Discussing the work of Piet Mondrian

A self portrait of the artist, who turns his head towards the viewer.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Self-portrait, 1918. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.Credit

This resource focuses on the artist Piet Mondrian, and in particular on our Mondrian exhibition. It is designed as an aid for carers and health professionals to help individuals with dementia to enjoy the artworks through discussion and practice-based exercises. This resource can be used to prepare for a virtual visit to the exhibition, or simply to enjoy at home if you won't have the opportunity to visit.

For a full and comprehensive guide to leading a session using our resources, read through the overview page first.

If you'd prefer to work from a PDF version of this resource, you can download that here: Discussing Piet Mondrian: three works from the exhibition 

Who was Piet Mondrian?

Ten things to know about Piet Mondrian

  1. Piet Mondrian (1872 -1944) was a Dutch painter who is regarded today as one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.
  2. He is renowned for his abstract, grid-like paintings with squares and rectangles displaying the primary colours, blue, red and yellow.
  3. 1872 was the year of his birth. He was born in Amersvoort in the Netherlands.
  4. He went to art school. He enrolled at the Academy for Fine Art in Amsterdam in 1892.
  5. His early work was naturalistic and consisted of pastoral scenes, windmills, fields, and rivers.
  6. He moved to Paris in 1912 and was inspired by the work of artists such as Pablo Picasso and George Braque .
  7. Mondrian was one of the founders of De Stijl or The Style. This was an art movement that promoted abstract art. Abstract art does not represent the real world. Instead, the colours, lines and shapes you see in these artworks are inspired by concepts.
  8. In 1919, after spending the years of the First World War in the Netherlands, Mondrian returned to Paris. It was at this time Mondrian began producing his famous grid-based paintings.
  9. In 1940 Mondrian left Europe for New York.
  10. Mondrian died of pneumonia on the 1 February 1944.

The artworks

For this resource, we focused on three key artworks in the exhibition, which demonstrate Mondrian’s evolution as an artist. You may be surprised to learn that his early work was naturalistic and featured landscapes in his native Netherlands before he progressed to producing his famous, grid like abstract paintings in the 1920s.

An industrial scene, with tall chimney stacks billowing out smoke, reflected in the water below
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), The Royal Wax Candle Factory, 1895. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands - gift of A.P. van den Briel.Credit

The Royal Wax Candle Factory, 1895

About the painting:

  • This painting is an oil on canvas on cardboard.
  • It was painted By Mondrian in 1895.
  • The factory stood on the Boerenwetering canal in Amsterdam.
  • The chimneys indicate that this is a collection of industrial buildings.
  • Mondrian made drawings of the complex when he lived across from it.
  • This view is built up of blocks of grey and brown.

Points of discussion

  • What do you think of the style of the painting? Mondrian uses a limited palette of greys and browns. Perhaps he is trying to relay the grim conditions of industrial work at this time?
  • Most cities and towns have industrial buildings and they have been depicted in the works of many artists. Even though these buildings are not meant to be beautiful, how do you feel about these buildings appearing in artworks?
  • It’s interesting that Mondrian doesn’t include any people in this painting. Is this effective? Do you think workers coming and going from the factory would add to the painting?

Activity: Drawing Exercise

Drawing an industrial building with limited colours.

Materials needed: Brown and black chalk, a white sheet of paper.

  1. Imagine an industrial building with chimneys beside by a river.
  2. Use the brown chalk to lightly draw the outline of the building.
  3. Use the black chalk to colour in the chimneys to make them stand out.
  4. Draw the reflection of the towers in the water using black chalk.
  5. Use the black chalk for the chimney smoke. You can use your finger to smudge the smoke.
A church tower painted in vivid bright pink, with blue and green background
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Zeeuws(ch)e kerktoren (Zeeland Church Tower); Church Tower at Domburg, 1911.
Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.
Credit

Church Tower at Domburg ,1911

About the painting:

  • This is a view of the village church in Domburg, a coastal village located in the Dutch province of Zeeland.
  • Mondrian stayed in the village from late August to late October 1910.
  • There is a clear change of direction in this work. He is interested in an abstract style; this is apparent in how he paints the sky.
  • In this painting, Mondrian is considering how the colours change at different times of day. Here he depicts how a building looks in the evening sunlight. The brick building glows pink.
  • The pink church contrasts with vibrant blue and green sky.
  • Mondrian completed this work in 1911, having left Domburg

Points of discussion

  • What do you think of the style of the painting? Mondrian is accurate when depicting the church, but the sky is unusual. How do you feel about that?
  • Mondrian puts an emphasis on the depiction of the changing qualities of light. Did you think this when you first saw it?
  • How does it compare to the first work you saw?

Activity: Drawing and collage exercise

Create a church tower in the style of Mondrian

Materials needed : Dark blue, light blue and pink paper, glue, scissors, a pencil and  green markers.

  1. Using your pencil, draw some rectangles into your pink sheet of paper and then cut them out using the scissors.
  2. Stick the pieces down vertically on the light blue sheet. Draw in your windows with a marker.
  3. Cut pieces of dark and light blue  paper out in the shape of windows and stick then down. Put the dark windows on the bottom and light ones on top.
  4. Finally, colour the sky with a green marker and leave areas of blue. If you want to do more collage, cut out some shapes using your dark blue paper and stick them down.

 

Abstract painting of a grid of grey, red, black, blue and yellow
Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), Composition with large red plane, yellow, black, gray and blue, 1921. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The NetherlandsCredit

Composition with large red plane yellow, black, gray and blue, 1921

About the painting:

  • Mondrian is most renowned for his abstract work. He began producing  grid-based paintings like this one in late 1919, and in 1920.
  • He had returned to live in Paris at this time after spending the war years (1914 -1918) in his native Netherlands.
  • Mondrian had a reputation for using white and primary colours. However, often the colours he used were not strictly primary, and the white was actually grey.
  • In this painting the divisions between colours are not sharply defined and the gridlines do not meet the canvas edges.
  • Mondrian later adopted the term Neo-Plasticism (New Art) for his abstractions

Points of discussion

  • This is an example of abstract art. It is said that abstract art does not need an explanation. Looking at the work, how does it work make you feel? Does it remind you of anything?
  • Apart from the black gridlines, Mondrian uses the primary colours, red yellow and blue. Do you think this is significant?
  • Out of the three works we’ve discussed, which one would you hang over the fireplace?

Activity: Painting Exercise

Paint your own grid-based painting.

Materials needed: Canvas board, paint brush, black, blue, red and yellow paint

  1. Paint in heavy black lines in a grid on your canvas board.
  2. Use the primary colours to paint the squares and rectangles within the grid.

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