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"Composition in Brown and Gray," Piet Mondrian

Discover how Mondrian explored center and periphery in his pioneering abstraction. 
To learn about other great moments in modern art, take our online course, Modern Art, 1880-1945.
Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

(light music) Leah: I'm in the museum's conservation studio with Piet Mondrian's "Composition in Brown and Grey" from 1913. It was done while he was in Paris, and in 1913 he showed a group of related works in the Salond des Independant, one of the big alternative exhibitions that was held in Paris. His work was noticed by the poet and critic, [Guillermo Poloner], who said these were among the most celebrated pictures in the exhibition, and called them a form of very abstract cubism. Mondrian was preoccupied with Picasso's work and his cubist practice and you see references to it in his writing of this time; and he's very careful to say that he's very influenced by him, but at the same time he didn't think Picasso went far enough on the road to abstraction. Mondrian decides that his project is a following up the implications of what Picasso does. He begins to take the [scaffetoling] that emerges in cubism, and to regularize it as a grid. He works from his sketchbook images of the motif of trees, and the branches of the trees are systematized here along here the horizontal and vertical axis; they even begin to look a bit like architecture. The horizontal and vertical become the common vocabulary, hen you see a whole variety of brush strokes. He's exploring the relationship between center and peripheral, and this is a real problem for this pioneering generation of abstract artists; once objects are no longer the primary thing in a work of art, how do you figure out how to end a picture? How do you decide what's foreground? How do you decide what's background? Here he is working very much on the edges of the picture to suggest what happens when you move away from the structuring composition. Piet Mondrian sent this picture from Paris, and a group of others, back to the Netherlands for his first one-man exhibition, and then he traveled to The Hague a few weeks later, but by that time World War I had broken out and he was unable to return to Paris. (light music)