Flowers in private

To my knowledge, there is only one book that closely examines De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian’s largely unknowable collection of naturalistic flower paintings. Mondrian painted these at the beginning of the 20th century until the late 1920’s, mostly for money and mostly, as the author notes many times, under the guise of indifference.

Done in watercolor and ink, the works are heavy with mood and desire, if not a bit romantic in their overall existence. The book, aptly titled “Mondrian: Flowers” by David Shapiro does what it can with very little documentation about this side project of Mondrian’s. When considering the flowers in relation to the abstract line paintings that took him all the way to the top, it’s understandable why Mondrian refrained from discussing them in a meaningful way. They would have taken over the conversation with their unreal beauty, a concept Mondrian appeared to attack in the abstract, painting black line across black line on the canvas until only the distant idea of nature was evoked. If the discussion could be contained to the boxes of solid primary color, or better yet, the absence of it, Mondrian could be free to paint what was missing and he could do it in private.

Shapiro finds proof that Mondrian continued to paint these flowers even when he wasn’t being commissioned by advertisers or publishers. Mondrian would paper the walls of his studio with these floral images to show friends and his notebooks are full of many motifs of the same single stem of chrysanthemum, a favorite of his, or a lily or a rose. They are thickly outlined and alone, deep strokes of color moving up and down behind them. Rarely did he paint bouquets or arrangements. The bloom is isolated, itself a study in symbolism and the symmetry that appears in nature without mans intervention. It is also appears deranged. There is an unspeakable gloom in even the brightest burst of flora, as though Mondrian can’t forget that death is creeping up the stem. In one study of a sunflower the petals feather forward, the stem droops over heavy with age and the gigantic blossom center appears as a downcast eye. This private exploration of decay clearly struggles against the sterile block paintings occurring simultaneously and much more publicly.

Spirituality was on Mondrian’s mind, as his involvement in theosophy is well documented, and Shapiro finds these flowers to have been an extension of his spiritual practice. He writes that this “symbolism provided him with a spiritual refuge from an obsession with mere facts of vision that permitted him to engulf cubism without engulfing himself.”

It is likely that if Mondrian had tried to become a serious painter of nature, he would not have had much success pushing the form forward. The work is something of a lesser Van Gogh and lacking imagination. However, it's important to recognize that Mondrian probably knew this as well, yet didn’t care. Here he was painting for himself, despite what he told others, and extracting meaning from it that he could apply elsewhere, onto a style that was lacking it. He was able to transfer the task we typically place on flowers to express our emotions and give us pleasure onto panels of blunt abstraction. Like the timeless quality of flowers, Mondrian’s influence endures to this day.