The exhibition 'Cézanne - Picasso - Mondrian, A new perspective' at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, which ended this weekend, connected three of the great modernist artists to show their 'cumulative' influences. From the "father of modern art", Cézanne, who influenced a whole generation of artists, to Picasso's discovery of Cubism, inspired by Cézanne but soon moving into radically new territory. And on to Mondrian, who was influenced by the Cubists and drawn to the Paris epicenter of modernism, but ended up taking his own singular path.
Mondrian may be most famous for his later works, which epitomized the particular Dutch brand of modernism, De Stijl, but how he got there is particularly fascinating to trace because of its clear step-by-step development. There is a short period (roughly 1911-14) where you can see him discovering Cubism and then using it as a stepping stone to make the leap towards total abstraction.
It starts with a tree ('The Grey Tree', 1912), still figurative but already flattening the distinction between subject (tree) and background (sky). Then, as if Mondrian took his own painting as the subject for his next works, the tree becomes a Cubistic pattern of lines and planes, with experiments in curvy ('Trees in Blossom', 1912) and angular ('Composition Trees II', 1912).
These works still seem to somehow convey the idea of a tree, but maybe that's just because their titles still mention a tree. Otherwise, the extent to which these works can still be called representational might be a question of context.
Then Mondrian takes the idea of his tree and abstracts it further. Again it's as if he took his previous works as the subject for his next ones. This time he settles on angular lines, eliminates diagonal lines and fittingly gives the work an abstract title ('Composition No.6', 1914). By now, the question of representation passes into the realm of psychoanalytics...
From here, Mondrian would go on to limit himself, using progressively fewer elements in his paintings - only rectangular shapes, only black lines, only primary colors - resulting in his famous 'Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue', 'Composition with Blue, Red and Yellow', etc. Until only 'Composition with Two Lines' remained and he would again reinvent his own style, introducing a new element of playfulness for 'Broadway Boogie-Woogie'.
For a good overview of Mondrian's work, see this gallery.