Estimated reading time: 10 minute(s)

I began composing an original song called “Mondrian” in late 2018. Folks that have heard it
seem to enjoy it, so I added it to the roster of songs that I perform more often. You can listen to the song and watch the video I created to accompany it here.

(The song is also available on YouTube.)

I play a version of Mondrian designed for the guitar, and I worked with the great Jason Laney to create a pianoversion of the song. I was about to begin creating a version to perform with my full band –
Victor V. Gurbo & Co., but the pandemic put the kibosh on that project.

“Mondrian” is named after the twentieth century painter, Piet Mondrian. I assumed that most listeners would identify the song’s namesake. After releasing the song, I discovered that Piet Mondrian the man is not nearly as well-known as his art. Was my song reference more esoteric than I thought? Below, I tell the story of the reaction to the song, look at Mondrian the man, and then explain what my thinking was in writing the song.

Piet Mondrian is Less Well-Known Than I Thought

As I noted above, “Mondrian” is named after the twentieth century painter, Piet Mondrian. I assumed that most listeners would identify the song’s namesake, and thus understand the reference to “a Mondrian” in the song’s refrain:

"She dreams in dreams like Mondrian
It's like she knows the hill I'll die upon
She's lost inside a Mondrian
Where she's walking
'Till she's gone."

Reactions to the song have led me to question whether my reference is obscure to many, if not most, listeners. For example, I have performed Mondrian multiple times on a monthly live-stream concert series that I participate in. One of my fellow performers and co-hosts, Phil Robinson, scolds me after performing the song, yelling “what is a Mondrian”? At first, I thought he was teasing me (as he has been known to do) for sounding pretentious. Eventually I caught on that he actually did not know who Mondrian was – leading me to explain the reference.

The live-stream concerts were not the only place I encountered confused listeners. I entered Mondrian into an online music contest. The judge who responded to my entry spoke highly of the song, praising both the chord progression and imagery. However, he was perplexed as to who or what a “Mondrian” was. While he did look Mondrian up, he opined that it took him out of the experience of enjoying the song. The judge suggested as a remedy that I add a line or two to the chorus to add some background about Mondrian. While I appreciated his feedback, I am at a loss as to how to pencil that in.

(The judge did inspire me to write an article, however – you’re welcome, Nick.)

Mondrian’s Art is More Well-Known than Mondrian

I have a background in fine art and art history. With that background, I took it for granted that people know who Mondrian is, much like Warhol, Picasso, and Van Gogh are commonly known names. Mondrian’s art has seeped into popular culture. His abstract tri-color compositions are found on everything from clothing to mouse pads. There is even an episode of the children’s show Arthur where one of the characters realizes that Mondrian’s Composition II was hung incorrectly. I write this article under next to a lamp with a Mondrian-themed shade (thank you, Sammy Lee). If you search for “modern art” on Google, one of the first results returned is an advertisement for Mondrian reproductions.

Still from music video for Victor V. Gurbo's Mondrian
A still from Victor’s “Mondrian” music video

Judging from the reactions to my song, it seems that Mondrian’s art is more well-known than Mondrian himself.

A Brief Overview of the Life and Work of Piet Mondrian

Below, I will very briefly summarize the life, times, and work of Piet Mondrian. I am not a Mondrian scholar, as I explain in the final section of this article, so I will rely generally on common sources.

Mondrian’s Early Life

Piet Mondrian was born in the Netherlands in 1872. He became “an important leader in the development of modern abstract art and a major exponent of Dutch abstract art…”

Mondrian was initially tutored in drawing by his father and uncle when he turned 14. He began to build his name as an artist at the turn of the century, and his paintings gradually became more abstract. The Wikipedia article on Mondrian observes that “Mondrian’s art was intimately related to his spiritual and philosophical studies.” He sought to create “universal beauty.”

Mondrian was once quoted as saying:

Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise it would have no value for man. (Seuphor, Michel (1956) Piet Mondrian: Life and Work. New York: Abrams: 117)

Piet Mondrian, quoted in Seuphor, Michel. Piet Mondrian: Life and Work. New York. 1956. Abrams: 117

Move to Greater Abstraction

In 1911 Mondrian moved to Paris, where he became influenced by cubist art. The Kimbell Art Museum states that it was “his exposure to the Cubism of [Georges] Braque and Picasso quickly converted him to ever deeper extraction…”

One of his most recognizable quotes on his work was in a private letter (to H. P. Bremmer) in 1914, reprinted on Mental Floss:

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… 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 in 1914 letter to H.P. Bremmer

Rise to Prominence

Piet Mondrian fled France during the First World War, but found great success upon his return in 1918. Mondrian co-founded “De Stijl,” or “The Style” with several other artists in 1917, and produced the works he is most well-known for today upon his return to Paris. He would eventually leave the group due to his disagreeing with another artist about the use of diagonal lines in paintings.

In addition to creating paintings, Mondrian published essays on his art theories which he called Neoplasticism, or “The New Plastic Painting.” While known as abstract paintings only using horizontal lines, vertical lines and primary colors, Mondrian’s intent was to set himself “the goal of purifying the art from elements that they thought did not belong there and tried to determine and apply the elementary (and in their eyes universal) principles of each art form through rational means.” (Wikipedia page on Neoplasticism.)

Later Life and Death

Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, Mondrian left Paris for London in 1938, before leaving Europe behind entirely and moving to Manhattan in 1940. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, he created many of the tri-color compositions for which he is most well-known today. He stated that his Manhattan studio was the best studio that he had ever had. Mondrian died of pneumonia on February 1, 1944, and was interred at the Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

“Mondrian” is Not About Mondrian

Most people who do not know Mondrian by name have likely seen his paintings or seen the works of countless artists and designers who have been inspired by him. In a loose sense, I suppose that my song, named after Mondrian, falls within that broad category. With all that being said, however, I have to confess that my song has little to do with the real Mondrian, and much more to do with another artist. It is for that reason that I was not keen on focusing on Mondrian himself, much less within Mondrian.

As a general rule, I disfavor musicians explaining their own work. I also do not like receiving direction from another as to how I should understand a piece of art. I believe songs and other works of art should stand on their own without ancillary explanations or commentary. Attempts to explain a work often takes away from the work itself. If the piece is successful, you should be able to enjoy it and see yourself within it – and in the event that I learn that an artist’s goal was vastly different than how I connected with it, I can become disconnected from the piece. It takes away some of the magic for me.

But, because you’ve hung around this far, I’ll discuss Mondrian. If you’re interested in my personal inspirations, please continue reading. However, if you’re like me and find artists talking about their work distracting from your enjoyment of a song, we can part ways here.

The Life and Times of André Kertész

The main artistic inspiration for Mondrian was not Mondrian, but rather André Kertész. Kertész is one of the greatest photographers, and his life and career is every bit as interesting as Mondrian’s. Although fewer people may know his name and work, his techniques and innovations in photography helped shape the history of the art-form. Because I am far better acquainted with the life of Kertész than with Mondrian, I am more hesitant to summarize – but I will try to make a long story short.

(I fear some Mondrian scholars may take issue with my brisk overview of his career.)

The Life and Times of André Kertész

André Kertész was a Hungarian artist born in 1894. He learned to photograph in his native country, and emigrated to Paris in 1925 where was garnered fame and acclaim as an artist. As Mondrian did, Kertész fled France during World War II and emigrated to New York. Unfortunately, Kertész was not accepted in the United States as he was in Paris, and he fell into obscurity.

After many years of struggling to be a successful artist, and a long tenure as a magazine photographer (work which he defined as no better than driving a taxi), Kertész successfully reestablished himself and achieved success in the United States. He made money selling and publishing his art, and upon his death in 1985, he was revered as a seminal figure in the history of photography.

Many books have been published about Kertész if you are interested in learning more and seeing his work.

Kertész Meets Mondrian

Part of Kertész’s claim to fame was meeting and working with Piet Mondrian while on assignment in Paris in 1926. The artists did not share a common tongue, so Kertész used art to communicate that he understood what Mondrian was doing. One of Kertesz’s most celebrated photographs is titled “Chez Mondrian,” which shows the inside of Mondrian’s studio. While Kertész hung his hat on this encounter and cited it as the impetus for his modernist style, he had been honing his personal themes and ideas for many years before their meeting, and continued to do so many years after.

Kertesz’s Marriage

Kertész met his wife Elizabeth in his native Hungary when they were both young. She was an amateur painter and they connected because of their love of art. Over the course of their lives, Elizabeth functioned as André’s manager and keeper in addition to being his partner. Their marriage was long and complicated, and to summarize as I am does not do the story justice, but: Kertész’s wife pushed him to succeed and supported him when his career was floundering.

When Kertész had reestablished himself as a commercially successful artist, Elizabeth was diagnosed with lung cancer. Upon her death, despite having achieved his greatest recognition as a photographer, Kertész fell into a deep depression. He stopped photographing and was, in his own words, waiting to die.

However, an unlikely object brought him back from the brink and gave him new life. By chance, Kertész saw a small modern art glass bust that was placed in the window of Brentano’s Bookstore. He thought it resembled his wife, by the posture and shape of the neck. Kertész thought the resemblance was so uncanny that he is on record saying he would cross the street to avoid having to look at it.

It was not until the bookstore removed the glass piece from the window that Kertész finally purchased it. This, in conjunction with receiving a Polaroid camera from musician Graham Nash, André Kertész began photographing again, using the glass object as a surrogate for his wife. Even after her death, his beloved once again assisted in guiding him back to his art.

Kertész’s Marriage as the Inspiration for “Mondrian”

My song was inspired by Kertész’s relationship with his wife, and his response to her death.

Kertész found a way to communicate with Elizabeth, without words and through art, just as he did with Mondrian. My song was inspired by sadness and bitterness in Kertész’s final body of work – the beauty and pain that comes with loving and then losing someone.

The Meaning of My “Mondrian”

Kertész found a way to communicate with Elizabeth, without words and through art, just as he did with Mondrian. My song was inspired by sadness and bitterness in Kertész’s final body of work – the beauty and pain that comes with loving and then losing someone.

Lyrics for Victor V. Gurbo's original song, "Mondrian"
Lyrics for Victor V. Gurbo’s “Mondrian”

While the story of Kertész and Elizabeth inspired me to write “Mondrian” and this article, the song may mean something different to you. “Mondrian” sometimes means something different to me too. At its core, the theme of the song to me is love and loss. It’s a song about being in love with how someone thinks, seeing art in how he or she dreams, and the pain of losing that person. It certainly doesn’t have to be this specific story for you for you. The door is open for you to find yourself and your own story in “Mondrian.” For that reason, please consider my background information should be supplementary rather than the definitive explanation of the piece.

While this is what started the process of writing the song for me, and what inspired me to pen this – it can and should mean something different to you. Sometimes it means something different to me, too. This information should be supplementary, rather than an explanation of the piece.

So, my question to you dear reader is: before this, did you know what a Mondrian was? And if not, did not knowing take you out of the experience of this song? Let me know in our Guestbook. If you are interested in my original songs, I wrote about a different composition of mine last June.