Mondrian portrayed himself many times, but the 1918 self-portrait in oils occupies a place apart: except for an ink drawing of 1942, it is his last self-portrait, and since it is the only one that shows him clearly as a painter, it is more than ordinarily autobiographical.
The self-portrait was painted on commission from S. B. Slijper, Mondrian's admirer and friend from the time of his residence in Laren. With his large but selective collection of Mondrian's works, Mr. Slijper has erected an enduring monument to his friend. It is therefore fitting that this self-portrait has been chosen to introduce the colorplate section of this book, in homage to Mr. Slijper.
The picture shows Mondrian in half-profile, turned to the left, with head and shoulders inclining slightly backwards. This pose is a familiar one, used in a series of self-portraits drawn in 1912 and 1913. The glance is directed toward the viewer, as it always is in a self-portrait, and thus creates a link between the world of the viewer and that of the artist.
The artist's world is evoked by Mondrian's having portrayed himself against a painting on an easel in the background, parallel with the surface of the portrait. And this painting is related to the 1917 series of compositions in areas of color, the first works in which the principles of neo-plasticism are clearly expressed: the expanding composition and complete abstraction, that is, the absence of any bond to a perceived fragment of reality. Although the painting shown behind the artist's head cannot be identified with any of the five existing compositions with color planes dating from 191 7, it clearly shows the characteristics of this series, which marks the breakthrough to a new style.
This gives the painting a genuinely autobiographical reference. Here Mondrian has connected his portrait with one of the paintings with which he achieved a feat in the history of twentieth-century art. It is evident from his writings in De Stijl and his later autobiographical comments that he was aware of the importance of that feat. In such a modest and unpretentious man as Mondrian, this awareness and the expression of it in a self-portrait are all the more important.
It is also noteworthy that the 1918 self-portrait closes the series of Mondrian's self-portraits. The reason for this cannot be the fortuitous circumstance that it was painted on commission from Mr. Slijper and that no such commission ever came to Mondrian thereafter. He could have been expected to continue sketching self-portraits, as he had previously done. But except for the 1942 sketch there are no others, and the reason for their absence must be that after 1918 Mondrian had entered so deeply into "another world," the world of harmony and abstraction, that he could no longer find any occasion for doing his own likeness, for a self-portrait.