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Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

Art into life: the peculiar puzzle of Piet

Most people in India don’t have clothes by Yves Saint Laurence but look how, besides putting women in pants, he also put art on their backs, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2008 23:55 IST
Fine Line | Renuka Narayanan
Fine Line | Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times

Most people in India don’t have clothes by Yves Saint Laurence but look how, besides putting women in pants, he also put art on their backs. In 1966, when he opened Rive Gauche, the first ready-to-wear boutique from a couture house, he made dresses inspired by the artists of the day. The most famous YSL dress was the Mondrian dress. Not surprising that YSL was the only fashion designer honoured with a retrospective at the snooty Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1983).

Who was YSL’s inspiration? The Dutch-born painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was actually a Theosophist whose paintings reflected his spiritual search. He tried to come closer to the Great Design of the universe by reducing his own painterly applications to minimal lines and planes of three primary colours, red, yellow and blue: a process of ‘non-representational’ art that took thirty years to evolve, though on the face of it, it seems so easy. This was not artistic affectation. It took great courage, amidst the dominance of figurative art, to do what he did: strip ‘non-essentials’ away and look for a beej mantra (seed formula).

Mondrian, originally spelt ‘Mondriaan’ the Dutch way, was born at Amersfoort in the Netherlands. Brought up as a Protestant, he began as primary school teacher who painted on the side. His early works, in the Dutch Impressionist style, carry titles like The Red Mill and Trees in Moonlight. In 1908, he was drawn to the Theosophy (literally, ‘Knowledge of God’) spiritual-philosophical movement founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. She maintained that it was possible to know Nature at a deeper level beyond external forms. That belief shaped Mondrian’s worldview and therefore his art, tipped over by the exhibition of Cubist (geometric abstract) art in Amsterdam that he saw in 1911. His search for simplification was now a life mission.

In 1912 (two years before World War I ravaged Europe), Mondrian moved to Paris, dropping the extra ‘a’ from his name as an act of putting away small-town Holland. His work showed the geometric shapes and interlocking angles of Cubist artists, but seemed to be pushing for even more simplicity.

Going home in 1914, Mondrian was forced to stay in Holland by the outbreak of war. In that period he met artists Bart van der Laeck whose use of primary colour he connected deeply with and Theo van Doesburg with whom he set afoot a new way of seeing that they called De Stijl (The Style) and ‘neoplasticism’.

Twelve essays on art followed, to express Mondrian’s mental marriage of art and spiritualism. He famously wrote: “I construct lines and colour 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…”

After the war, Mondrian moved in succession to Paris, London and New York, dying of pneumonia in 1944. He never deviated from his path, only got more joyous and triumphant at it. He’s considered the father of advertising design, because it his original grid that every graphic artist still builds on. And recently a simple functional language for Internet use was named ‘Mondrian’!

Now the puzzle: Indian, of course

How come red, blue and yellow are precisely the main colours of Rajasthani traditional dress since millennia? It’s as though when all else is pared away and only the stark minimalism of the sands is left as the landscape of life (like a blank canvas?), these three ‘primary’ colours emerge time and again from the deepest recesses of the spirit.

Now consider this. If red, blue and yellow are the three colours thrown up our sands, the two patterns of the region are both geometric: bandhni (tie-and-dye, which spread to lusher lands) and leheriya (fine stripes). Their inspiration? There was hardly any vegetation in the desert to copy forms from. So people obviously recreated the two most outstanding and elegant natural patterns that they could see: the stars in the great bowl of the night sky (basic tie-and-die) and the stripy lines on sand dunes drawn by the wind (leheriya, meaning ‘wave-like’). It’s as though ‘life into art’ (in which human beings by their clothes themselves became planes and curves of art) made its way back through Mondrian and YSL as ‘art into life’.