DE STIJL   1917-1931

Between 1914 and 1918 it became clear to any thinking person that an old world had died in an agonizing spasm and that a new world was desperately needed to take the place of a graveyard of discredited ideals. De Stijl or “The Style” was founded in Holland during the Great War, and the desire for harmony and balance expressed by the artists in this group certainly reflected their abhorrence of the chaos and conflict raging around them.  De Stilj emerged at the same time as Dada and the Russian Avant-Garde movement—all dedicated to the rebuilding of a Brave New World out of the ruins of the old.  Whether it was the nihilism of Dada or the missionary spirit of the Russians or the Utopian dreams of De Stijl, these groups were forged from the urgency of the time.  Although the roots of the style of De Stijl can be traced back to Cubism from which it is derived, the dates of the movement itself are linked to the magazine, De StijlDe Stijl the group and the journal, was founded in Leiden in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg, the organizer of the diverse group of artists and architects.  Carrying on throughout philosophical disagreements and defections over doctrine, van Doesburg personified the group, carrying its ideas throughout Europe until he died in 1931. The journal ceased publication in 1932 with a commemorative issue edited by his wife.  By then, the original artists had long since gone their separate ways.

It is useful to distinguish between the origins of De Stijl as a style, based on an abstraction of Cubism, and the impetus of the movement, which was founded in the consciousness of the effects of the Industrial Revolution.  De Stijl evolved, as did many of the avant-garde movements during the early decades of the twentieth century, out of a realization that a new kind of society was coming into being and that this modern culture must be expressed by an entirely new art form.  As van Doesburg stated in his Manifesto in 1918,

“1. There is an old and a new consciousness of time. The old is connected with the individual. The new is connected with the universal. The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world of was as well as in the art of the present day. 2. The war is destroying the old world and its contents: individual domination in every state. 3. The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual. 4. The new consciousness is prepared to realize the internal life as well as the external life. 5. Traditions, dogmas, and the domination of the individual are opposed to this realization. 6. The founders of the new plastic art, therefore, call upon all who believe in the reformation of art and culture to eradicate these obstacles to development, as in the new plastic art (by excluding natural form) they have eradicated that which blocks pure artistic expression, the ultimate consequence of all concepts of art. “

The Manifesto needs to be read as a refutation of Expressionism and its emphasis on the individual, upon emotions, and upon spontaneity.  The rejection of pre-War Expressionism was common after the Great War. Romantic notions of glory in war and of individual heroic actions led to the first mechanized war and the post-war world sought refuge in the universal laws.  Van Doesburg concluded,

“7. The artists of today have been driven the whole world over by the same consciousness, and therefore have taken part from an intellectual point of view in this war against domination of individual despotism. They therefore sympathize with all who work to establish international unity in life, art, culture, either intellectually or materially.”

This first manifesto was signed by the principle artists associated with the group at that time, including Robert van‘t Hoff and Jan Wills, architects, George Vantongerloo, sculptor, and Vilmos Huzar, Hungarian refugee, and Piet Mondrian, both painters.  Notably absent was Bart Van Der Leek, a close associate to Mondrian, attesting to the conflicting ideas among this loose group of artists, scattered among Dutch cities. Van Der Leek and Mondrian were from Laren, a rural town and a popular artists’ colony, while van Doesburg and the others, including J. J. P. Oud, were from the Leiden-Hague area. Eventually, Van’t Hoff and Oud, left the group, attesting to the difficulty of trying to get individual artists with clashing perspectives to work within an artists’ collective. Van Der Leek disagreed strongly with van Doesburg, who liked to blur the distinction between painting and architecture, and broke contact with the rest of the artists by 1920.  Although he and Mondrian both contributed to the journal, they did not want to be associated with De Stijl, except as contributors. Mondrian, himself, left Laren for Paris after the War ended in 1919, and his contacts with van Doesburg were limited until he formally dissociated himself with the group in 1925.   Despite the strong differences and divergences among the artists, certain key concepts emerged from De Stijl.

First, the group wanted to join art and life, to make art reflect modern life.  There was a “new sense of beauty” that coincided with the new age. “The Brown world had to be replaced by a White one.”  “The Brown” referred to the Baroque era of seventeenth century Holland, the Holland of Rembrandt, and, most importantly, to the reliance of previous art upon nature.  “The White” was a world derived, not from nature, but from the elementary construction of Cézanne and Cubism, which would replace the vagueness of the Baroque with the logic and rigor of geometry.  Second, the idea of “the style” is an absolute concept, meaning that De Stijl is the best and most appropriate to modern culture.  Art can never return to representation.  Art must eliminate the “profanity” of the illusion in its search for the absolute truth. The “absolute” is the cornerstone of De Stijl, for the absolute can be expressed only through abstraction.  Therefore, De Stijl art is always abstract. This third idea united the artists who rejected the curves of Art nouveau and its sensual connections to reality.  They also eliminated mixed colors in favor of the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue.  Straight lines and right angles ruled and eliminated all traces of the artist’s personality.  “I abhor all which is temperamental, inspiration, sacred fire and all the attributes of genius that conceal the untidiness of the mind,” van Doesburg said.  And finally, De Stijl sought the precision and exactness of the machine and its clean and efficient forms.

Because De Stilj was exclusively a Dutch movement, there has been speculation that the art and architecture is uniquely Dutch.  However, any resemblance between the flat, human-produced landscapes of Holland and the flat paintings of the artists is purely coincidental.  A better connection would be to the philosophical tendency towards abstraction through mathematics that is part of the Dutch tradition.  Mathematics is a way of expressing the realities of the world in numerical terms.  Numbers immediately abstract and universalize the particular and subject the local to the universal logic of abstract though.  Equally Dutch was the tendency to eliminate the incidental in favor of abstraction, as exhibited in the iconoclasm of the Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  One can better understand De Stijl from viewing a painting of the bare and stripped interior of a Protestant church by Emmanuel De Witte.  De Stijl removed iconoclasm from its religious origins, eliminated nature, and substituted a more universal and absolute quest for a utopian harmony. “The art of painting,” van Doesburg said, “can be explained only by the art of painting.”

Cubism suggested to the De Stijl painters that it was possible to move into abstraction.      Bart van der Leek stated, “Modern painting transmutes physicality into flatness by reducing the natural to the terms and proportions of the flat plane; and through the understanding of space, painting achieves relationships.” The Dutch artists seemed to understand that Cubism, particularly that of Braque and Picasso, suggested that line and color and form could be used as signifiers instead of as describers.  If that was the case, then Cubism had created a new visual language that substituted ideas or concepts for resemblances. The Cubist artists themselves were unwilling to take the final step into total abstraction and to relinquish their hold on reality, but the De Stijl artists were concerned with concepts that were abstract compared to the more mundane sources of Cubism.  In addition, Cubism was a pre-War movement and De Stilj was a post-War movement with the goal of rethinking the world.   But the impact of Cubism upon De Stijl would be a strong one, particularly the author of the 1920 series of articles on “Neo-Plasticsm,” Piet Mondrian, who used cubist ideas as a vehicle through which he made concepts concrete through painting.

Van Doesburg brought the Section d’Or exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants to Holland in 1920:  the Section d’Or-Paris: Works by Cubists and Neo-Cubists. The “neo-Cubists” were the Dutch painters who were compared to the French Cubists by van Doesburg as those who realized the abstractions of the Cubists.  It is apparent two years later in the anthology issue of De Stijl published in the journal in 1922 that Mondrian emerged as the leading painter in the movement…in the eyes of van Doesburg.  He gave the artist credit for inspiring new artists “with the possibility of a new creative image” through his series of essays on Neoplasticism in De Stijl. However the year to come would lead to a rupture between the two artists over van Doesburg’s “Elementalism,” a form of painting which would allow the dynamism of the diagonal, borrowed from the Russian Avant-Garde painting of Malevich.  Mondrian, whose belief system was wrapped up in the idea of balancing opposites into a harmony of equilibrium, broke from the leader on the issue of the dynamic line in 1925.

From 1922 on, van Doesburg understood architecture as the primary means of expressing the Neoplasticism or new forms of De Stijl.  His third Manifesto was devoted entirely to architecture.  By this time, he was without his primary painters and even his architects are breaking away to attain their own goals.  The leader becomes a traveler and promoted his movement, which became more and more of a dream than an actuality, throughout Europe.  Increasingly, his travels brought him under the influences of other movements, which fit uneasily with the De Stijl precepts.  Dada was of great interest to Rosenberg and is linked to De Stijl in its insistence that art and life should be merged.  Equally compelling was the Russian Avant-garde artists who shared to dreams of a new world and a new utopia. However, both movements, like the educational ideas of the Bauhaus, were firmly rooted in real world situations.   De Stijl always sought universality and absoluteness.   The aim of the movement was to make the abstract concrete and, through this materialization, it would change the world.

Under the influence of new acquaintances, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius from Germany, van Doesburg began to think of architecture as the overarching and all-inclusive. The Bauhaus was founded on the principle of the medieval cathedral where all the arts were combined under the auspices of architecture.  During the 1920s, De Stijl, outside of the Parisian studio of Piet Mondrian, was exemplified as architecture. In the exhibition of De Stijl art in Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie l’Effort Moderne, the movement was introduced primarily through a series of architectural models, based upon the De Stijl designs for Rosenberg’s proposed home.  Unfortunately, only two examples of De Stijl architecture remain today, one of them being the famous Schröder House of 1924, built in Utrecht by Gerritt Rietveld, a cabinetmaker turned architect, who transformed a Mondrian painting into a building.

From the beginnings of De Stijl there had been a clash between painters and architects.  While both agreed that it was important for both art forms to move forward and to manifest the modernity of the actual world and above all to merge art and life, the collaborations between the artists were difficult. Who should control the space?  What should determine the space, the structure of the architect or the paintings of the artist within the structure?  The painter did not want his/her paintings to be subordinated to the will of the architect any more did the architect want to allow the painter to undermine his/her vision.  Mondrian approved of the idea of his theories of Neoplasticism being manifested in architecture and used his studio as a site where he manipulated space through the dispersal and arrangement of cardboard planes of primary colors.  For a brief moment there appeared to be the possibility of the merger of painting and architecture dreamed of by van Doesburg in the Schröder House, where Rietveld dematerialized the exterior walls of the home by painting the Mondrian white against which the red balcony railings drew sharp lines in the air.  In the end, De Stijl dissolved on its own and died with Theo van Doesburg in 1931.  None too soon, the age of utopia was about to come to an end.

The next posts will focus on Piet Mondrian and on De Stijl Architecture.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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