Nov 6, 2012

What can Piet Mondrian teach you about writing?

"Mondrian felt it mattered that an artist should present himself in a manner appropriate to his artistic aims. A photograph of him taken in 1908 shows a bearded floppy-haired Victorian man of sensibility. A photograph of 1911 shows a twentieth-century technologist, cleanshaven with centre parting and brilliantined hair; the spectacles were an inevitable accessory."
— David Sylvester

"I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true."
— Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was a Dutch painter. He was born in Amersfoort, the "Boulder City," a place where memory stretches far into the past.

Why "Boulder City"? Well, back in 1661 a landowner had a 9-metric ton boulder hauled into the city from the Soest moors, just to win a bet. The winner subsequently treated the whole town to beer and pretzels. People in neighboring towns nicknamed Amersfoort citizens Keientrekker ("boulder-puller"), which the burghers of Amersfoort failed to appreciate. I can't imagine why.

So they put the 9-ton rock in the ground, buried it deep. The Amersfoortse Kei ("boulder"), for that is the boulder's somewhat predictable name, took a 300-year nap -- but what are 300 years to a rock in its quiet, musty cradle? -- until somebody dug it up in 1903 and put it on a pedestal.

Here I could say that I've seen stranger things on pedestals, but the truth is I don't get around that much. Now, if you were to ask me about traffic circles...

When you overfly Holland, the impression is one of impeccable neatness. Rows of ochre dollhouses, placed throughout the landscape by a benevolent computer, stand beside grids of tiny verdant trees. Lilliputian cars glide up and down long, unswerving lines of asphalt. The fields have been tilled by microscopic farmers invisible to the naked eye; yellow squares lie contented against rectangles of green and brown, as a thimble-sized ship approaches a sunlit harbor two inches wide.

Holland from above. No, seriously, I swear it is. 

Mondrian's painting reflects that tension between the Amersfoort Boulder and the orderliness of a miniature universe. The landscape of Piet's home country is a visual ode to the right angle, when you see it from a distance. While still working as an elementary school teacher, Mondrian painted windmills, rivers and flowers. This would not last. As David Sylvester wrote, "[O]ne of the great landscape-painters of his generation, one of the great flower-painters of his generation, comes to find trees monstrous, green fields intolerable."

How do you get from this... this?

You begin with the natural/organic, bringing pure form to the foreground...

... move further away from mimesis/imitation, leaving the organic shapes of nature behind...

...and Lo, the lines enjoy their triumph.

To Mondrian, form was the key to artistic achievement and spiritual development. His path took him away from representation, away from the mimetic and toward introspection.

What Piet Mondrian brought into the world, the tangible results of his Neo-Plasticism, has the power to mystify. Any 15-year-old with a copy of Photoshop or Illustrator can put together a sad imitation of the Dutch painter's geometric style. But they do so because this is no longer unknown territory; Mondrian was there first.

He knew what he was doing and why. Knew his place in artistic tradition also. Maybe Piet built his theoretical edifice on a foundation of pure bullshit, but at least he built something. That's much better than being stuck -- and feeding the bugbears in your attic.

So, what can Mondrian teach you about writing a novel, story or play?   

"Art is not made for anybody and is, at the same time, for everybody."

Painting, like putting words on paper, comes from the urge to tell stories. In times of abject loneliness we tell stories to ourselves; if they cut out your tongue you would compose revenge tragedies in your mind. Sometimes you no longer know where art ends and life begins.

So story emerges from a deep-seated need to express order, to find a framework that explains the world.

And the explanation leads to a fructifying tree, its branches hanging low with ripe red questions. The more you eat, the hungrier you feel. Everyone shares this hunger, this desire to have the universe described and explained and to find more mysteries behind the descriptions and explanations. Art is a cosmic machine that produces questions, and questions, nobody owns them.

Maybe art is a higher entity that uses us to express itself and each of us can provide a unique mode of expression. There's an audience out there, a readership. A crowd longing for your story. They won't know it until they see it. You won't know them until you find them.

"The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel."   

As a writer, you have a role to play: You're the invisible storyteller, the one that puts words in the narrator's mouth. Have you ever considered that you and the narrator are two separate people?

No, the narrator isn't real in the same sense you are real, but he or she isn't you. The narrator is free to express different opinions, to enjoy things you don't in real life, to pass judgment on characters. That privilege extends to third-person omniscient narrators.

Your narrator doesn't need to be humble, to withdraw from sight -- he, she, or it can participate as much as your story requires.

Think about it. In Samuel Beckett's novel, Murphy, who says "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new"? That line opens the story. Nobody speaks it. There's a voice addressing you directly. The same voice later says, "The corner in which he sat was curtained off from the sun, the poor old sun in the Virgin again for the billionth time." The poor sun? The billionth time? You don't use modifiers like these unless you want to express an opinion. Someone is telling you a story, and it isn't Samuel Beckett, nor is it the title character, Murphy.

The challenge of finding voice relates in no small way with the construction of a viable narrator. Note that I said viable, not reliable.

A viable narrator helps you develop voice and tone as appropriate -- the better you know the voice telling the story, the better you two will get along. Readers fall in love with narrators too, you know, though they don't always realize.

I conclude with Mondrian's own words:
"I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation) of things."  

But don't go away just yet. Here's a short video profile of Mondrian.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Read more in this series.

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