Square old Piet for the blind — and the rest of us

Mondrian and why his art could be an accessible art experience for the blind

Contribution by Kate Van Genderen

To interpret abstract art correctly would be akin to grabbing smoke with ones bare hands. Once any piece of art leaves its maker, it is consumed in often misguided and misinterpreted ways. With abstract art the chances of this are far less likely, simply because many abstract artists do not necessarily put their art with clear messages for their audience.

Mark Rothko’s untitled pieces do not give you a clear idea of what’s going on. With Piet Mondrian and his De Stijl movement, his intent is also not as clear. This lack of clarity in abstract art lends itself well to creating art for the blind.

The selection of art and their colours acting as braille

Focusing primarily on Piet Mondrian, an exhibition could take three of his pieces, Pier and Ocean, Fox Trot B, and Broadway Boogie Woogie to be recreated in thin layers, creating a 3-D landscape for the blind to feel their way across. With Mondrian’s sharp angles, exaggerated lines and colour schemes, an exhibition of his work tailored to the blind would make another form of art accessible to as many people as possible.

choice of art venues to mount the exhibition

The exhibit would take place in two museums in both Europe and the United States. The exhibition would open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on March 15, 2012, where it would remain for six months. The MoMA was selected as the ideal starting point of the exhibition because it already has a program in place for blind visitors, with experienced guides and tours for the blind (1). New York is also the city that Mondrian in his later years felt the most at ease with, and it is there that his most famous work, Broadway Boogie Woogie, was created (2).

Broadway Boogie Woogie’s permanent home is already the MoMA, therefore making it another reason to hold the start of the exhibition there. From New York City, the three recreated pieces would go to the Museo Tiflologico in Madrid, Spain. This museum is a museum totally devoted to the blind, and was completely designed for ease of movement for people with varying degrees of blindness. It has replicas of tapestries, architectural structures such as the Eiffel Tower and the London Bridge, and exhibitions by blind artists. This space would be highly ideal for the exhibition to take place in, and would provide a space perfect for the 3-D pieces.

Tactile considerations

The three works that would be recreated vary in their degrees of complexity and size. The idea is to build up thin layers of either wood or plastic to create a surface that can be felt and interpreted in a multitude of ways. There are two materials that would be best suited to the re-creation. Plastic would provide the smooth, ergonomic feel that Mondrian always put into his works, while wood would be more personal and provide something for the sense of touch to appreciate more than smooth plastic. By building up each painting layer by layer based on the lines and colour schemes, the angles and intersections of Mondrian’s lines would be easily felt and interpreted. The re-creations would be done to scale to be accurate to Mondrian. The works are vary in size, Broadway Boogie Woogie being the largest at 127 centimeters square, with Pier and Ocean coming in at 88 x 120 centimeters (3), and Fox Trot Bat 45 centimeters square (4). This provides a good variation of sizes for people to get the idea of Mondrian’s focus on sharp, perpendicular lines and 90 degree angles.

Choice of complementary music

In addition to the recreation of the works, jazz music and period music of the 1920’s and 30’s would be played to play with the energy and exact movements. The staccato piano and trumpet sounds would play with the structure of the pieces nicely, and provide rhythm, something that abstract art radiates. Specifically, the playlist for the exhibition would likely include Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodman, as they are the emblem of the Jazz Age that Mondrian’s paintings were executed in.

The canvas which would capture the essence of Piet Mondrian the most

Broadway Boogie Woogie would be the most fitting painting of the energy and movement that was seen during this era. With it we see the stripping down of traditional flourishing elements that other artists added in. The simplicity and yet eccentricity that Mondrian employed in his masterpiece shows through. By recreating it with thin layers, it would be possible to translate the energy and fervor of the painting into a suitable medium for the blind. With jazz playing in the background, it would be a fitting way to do justice to the visual explosion of colour that Boogie Woogie gives to the world. The layout of the layering on the painting would rely on white to build the base, with yellow as the preceding layer. Blue would make up the third layer, and red the fourth.

All of the layers in this painting would be thin, but not so thin that their intended users couldn’t understand what was happening underneath their fingertips. The layers would be about two centimeters thick, resulting in the highest layer, red, to be eight centimeters. This would be the maximum height of the piece. For those who aren’t totally blind, it would be good to have the layers still be painted with their coordinating colour, that way those who can still partially see bright colours could appreciate this both kinetically and visually.

Implied remnants of the city grid in the art

As the title implies, Broadway Boogie Woogie as a work focuses on the idea of the grid layout of New York and the energy of New York. Mondrian loved how New York itself was planned out, because it was reassuring in it’s perfect gridded streets (5). The 3-D layered Broadway Boogie Woogie would illustrate not only the grid system of the streets but also the skyline. As the user’s hands trace the edges they would meet vertical and horizontal lines, they would create the angles that resemble city outlines and urban landscapes.

Pier and Ocean Number 5

The next work that would make use of the layering technique is a much more intricate, early Mondrian work, Pier and Ocean No. 5, completed in 1914. It focuses on only two colours on a mustard yellow background, and is a much more subtle work. This is before 1920, when Piet Mondrian discovered his idea of coloured lines and thick defining lines, a revelation in his theory of creating his pieces (6). This piece shows some of his ideas slowly coming to shape with the angles, although they are rounded. This piece requires much thinner layers, perhaps no more than half a centimeter thick, to illustrate the fading of the white and the rounded edges of the lines.

Mondrian’s title here repeats the idea of giving away some hints of what his work actually represents, and once the viewer sees this, the pier slowly materialises. How to translate this into a 3-D landscape for the visually impaired is more complicated than with Broadway Boogie Woogie or Fox Trot B. For this piece, the right amount of layers would be about 30 of extremely thin plastic or wood. For the precision of this project, plastic would be more practical, but the very idea of having the title Pier and Ocean and not making the 3-D interpretation of it not in wood seems illegitimate, especially when recreating the lines and intersections of the lines that make up the pier. The ultimate goal would be to make the black lines stand about five centimeters higher than any of the other surfaces, placing emphasis on this part of his work. In addition to the focus on the black lines, perhaps painting some part of the piece with grainy paint would give the sense of touch more to go on when the yellow begins to turn to white. Pier and Ocean is the most exotic piece in this exhibition, and exemplary of how an artist’s work evolves through the years.

Fox Trot B

Piet Mondrian’s work has distinctly changed throughout his career as an artist. One of the things that identify him are the blocks bordered, or often closed in by black lines varying in thickness. Fox Trot B, painted in 1929, shows his blocking method perfectly. It’s the smallest painting in the exhibit, and provides a mediator between the intensity of both Pier and Ocean and Broadway Boogie Woogie. Here, Mondrian has yet to fully plunge into the idea of having the guiding lines of his works be coloured. This piece will also have layers of two centimeters thickness, and be ten centimeters high at its tallest. The problem with this piece in the exhibit is whether to put emphasis on the blocks of colour or the lines of black. The lines could be guiding, but the blocks of colour are also important. Ultimately, Fox Trot B serves as transitioning piece for the exhibit, and placing emphasis on the lines, as they have not yet become colourful, would demonstrate this in the most simplified way.

The extreme art that is shown is at once basic and also very complicated. Mondrian himself would paint his walls “the same off-white that he used on his canvasses” and spend hours arranging blocks and lines with pieces of coloured Scotch tape (7). As a result of his focus on colour and the breakdown to solely primary colours in addition to black and white, translating this effectively with the recreations still proves challenging. The layering technique attempts to demonstrate this, but the main problem is the transition of the pieces from their original canvas in the first place. Once a work leaves its maker, so much of what it means is already lost, and by transitioning a work to an entirely different medium is almost destroying the original intent of the artist. To curate this exhibition is homage to Piet Mondrian, but at the same time, the works that will be shown will simply not be able to keep the meaning that the original ones possess. The intricacies of seeing how intensely mechanical Mondrian’s brushstrokes were, then seeing a tiny little deviation from perfect on the canvas is something to behold in of itself. However, if one is blind, then this is simply not an option. The solution would then be to attempt to transition the pieces in the best way possible. This layering technique strives to do this in the best way, but still meets pitfalls.

If we look past this mistake, however, it should also be noted that Mondrian himself loved the idea of destruction. His breakdown to the purest forms shows this time and time again. He wanted the bare minimum, precision, and nothing to be overdone. Piet Mondrian lived an almost monastic life, and never married or lived with anybody. When he died, his actual possessions were few beyond what was absolutely necessary; his furniture was crafted from old fruit crates, and the only decoration in his apartment was Victory Boogie Woogie, an unfinished masterpiece, and a few other canvasses (8). His social habits were such that he was almost a hermit, but at the same time, he cultivated a large circle of friends and wrote many letters. It was almost as if Mondrian did not want to possess a past at all, which is an obviously Futurist idea.

the man and his notions of dynamic rythm

Mondrian, for all his want of the absolute basics was himself a complicated man who not very many people knew a lot about. He is an enigmatic figure who raises curiosity and gathers a following. His idea of “dynamic rhythm” and repetition are amazing to experience, and making these ideas accessible to the blind is the next step (9). Abstract art itself goes beyond what is merely experienced and is meant to be pondered and weighed upon. It bears a load in an entirely different way than other forms of art, where Eduoard Manet’s dead matador is obviously a dead matador, or where Jan Brueghel the Elder’s blind people are clearly in a sticky situation. Pier and Ocean does not do a fluid job of showing the audience where the pier ends and the ocean begins, but that is not its purpose.

To sum it all up

Mondrian’s work has an appeal in its back to basic mentality and its colour and form. By translating his works into a medium for the blind to feel, we make a master’s work accessible to a whole section of the population that before was not able to get a full sense of what his works have to offer. While in translation the original meaning may be skewed, the methods used to showcase these three remarkable pieces tries to be as accurate and close to Mondrian’s vision as possible. His use of angles and intersections provides a good surface to work with, and each piece shows a different part of Mondrian to the user. The exhibit brings forth a wealth of information to perceive and interpret however the audience wishes, and in this, abstract art truly shows to be dynamic and malleable for the better.

Elgar, Frank. Mondrian. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968.
Fox Trot B”. Yale University Art Gallery, 2004. http://artgallery.yale.edu/pages/collection
“Individuals Who Are Blind or Partially Sighted”. The Museum of Modern Art, 2011. http://www.moma.org/learn/disabilities/sight#course2
Lowenfeld, Viktor. “Psycho-Aesthetic Implications of the Art of the Blind”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 10(1951): 1-9. http://www.jstor.org/stable/426783
“Piet Mondrian”. Museum of Modern Art, 2011. http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?
Sweeney, James Johnson. “Piet Mondrian”. The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 12 (1945): 1-12 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4058123
van Campen, Cretien. ”Artistic and Psychological Experiments with Synesthesia”. Leonardo 32(1999), 11 http://www.synesthesie.nl/pub/synleon99.htm

Image Sources:
Broadway Boogie Woogie. Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki
Pier and Ocean. Artchive. http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/mondrian/mondrian_
Fox Trot B. Antony Kok Blog. http://www.antonykok.nl/nieuws