Tuesday, June 14, 2011


You get to a certain age, and just keep seeing things come back again and again, altered a little -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago, looking at Lucia's post on the color-blocking trend. The word threw me. Looking at the pictures, I don't see a lot of "blocking," just bright colors. The exceptions are the bag and the top, where a splash of contrasting color is introduced in a single item. Those are the two I like the best. There's something surprising in the contrast. Also, I like the fact that I can visualize the shirt as something Lucia would make by putting two t-shirts together.

Of course, I guess if you put the bright pink dress with the orange shoes, you've color-blocked an outfit. But the designer didn't.

In any case, the term color-blocking, and the idea of placing bold colors next to each other, brought to mind the obvious (well, obvious if you're old enough to remember the sixties): Yves Saint Laurent's famous "Mondrian" dress from 1965. It was so iconic that not long after it was introduced, Simplicity had patterns based on it made for children. (For some reason, the idea of mother-daughter matching Saint Laurents cracks me up. Itsy bitsy haute couture is suddenly a lot less haute.) Curiously enough, Forever 21 knocked off the dress only a few years ago, proving that they can rip off dead designers just as easily as current ones. (Exceptionally curious, considering the showy Christianity of Forever 21's owners. The last time I checked Thou shalt steal was not in the 10 Commandments. Maybe they have a different Bible.)

As I said, everything old comes back again, including theft, since Saint Laurent's "original" dress, was itself, of course, a theft. That's why it's called the Mondrian dress. His design was based on the work of the 20th century Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Oil paint becomes wool jersey.

Of course, Mondrian was not interested in decorating bodies with splashes of color. Like the Changs, the owners of Forever 21, he was deeply religious -- but in a very different way. He wasn't a Christian, but a theosophist. The theosophists studied many religions, searching for a core truth that permeated all of them, some deep spiritual reality that existed underneath material reality. The philosophy was popular among several twentieth century artists besides Mondrian, including Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky, all of whom moved from early works of representational art to greater and greater abstraction, with a strong emphasis on color (in Mondrian's case, the purest of the pure -- primary colors). They saw themselves as beginning with the colors and forms of nature, and then moving to something deeper and purer than a perfect representation of what was in front of your eyes. The idea was to look to nature for inspiration, but then transcend it, finding what it was in nature that truly touched human beings -- the colors, the shapes, the forms -- not just reproduce them as they were.

In essence, it's not the tree or the ocean that grabs you; it's the green and the blue.

It's not the horizon; it's the straight line.

To put it in another way, the first abstract artists used paint the way musicians used notes. A piece of music isn't about anything, it just is. Something about the arrangement of sounds moves us. You don't, for instance, listen to Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train" and try to find the train in it. No train, just music. Great music. Mondrian, in the same way, meant to strip art of its ties to representation so it could find it's pure essence of shape and color.

One of the best introductions to Mondrian I've seen is a video set to music that shows the development of the artist's work over the decades, moving from somewhat representational to highly geometric and abstract. It's less than a minute and a half long, and I think captures the beauty and spirituality in Mondrian's development.

I'm not sure what Piet Mondrian would have thought of Saint Laurent's knockoff (he died two decades earlier), let alone Forever 21s (or others). There's a long history of art mixing with crafts and pop culture, but that's a topic for another day.

The interesting thing to me right now is just the deep roots of our attraction to color.