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Celebrate Mondrian’s influence on U.S. fashion

Piet Mondrian would have been 145 years this past March 7. Born into a Dutch Calvinist home (in Amersfoort, The Netherlands) in 1872, he was schooled in art by an uncle and received what was considered a traditional art education at the time: copying paintings of great artists. He died in 1944 in his beloved, “modernthinking and jazzy” New York City, but his work is celebrated today as “still fresh and current” even though it’s 100 years old or older.

He influenced the Yves Saint Laurent “color block” mini-skirt “day dress” of the 1960s. Very Jackie Kennedy-like in style and sensibility, Saint Laurent’s fashions utilized both the eyecatching, bold aesthetics of Mondrian’s canvases as well as the space-age modernity of the new age of abstract art. Simplify, simplify, simplify: this was Mondrian’s mantra for canvases that paved the way for a refined and aesthetically stark elegance found in the fashion world of the mid-20th century and beyond.

Initially, the Dutch painter was part of the Impressionist movement but broke away from it as he matured into his own style. A theorist and writer, Mondrian believed that art reflected the underlying spirituality of nature. He pared the subjects of his paintings down to the most basic elements, in order to reveal the essence of the mystical energy in the balance of forces that governed nature and the universe. He used the sounds of jazz as inspiration adding a percussive rhythm to the geometric patterns he painted after arriving in New York.

Mondrian’s world became vertical and horizontal elements, which represented the two essential opposing forces: the positive and the negative, the dynamic and the static, the masculine and the feminine. The dynamic balance of his compositions reflect what he saw as the universal balance of these forces.

His singular, simplified style evolved from traditional representation to complete abstraction. His paintings progressed in a logical manner, and clearly convey the influence of various modern art movements such as Luminism, Impressionism, and most importantly, Cubism. One of the founders of, and advocate for De Stijl, they/he preached that pure abstraction and a pared down palette was necessary to express the utopian ideal of universal harmony in all of the arts. Where color is concerned, it’s hard to be more basic than the three primary colors: red, yellow and blue, framed out in black and white.

Mondrian believed his vision of modern art would transcend divisions in culture and become a new common language based in the pure primary colors, flatness of forms, and dynamic tension in his canvases. He coined the term “Neo-Plasticism” (also the title of his book on the subject, which then became a key document on abstract art).

It’s no wonder that mid-20th century fashion designers such as Saint Laurent, Mary Quant, Valentino and Andre Courreges, built their collections using minimal colors. A single-colored garment might have a band of white or black (or another contrasting hue) surrounding a section of color, or placed asymmetrically, giving it visual-balance and a clean, vibrant, modern look. Maybe it was the beautiful people who wore the clothes from that era who added beauty to the style, but the starkness of the fashion set off their faces like a portrait in a frame, and doing so won broad appeal.

Why something stays in fashion, is a quandary. Who knows, really? But color blocking is still used. Collections of today’s designers, like Mark Jacobs, Giambattista Velli, Versace and others, have a piece or an entire group of garments that features color-blocking. There’s nothing odd about shoes or handbags with more than one color on that single accessory, or using one color for a top, another for pants (or skirt) and a third for a belt. That is considered color-blocking as well.

Preferences for colors change as do hemlengths, but good design, like Mondrian’s art, does not go out of style.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.