In Focus

Piet Mondrian's Place de la Concorde

One of the most important works in the Dallas Museum of Art's collections is Piet Mondrian's Place de la Concorde (1938-1943). It was a gift in 1982 of the James H. and Lillian Clark Foundation to the Foundation for the Arts Collection at the Museum. This painting's importance plays out on a variety of levels simultaneously: it is one of the final and authoritative paintings of Mondrian's career; it is the "poster child" for the collecting acumen and subsequent extraordinary philanthropy of the Clarks; and it is a pivotal work in the Museum's strong representation of modern and contemporary art.

Place de la Concorde is the radiant culmination of this artist's incredibly thoughtful and deliberate development, so amply represented in the breadth of the Museum's holdings. The Museum's collections encompass rather somber works from 1902 to 1905 that demonstrate the impact of The Hague School, the Dutch tradition of landscape, on Mondrian's early development. The Winkel Mill, Pointillist Version of 1908 (1982.25.FA) dazzles with brilliant blocks of pure color, revealing the artist's fascination with Georges Seurat and Henri Matisse. The windmill—such a vertical counterpoint to the unrelenting flatness of the Dutch landscape—was a frequent subject for Mondrian. In fact, the Museum owns Windmill (c. 1917, 1989.142.McD), a gift of Mrs. Eugene McDermott in honor of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Clark. Mondrian's repeated contemplation of the motif surely relates to this later focus on horizontal and vertical forms as expressions of the essential structure of nature.

Apple Tree, Pointillist Version (1907-1909, 1982.26.FA) is perhaps surprising in its gestural expressionist manner, so different from Mondrian's mature or late style as exemplified by the geometry of Place de la Concorde. The tree's radiating branches are rendered by slashing black lines and intense blue, which convey a dynamism beyond any specific motif or scene and rather bespeak the overall energy in the natural world. Mondrian had been interested in theosophy, a religious philosophy focused on humanity's evolution toward spiritual unity. Perhaps the dominant blue color and the triangular form of the tree are inspired by symbols deemed universal by the theosophists.

Though Mondrian quickly distanced himself from the theosophists, the sense of constant striving toward purity that characterizes his work certainly resonates with the theosophical belief in evolution. Similarly, theosophical ideas may have nurtured Mondrian's utopian belief in humankind's potential return to its initial state of harmony and unity with nature.

Mondrian developed a completely nonrepresentational art that he called neoplasticism, or "new structuring." In Composition with Large Blue Plane, Red, Black, Yellow, and Gray (1921, 1984.200.FA), painting is reduced to strict rectangular planes of pure primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and non colors (white, black, and gray), with black vertical and horizontal lines. Mondrian deliberated about every square inch of his canvas, rethinking, reworking, and refining. (The lines are neither rigid nor static. The way in which the line meets or does not touch adjacent lines or the edge of the canvas is especlally charged.) In the finished work there is no compositional "center," no foreground and background. Planes of color are strong and pure, coexisting harmoniously and without hierarchy. Mondrian's neoplastic work does not describe the fluctuations of natural appearances. It reveals instead the underlying, essential order of nature and is capable, according to his idealistic belief, of reshaping not only art but also the way we live. The purity and sensitivity of Mondrian's work resonates across the galleries of modern and contemporary art as a key manifestation of the importance of geometric abstraction in the 20th century.

Even with its geometric simplicity and balance, Place de la Concorde seems to pulsate with the energy of the city it celebrates. It is eloquent testimony to Mondrian's enduring faith in the expressive power of a radically reduced vocabulary of vertical and horizontal lines, primary colors, and planes. Consistent with, yet diverging from, the neoplastic aesthetic he had developed in the 1920s, this painting is remote from any notion of realistic reproduction. It is a mode of expression that transcends particular or individual emotions.

Place de la Concorde, as its double date indicates, is one of Mondrian's "transatlantic" paintings, works he began in Europe and then radically changed during his years in New York. In 2001 the Dallas Museum of Art presented an exhibition devoted to this group of transatlantic paintings. Organized by the Fogg Art Museum of the Harvard University Art Museums, this project focused on a highly detailed and profound examination of the paintings' surface and substructure, revealing how the artist worked and how he undertook campaigns of dramatic change. The surface of Place de la Concorde is a map of thought, showing change over time, a manifestation of Mondrian's intuitive responses and deliberate reactions that fill his work with a creative force and aesthetic integrity. This exhibition helped us see Mondrian's Place de la Concorde, and abstract art in general, as anything but empty and formulaic, and far more human and intimate than idealistic philosophies.

Excerpt from

Dorothy Kosinski, “Piet Mondrian's Place de la Concorde,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 45.