Vibrancy and beauty, free from outward appearances

To think of Mondrian's paintings only in terms of their austerity, of that rigidly uncompromising structure of black vertical and black horizontal bands that inevitably and forcibly dominate one's after-image of his most expressive works, is to partly miss the point.

It is true, of course, that rigorous concentration on a quintessential idea, does mean exclusion. Mondrian excluded untidy romanticism; he excluded anything but the most exact rectangularity; he excluded all but the primary colors, with black, gray and white; he excluded all reference to nature, to landscape, to the green world. But it is what was liberated by all this exclusion that matters. Where one might be led to expect a cold, rigid inertia -- resulting from denial -- the surprise is an intense, and tense, vitality.

Mondrian's is a hard art, certainly. But its aim, above all, was dynamic movement. He felt that the pictures he made at the end of his career, when he was in New York, made this clearer than ever before. The incomplete "Victory Boogie-Woogie" was the last of these. Static balance was not his aim. The strongest possible contrasts mark his work: horizontal opposed to vertical, black opposed to white, yellow, red and blue contradicting each other.From these oppositions within each painting, aided by a deliberate lack of compositional symmetry, there sparked a continuous life. This was never allowed to settle or rest, even though an equilibrium was set up.

Writers about Mondrian the man sometimes downplay the delightful fact that apart from his self-denying and strict attitude to existence, from his one-track dedication, from his progmatic, impersonal approach to art, and from his self-discipline, he also liked dancing, not that he didn't take even this frivolity seriously, and it would be a mistake to suppose that its eventual inclusion in his painting in the form of "boogie-woogie" rhythms, was somehow trivial. As he explained in 1943, his conception of abstract art involved firstly the destruction of Cubist "volumes" by using planes, then the use of lines, and color brought within the lines, to disrupt the intactness of the planes. "Now," he said, "the only problem was to destroy these lines also by mutual oppositions. . .

"True boogie-woogie," he explained, "I conceive as homogeneous in intention with mine in painting; destruction of melody which is the equivalent of the destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means -- dynamic rhythm."

"Victory Boogie-Woogie" was by no means the first painting in which Mondrian had turned the canvas on its axis so it became lozenge-shaped. This allowed for longer verticals and horizontals, and it also increased the liveliness of the picture: the bands are not echoes of (or echoed by) the outside edges of the stretcher and, therefore, don't seem to rely on these edges for their stability or existence. The animated, staccato rhythms of "Victory Boogie-Woogie" apparently continue relentlessly beyond the confines of the canvas: the imagination carries them on.

When one of Mondrian's friends exclaimed in horror that he had broken his own theory by using those numerous small squares to break up the bands, he replied that theory always comes after painting -- and that anyway these squares "worked." He thus -- victoriously -- struck a final blow for the artist's primary intuitions and freedom, even from his own authoritarian dogmas. But his exacting adjustments and readjustments of this picture continued to the end: fine, stern, unbending judgments of the eye and mind. What remains is a complex work-in-progress, an incomplete mixture of paint and dabs of tape. It is a strange, unsettling affair, unresolved. It is the symbol of a perfectionist's struggles, an essentially private event. It is a fixed question mark: how would he have brought this vibrant, fullest, least stark, busiest, most celebratory, and most shimmering of his works to its conclusion? How would he have carried it from uncertainty to equilibrium?

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