Victory Boogie-Woogie, for a war that he would not live to see the end of. Mondrian was mortal but his mind’s meanders are enduring, and in his separation from the body he has made his name.