De Stijl - The Modern Plastic Art Movement
There is one quote by Piet Mondrian which could be used to define De Stijl in one sentence alone: “All painting – the painting of the past as well as of the present – shows us that its essential plastic means were only line and color.” Since you probably know at least some of his works, it goes without saying that Mondrian meant this quite literally. We are not going to reduce this article to a single sentence though, as it would prevent you from knowing a beautiful story about art and its power, told in a language of a style that, due to its alleged rigidness, appeared to be the least “poetic” of all. De Stijl, which ambitiously means The Style, was conceived in 1917 in the Netherlands by a group of artists who centered around the idea to fathom the purity of form and the reality of nature, supposedly obscured by figuration. Having the time of its inauguration in mind, it should be clear that this urge to redefine, or even reinvent reality comes from a feeling of anxiety and disappointment caused by the First World War. They believed there had to be something more to life than what was being served, but in visual terms, this “something more” was actually achieved by reduction and simplification, rather than embellishment.
Just like the cubists had the capacity to see things through abstract shapes combined, and the futurists saw a single movement in all of its stages, the protagonists of De Stijl – especially painters – were inclined to understand nature as a combination of relationships, rather than of actual physical forms.
This “style”, or rather a school of thought, is called Neoplasticism – the new plastic art, which aimed to develop a universal language that gradually gave rise to Modernism. Their visual expression was radicalized by a self-invented vocabulary that functioned according to its own system, consisting of orthogonal lines and primary colors as the most basic tools for non-verbal communication. These elements are sometimes wrongly interpreted as shapes, which they obviously are, but it is not what they aim to represent. The idea was not to repeatedly paint red, white, blue and yellow rectangles outlined with black lines in order to discuss their mere appearance, but to capture the sensations that come through our eyes, and to translate them into the domain of the cognitive. In other words, Mondrian’s art is not about the red and the blue, it is about the redness of red, the blueness of blue, which cannot be mistaken one for another, and about the emotion that their juxtaposition creates. Thus, De Stijl was a bit like telling a story, or even writing poetry using visual cues, which some of us are not able to contemplate even in this day and age. And even when the story ended in 1933, partly due to the untimely death of Theo van Doesburg and partly because of the socio-political situation in soon-to-be Nazi Germany, its legacy remained, heralding the character of the 20th century as we know it today.
History Of De Stijl Architecture
Since the name of the group was, literally, the Style, it comes as no surprise that it was a total style as well. Beside painting and sculpture, it made significant impact on typography, architecture and design, and even music at some point. However, all of these genres were strongly influenced by painting, which is somewhat logical, given that painting could be considered a foundation for other media. De Stijl architecture was no exception of course, but since building takes longer than painting, there are not as many examples that adhere to the principles of De Stijl entirely. Actually, the only house that is supposedly designed to match all the propositions of De Stijl manifestos is Schröder House by Gerrit Rietveld, who was one of the most famous members of the group next to the painters Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. But even though De Stijl’s ideas on architecture were not mastered within the group’s work during the time of their existence, they are a part of a greater picture that we know as Modern architecture today. It is often emphasized that De Stijl was important for the development of International Style, as they are both based on the idea of a “universal language” which seems to be the key point of De Stijl, and one of its most valuable gifts to the Modern world.
Defining De Stijl Architecture – Towards Total Modernism
The anti-individualist principles that all De Stijl members aimed to embody through the means of “elementary” plastic expression were present in architecture as well, meaning that buildings were designed with an awareness of a purified, universal form. One of the things that make architectural expression different from painting is the existence of the third dimension, which makes the horizontal and the vertical elements overlap in some plans, and diverge in others, so even though the facades were often reminiscent of Mondrian’s paintings, the composition was arranged across space. The other thing is utility of course, which introduces the second most important characteristic of De Stijl architecture. Since De Stijl was one of the pioneers of the Sullivan-derived form-follows-function practice, most of the things you know about modern architecture applies to De Stijl architecture as well. It was, however, preceded by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on De Stijl assisted the formulation of this architectural style to a great extent. The other important influence comes from Hendrik Petrus Berlage, a prominent Dutch architect whose work is often regarded as an interim stage between traditionalism and modernism in the Netherlands.
Primary Colors and Shapes as a New Language
Apart from being quite single-minded about the need to re-articulate architectural form and to relieve architecture of ornamentation, the proponents of Neoplasticism were determined about the color scheme as well. Only blue, red and yellow were used to outline certain elements of De Stijl design, otherwise the surface was painted in white, grey or black (the non-colors). This was applied both to the facade and the interior of a building, and obviously to furniture design as well. On this subject, Hans Richter, one of the younger members of De Stijl known for his contribution to “abstract film”, wrote: “It has to be emphasized again and again that art is not the subjective explosion of an individual, but the organic language of man, of a most serious importance; therefore it is to be as free from error and as concise as possible, in order to be really used as such: as the language of humanity. For this new art it is absolutely necessary to dispose over definite elements. Without these a (most attractive) game can be brought about, but never a language“. Statements like this, and the general approach of De Stijl made it vulnerable to numerous (mis)interpretations. Just like the majority of Modern art movements, De Stijl was fighting to find an equilibrium between being exclusive, or even extremist, and advocating universality and global equality.
De Stijl Architects and Their Legacy
Three names are almost instanly associated with De Stijl architecture: Gerrit Rietveld, the aforesaid author of Schröder House, J.J.P. Oud, who coined a beautiful term “poetic functionalism”, and Robert van ‘t Hoff, whose Villa Henny was one of the first modernist houses ever built, in 1914. Robert van’t Hoff’s villa was also the very first house that was built out of reinforced concrete, which basically redirected the development of architectural design. All three of them were famous for their industrial designs as well, whereas Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair is possibly one of the most iconic pieces of furniture ever made. Interestingly, it was made the same year that the style was officially announced (1917). A lot of De Stijl’s artists, but especially architects, found an adequate surrounding for their activities in Weimar, among the circles of the Bauhaus in 1921. Two groups were very much alike in many aspects, and their mutual influence gave meaningful results, both for the Bauhaus and De Stijl.
Interestingly, two of these eminent architects, Oud and van ‘t Hoff were quite successful in the period of De Stijl’s first years, but in the 1920s they both decided to choose different paths. Oud spontaneously decided to withdraw in 1921, but he continued working in a similar manner, up until the 40’s when he was condemned for his supposed return to ornamentation. Nonetheless, Oud is still considered to be one of the most important Modernist architects. Robert van ‘t Hoff’s resignation was far more definitive, as he decided to leave the group in 1922 and became a self-proclaimed ex architect, which marked his final break-up with the discipline and from any kind of artistic engagement. He later became involved in anarchistic activities.
Founded in the Netherlands in 1917, the name De Stijl belonged to a magazine. Today, we use it to define a very specific art group, which connected the abstract at and functional architecture through the work of its major representaties: Mondrian, Van Doesburg, Van der Leck, Oud, Wils and Rietveld. This book is the first to place teh emphasis on the local context of De Stijl and explore its relationship to the distinctive character of Dutch modernism. The connection between debates concerning abstraction in painting and spatiality in architecture are examined, as well as the contemporary developments in the fields of urban planning, advertising, interior design and exhibition design. From a historical perspective, the book explores the relationship and the interaction between the world of mass culture and the fine arts.
Mondrian and His Theory of Abstract Art
We have a ‘nostalgia for the universal’ wrote Piet Mondrian. ‘This nostalgia must bring forward a completely new art’. This point of view, of searching for the new form of artistic expression, marked the 20th-century art and major Avant-garde movements that sprung during this period. With this in mind, we need to consider the importance Mondrian left; not only in his legacy of paintings and design concepts but more importantly as one of the artist-metaphysicians of our time, we need to acknowledge his views regarding the artistic language and his philosophical reflections. As one of the founders of the Dutch style De Stijl, Mondrian was recognized for the purity of abstraction and methodical practice by which he arrived at it. The harsh reduction and simplicity of his non-representational art, which he named neoplasticism, hides a more mystical approach to the world. Mondrian’s paintings reflected what he saw as the spiritual order underlying the visible world, and as such, Mondrian’s art, needs to be viewed as a symbol, possibly better to say a sign, of the universal aesthetic language.
The Early Phase of Mondrian’s Art
Piet Mondrian and his contemporaries wrestled against the past and this rebellion continued long after the initial act of self-liberation to sound the alarm against tradition. Yet, his early paintings, influenced by the choice of subject matter and approach to colors imposed by the Impressionism, more importantly, Post-Impressionism artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and painting technique of Georges Seurat, show a degree of abstraction but they are in most cases marked as Naturalistic and fall under a category of landscape paintings.
The early pastoral paintings of his native country, the Netherlands, depict windmills, fields, and rivers, and they also help to illustrate a variety of influences a number of art movements, such as pointillism and Fauvism had on Mondrian. It is his painting Evening: Red Tree that seems to suggest his later development towards geometrical abstraction and his use of primary colors. These series of canvases from 1905 to 1908, depicting dim scenes of trees and houses reflected in still water, echo Mondrian’s ideas and the emphasis on form over the content. Even though these paintings are still decisively rooted in nature, for all of us familiar with Mondrian’s later achievements, we are almost trained to search for and find evidence of his future abstraction.
The Fusion of Spirituality and Cubism
The move to Paris in 1911 marked the beginning of the style we have all come to acknowledge as the style of Mondrian’s Art. The strong defiance of the linear perspective and the emphasis placed on the flatness of the surface, alongside the geometric shapes and interlocking of planes of Cubism, visible in the style of Picasso and Georges Braque, was almost immediate in Mondrian’s work. But, where did he differ? The major difference between Mondrian and the Paris avant-garde lies in the fact that with his art Mondrian from the beginning attempted to reconcile or fuse together the art and the mystical. His paintings and his writings, which reflected his theories about art, spirituality, philosophy, and the new look and expression of the natural universal laws, were with him from the beginning. Prior to coming to Paris, in 1908 he joined the Theosophical Society, a spiritual organization based on the teachings of Buddhism.
‘All the time I’m driven to the spiritual. Through Theosophy, I became aware that art could provide a transition to the finer regions, which I will call the spiritual realm’.
The mystical, the intuitive, the universal, the need to reach pure harmony, all of this Mondrian attempted to express in his work that was gradually becoming more and more abstract. What he aimed to express was the spiritual energy and the balance of forces that ruled nature and the universe, and to this desire we owe the simplification of nature to horizontal and vertical lines, which represented the two opposing forces: the positive and the negative, the dynamic and the static, the masculine and the feminine.
Mondrian and De Stijl Perspectives
In 1913 Mondrian began to fuse his art and his theosophical studies into a theory that indicated his final break from representational painting. It was also during this time, that the artist needed to return back home, but the outburst of the World War I forced him to stay in Netherlands during the brutal conflicts. While at home he met Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. The two artists were also attempting to reach pure abstraction and the joined forces marked the beginning of De Stijl. Advocating the pure abstraction and a pared down palette of colors in order to express a Utopian ideal of universal harmony in all of the arts, De Stijl was a major avant-garde movement emphasizin abstraction. The artists believed that their vision of modern art would transcend divisions in culture and become a shared language based on the primary colors and flatness of forms. The simple geometrical shapes and the grid lines hid metaphysical ideas of universal laws that Mondrian attempted to explain in his famous publication on abstract art The New Plastic in Painting. The plastic in the title and in the name of the new form of art referred to the new way of representing reality found upon the surface of the artwork itself. This newfound abstraction and the need for a universal language reflected itself in the future titles of his painting that were often named and labeled purely as Compositions.
It was due to his utopian ideals and understanding of the representational quality of abstraction that Mondrian is viewed as one of the important artists that helped the development of modern art. While he was still alive and even after his death the impact of his thoughts and paintings was influential. Almost immediately he was referenced by the Bauhaus, and later in the Minimalists of the late 1960’s. His paintings continued to develop but they remained faithful to his views that nature and its hidden dynamic forces are best described with the use of lines, grids, and primary colors. Where the lines met, the magic and pure forces of nature were expressed.
This volume explores the work of Mondrian, one of the great innovators of abstract art. The focus is put on the analysis of the interrelations between his paintings and the theory of art he professed, paralleled with his views on life, taken from the public writings and mainly unpublished letters. More intuitive than mathematical, Mondrian’s art was not based on reasoning or calculation, as the artist always strove to provide the wider cultural and philosophical context for it. Critical to Mondrian’s thought was the Theosophical notion of evolution, which required the destruction of the old to make room for the new, in life, in society and in art.
Famous De Stijl Artists
Apart from the founding members of the magazine De Stijl that announced the emergence of the new art movement, the search for laws of equilibrium and harmony applicable both to art and life that De Stijl stood for, has attracted many prominent artists and architects of the time. The work of architects associated with De Stijl has helped give rise to the International Style of the 1920s and 1930s. The ultimate simplicity, abstraction and the color theory of De Stijl have influenced many artists that followed, from Max Ball to Mark Rothko. Piet Mondrian is certainly the most famous artist associated with the group, but let’s take a look at other prominent names that contributed to this group greatly.
Theo Van Doesburg
After coming in contact with the works of Piet Mondrian, Theo Van Doesburg saw these pieces as the ideal in painting as a complete abstraction of reality. With Mondrian and other prominent figures of the movement-to-be, he founded the magazine De Stijl in 1917. As an ambassador of the movement, he promoted it all across Europe. He created numerous abstract paintings and designed buildings, room decorations, stained glass, furniture and household items in a simplified geometric aesthetic that De Stjil advocated. The style that emphasized subtle shifts in tones, tilted geometric shapes and colored straight and disconnected lines, became his own version of De Stijl called Elementarism. The variety he wanted to infuse in the movement led to the split with Mondrian in 1924. For him, abstraction had a unique quality to achieve social order and harmony.
Hungarian-born painter and designer, Vilmos Huszar has lived in Netherlands and was one of the founding fathers of De Stijl. He designed the cover for the first issue of the magazine De Stijl and contributed greatly to defining the Neo-Plasticism with numerous articles. While involved in the movement, he produced various abstract works, industrial and commercial graphic works, and collaborated on numerous interior design projects such as for the home of the industrialist Bruynzeel. Additionally, he designed furniture with Piet Zwart from 1920 to 1921. After the outbreak of the World War II, he moved to the small Dutch town of Hierden where he painted the landscape around him. Since 1955, he was focused on finding a pure non-objective language.
The Dutch architect Jan Wils was another founding member of the De Stijl. His designs had a sleek shape with the emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines, but were also very vital and organic. One of his most notable works is the Olympic stadium for the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam that has also won the gold medal in the Olympic art competition. He worked on several projects with Van Doesburg before their split in 1919, including the refurbishment of the now demolished restaurant Dual Key in Woerden. After designing the housing complex Papaverhof in The Hague, he became deeply interested in problems of urban housing. Other important works are the Citroën garage and the City Cinema in Amsterdam, the Mutual office in The Hague and the Bouwes hotel in Zandvoort.
J. J. P. Oud
Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud, commonly called J. J. P. Oud, was a Dutch architect that got involved with the movement in 1917. He was appointed Municipal Housing Architect for Rotterdam between 1918 and 1933. Working mostly on socially progressive residential projects around Netherlands, he is now best known for his remarkable works for housing schemes in expanding areas. Trying to reconcile strict and rational construction technique with necessities and aesthetic expectations of the residents, he practiced ‘poetic functionalism’. Thus, he is considered a pioneer of the Dutch Functionalist architecture. From 1932, he was considered one of the four best modern architects along with Ludwig Mies van der rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. He abandoned De Stijl influences after the World War II, but continued to rebel against the mainstream modernism.
Russian-born painter Ilya Bolotowsky was a student of Piet Mondrian who has made a significant contribution to the American geometric abstraction. After completely adopting Mondrian’s geometric patterns and a palette restricted to primary colors and neutrals, he co-founded American Abstract Artist collective that promoted abstraction and these artists to the public. These neo-plastic paintings characterized his work throughout his career. He created the mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn that was the first mural commissioned by the Federal Art Project. He always emphasized the role of the intuition over formula regarding his compositions. He also joined the artist collective The Ten along with Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko that advocated for new forms of abstraction and rejected the establishment.
Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld was one of the key members of De Stijl. His most famous piece was the Red and Blue Chair from 1917. He aimed for simplicity in his designs and hoped his furniture would be mass-produced. After getting involved with the De Stijl movement, he started exhibiting worldwide. The first building he designed was Rietveld Schröder House in 1924 that looked like a three-dimensional Mondrian painting and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. It has a conventional ground floor but the radical top floor had sliding walls that could create and change the living spaces. After abandoning De Stijl in 1928, he started designing buildings in a more functionalist style. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam that he started working on in 1934 was finished after his death.
The Ditch architect and theorist Georges Vantongerloo has collaborated on the magazine De Stjil with other leading figures of the movement. He was also involved with abstract painting and sculpture. Often writing for the magazine, he formulated his theories about art and the role of the artist that revealed his belief in abstraction and preferences for mystic and scientific theories and concepts. After moving to Menton in France, he associated with the artist and architect Max Bill who has organized many of his exhibitions. There he has developed a color theory where he exchanged three primary colors by De Stijl artists with seven main colors of the spectrum. For him, art, science and the society should be a homogeneous social unit and together benefit the world.
Cornelis van Eesteren
The architect Cornelius van Eesteren met Theo van Doesburg in 1923 and the same year they have created the manifesto Vers une construction collective. He collaborated with Jan Wils on his infamous design and construction of the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium. He was one of the most prominent urban planners in Netherlands. His work was rooted in the social context. His approach was to identify social issues that needed for spatial solutions. Despite having a certain preconceived formal idea, he would always allow it to grow and change during his work. His name is tightly associated with the ‘functional city’ concept that was evident in the General Extension Plan for Amsterdam he devised in 1929. Based on the statistical forecasts of population growth, he calculated the requirements for housing leisure, employment and traffic.
Becoming the youngest member of the group in 1925, Cesar Domela‘s work within De stijl involved several mediums. Due to rigid rules, he quit the group and incorporated the diagonal line and later the third dimension. From then on, his focus was on three-dimensional reliefs in which he would often incorporate pieces of Plexiglas and metal as well as photomontages and newspaper cutouts. He adhered to the Ring Neue Verbege stalter founded by Schwitters that gathered artists such as Lissitszky, Heartfield, Moholy-Nagy and Hans Richter. He widely experimented with typography and produced various advertisements in Germany. He designed covers for various anarchistic books, but was forced to destroy them all during the Nazi regime.
Bart van der Leck
The Dutch painter, designer and ceramicist Bart van der Leck was one of the founding fathers of the movement. From then on, his style became completely abstract, but after the split with Mondrian, this style was based on representational images. He claimed to be the father of the avant-garde movement and he recalled his first meeting with Doesburg: ‘When Doesburg noticed an abstract painting right on the easel, he exlaimed: ‘If that is to be the painting of the future, may I be hanged right now!’ Well, a few months later, he was painting in precisely that manner. That’s the sort of person Doesburg was. No ideas of his own. And a cheat in bargain’. His later works involved carpet designs, textile and ceramics and the application of color in relation to architecture.
De Stijl Influence on Art and Design
The essence of De Stijl was finding a new art form that could be functionally applied within the society. The pared-down aesthetic centered around the use of the basic visual elements such as geometrical forms, horizontal and vertical lines, and the use of primary colors along with black and white. This reduction and simplification, as discussed in the part of this article concentrating on ideas of Piet Mondrian, suggested a need and a desire for the creation of a universal visual language appropriate to the modern era, applicable both for fine and applied arts. Partly a reaction against the decorative excess of Art Deco, De Stijl also emerged in response to the horrors of World War I and from the wish to remake the society. For the most important De Stijl artists, the newfound simplicity, the Neoplasticism, was a means of social and spiritual redemption.
The Importance of Theory
Although De Stijl’s artists were not the first to practice abstract art, other painters, perhaps most notably Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Hans Arp, had earlier created nonobjective art, De Stijl promoted their views of a more pure abstraction in the first-ever journal devoted to abstraction. This publication, promoting functionalism and incorporation of all art forms, represents the most significant work of graphic design. Published by van Doesburg, the journal promoted the philosophical views of the group, and the famous text by Mondrian Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art was specially endorsed.
It was due to De Stijl art and the strong link between theory, concepts and ideas, promoted by Mondrian, who kept journals and often wrote his concepts down, that we can understand the ‘hidden’ message behind the grids and geometrical shapes. They stood as symbols, and the desire first and foremost as a tool that breaks away from tradition and helps to reshape the new society. These utopian ideas transformed easily onto Bauhaus school and philosophy. The pure non-representational art, simplified lines and colors of Mondrian’s paintings were easily referenced in the school’s aesthetic. This simplicity but above all the focus on functionalism was also promoted in applied arts most especially in furniture design. The famous chair by Gerrit Rietvel was fashioned in the same Neo-Plastic or De Stijl style visible in the paintings of the movement’s artists. The chair effects the focus on functionalism as much as the practicality of application. The focus of the group, as discussed above, entered into different areas of art, such as typography, furniture design, graphic design, and followed closely with the notion, put forward by the English designer William Morris, of the fusion and the break of the hierarchical system between fine and applied arts.
De Stijl Typography and Posters
Out of all the avant-guard movements, De Stijl had one of the most immediate impacts on typography. The principles of their non-representational art were applicable and put to use forming a new geometrical experience of the letter. The need to make the letters fill the shape of the square caused a variety of deformations and rough distortions in the alphabet created by Theo van Doesburg. The asymmetrically balanced layout of the artists typography and poster design was given harmony and contrast by the juxtaposition of different letter thickness along with the use of black and white color, orthogonal lines leaving out any evidence of self-expression.
As much as the fine art production focused on order and balance, the graphic design work, encompassing the mentioned typography design, influenced also book and poster designs. A variety of commercial poster designs were done by authors of this movement. In 1919 Bart van der Leck created a poster design for Delft Salad Oil Factories. In this poster the figure along with text was suggested by very basic geometrical shapes, using only primary colors. The outline of the figure was completely left out and the scattered objects described the figure. This is possibly one of the most interesting examples of De Stijl commercial design works. Transforming their ideas of color, the dominance of the red color, evident in the various examples, was explained first and foremost through the symbolic force of the color, closely linked to revolution and its powerful effect with the black color.
The Legacy of Neoplasticism
The De Stijl’s artists deeply believed in their ideal sense of order as a response to the trauma of the World War I. Affected by the notion of globalization instead of individualism, they tried to express their ideas and produce works of art that are both mystical and functional. The simplicity of their designs influenced many artists that followed, such as the monochromatic paintings of Newman and Reinhard, which lack any evidence of self-expression. The flatness of the surface and its manipulation by color and grid lines, some link to the birth of Op Art, the movement that concentrated on the surface dynamics that create visual effects designed to confuse the eye. The progress made in graphic design works focused on the reduction of objects, letters, and figures to basic geometrical shapes was referenced by Bauhaus’s typography designs, contemporary art, design and architecture as well. Out of the rebellion towards the past and the pure desire for a better future, the artists of this movement reshaped not only their time but helped to define the art we know today.
The essential volume on the Dutch modern art movement, De Stijl by H. L. C. Jaffé tells the history of the style and the group, explaining its practice and its ideas, outlining its utopian ideology, while analysing the particular traits of the neoplastic painting, sculpture, architecture and design. The author maps the evolution of the art movement from its foundation in 1917, with the emergence of the eponymous journal De Stijl. The volume reveals the philosophical background of the artistic practice, which casted away the figural and the representational and limited itself to the purity of form and expression. The basic vertical and horizontal lines juxtaposed with the primary colors make the key visuals of De Stijl, widely recognized as such even today. With its main representatives van Doesburg and Mondrian, the style spread from painting into design and architecture and sculpture as well, adopted by Jean Art or Constantin Brancusi. Contextualizing De Stijl in terms of its abstract nature, the author concludes on its influence.
Featured images: Piet Mondrian – Piet Mondrian – Composition II in Red Blue Yellow; Piet Mondrian – Tableau I; Theo van Doesburg – Counter Composition V. All images used for illustrative purposes only.