Significance of lines in Piet Mondrian’s Art

Mondrian devoted his entire artistic life exploring the variations in composing lines. Besides, he only worked with horizontal and vertical lines throughout his career. He added primary colours – red, yellow, and blue – but the lines were always horizontal and vertical, even when the canvases were diagonal. Mondrian felt so strongly about his preference that when, in 1952, van Doesburg, another member of the De Stijl group, insisted on using diagonal and horizontal and vertical lines, he left the group.

Orientation detectors in the visual cortex and the importance of lines

At the end of 1950’s David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel may have scientifically proved the reason behind Mondrian’s artistic obsession with a line.

In their Nobel Prize-winning research, Hubel and Wiesel studied the cells in the primary visual cortex of the cat’s brain, responsible for analysing the input from the eye.  They began recording sounds from single neurones in the primary visual cortex and found that they responded best to lines or edges of a particular orientation. The most effective stimulus for activating large numbers of neurones was, therefore, a board covered with an array of lines of varying orientations.

The basic finding is that many of the cells in primary visual cortex respond optimally to a line of a particular orientation lying in a specific region of the visual field. And the cortex is organized into columns of cells responding to the same orientation and sets of columns which between them cover all possible orientations within a larger but still small patch of visual field.

Image of cat's primary visual cortex similar with Lines in Piet Mondrian's art

This is a diagram of a small area (c.1.0 mm x 0.5 mm) of the surface of the primary visual cortex of a cat. Each short line represents an orientation at which an edge must appear in the visual field to stimulate the column of nerve cells lying below that point on the surface of the cortex.

piet mondrian, pier-and-ocean-composition-no-10_1915_oil-on-canvas_850x1100mm_kro_ller-mu_ller-museum_otterlo, lines in piet mondrians art

Piet Mondrian, Pier and Ocean, Composition No.10, 1915

Comparing the diagram of the surface of the primary visual cortex of a cat and Mondrian’s Composition No.10, Pier and Ocean there is a striking similarity between the composition of the lines.

This may be why lines are so powerful in the generation of images. Line drawings feed into the stage at which the visual system is breaking the retinal image down into component edges and lines. And it also means that lines themselves, without any semantic components – a representation of the visible world and it’s subject matters – can generate powerful visual images.

Could it be that the ingenuity of Mondrian lies in his “indirect definition of the nature of visual processes”, such as orientation detector, before this process has been investigated scientifically?

According to the professor Richard Latto, Orientation detectors, which are part of our bigger neural mechanism and visual system, are only one0 part of the aesthetic primitives, that predicate what we find intrinsically pleasing for the eye.

“Fascinated by the cunning brain and the artful eye, here are thoughts of scientists and artists working on many aspects of visual perception: the physiology of the brain, development of sight and communication in infants, how form and motion and colour are coded and represented, effects of drugs and brain chemicals, the physics of images, and the mathematics of impossible.”