During the Great War, Holland, a territory also called “The Netherlands,” was neural. Like Belgium, its neutrality was historic. but a principled or pragmatic stance on the part of a small weak nation was actually in the hands of the stronger nations that would use of for their own ends. Thus it was that Germany under the Kaiser had little interest in the neutrality of either Holland or Belgium, it just so happened that the militaristic country decided that the Netherlands would be of more use to them out of the War than in the War. Great Britain, also considered it to be more expedient to leave Holland alone and to avail itself of whatever it needed from the land of windmills during the War. So Holland existed in an uneasy peace of sort, caught between warring nations, hoping to not be harmed too badly. As Friso Wielenga pointed out in A History of the Netherlands: From the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day, “The decision as to whether or not the Netherlands could remain neutral was thus actually in German and British hands. And indeed the Netherlands went to great lengths to do exactly that throughout the war.”
Staying neutral was a precarious stance for Holland but the water-logged nation profited from the German need to use the Netherlands for the supply of goods. And Germany needed help. The British blockaded German ports and the pro-German prime minister of Holland made sure that the agricultural industrial needs of Germany were taken care of. In an temporarily advantageous position, Holland prospered during the Great War, and, after 1918, the undamaged nation was in the position of being supplier to Europe. Holland even captured new markets as foreign competition was elsewhere occupied during the War. While Germany was destroyed after the War, severed from one third of its land mass, and while France was struggling to survive by exploiting Germany, the Dutch economy boomed from 1918 to the end of the 1920s. Being neutral paid off. Jan L. van Zanden, who wrote of the economic history of modern Holland, stressed that “..the Netherlands was probably the only European country in which per capital income and production per hour worked increased between 1913 and 1921.” The reason was obvious–Holland was neutral. Van Zanden continued, “The boom that was unleashed in the final months of 1918 after the Dutch surrender in November was perhaps the most spectacular one in Dutch economic history. Postwar demand for products and capital goods (such as ships) was indeed enormous and Dutch industry was ready to fulfill it. The restoration of the sea routes with Indonesia, among others, led to an enormous growth spurt in international trade, since Europe was craving for coffee, tea, rubber and oil to replenish stocks. Reconstruction demand from Belgium and France was high because both countries supposed that German war reparations could be used to finance it. The shipbuilding industry expanded as it never had done before to rebuild the merchant fleet which had partly been destroyed by the war.”
One of the unwritten chapters of the Great War is what would have happened if Holland had not fed Germany during the Great War. As it was, the British Navy eventually succeeded in starving Germany into submission through its naval blockade, but Holland was allowed, as a neutral nation to carry on, as it were, with its international trade. Edwin Ruis explained the precarious situation of Holland from the mid nineteenth century onward in his book Spynest: British and German Espionage from Neutral Holland 1914 -1918, “The days when the Netherlands was a great European power, able to fight Great Britain and France simultaneously, were long gone when the First World War broke out..The (northern) Netherlands or Holland became a small European nation with an agricultural and trade-based economy, and a relatively large but weakly defended colonial empire in Asia, a remnant of its seventeenth century trading post empire..For a country with a total population of six million at the beginning of the twentieth century, there is only so much the Netherlands could do against nations whose armies were the same size as its total male population. International peace and free trade became the Netherlands’ best political strategy in international affairs, which resulted in a strict neutrality in all military conflicts..the Dutch kingdom reinvented itself as a neutral peace-loving country..In 1914, the two most important foreign powers to the Netherlands were big brother in the east and overseas cousin Great Britain in the west..When war broke out in August 1914, the Dutch desired to stay neutral. This was not only because neutrality was the chosen political strategy until May 1940, but also because a choice between the two neighboring countries was simply an impossible one to make. Choosing the German side was not thinkable at the beginning of the war in August 1914. Germany had historically never waged war against the Netherlands, unlike France and Britain, and had always been a friendly neighbor and good economic partner..” Ruis made the same point as van Zanden, Holland had no choice but to remain neutral and the choice was made by the larger and stronger nations—Britain and Germany.
Although histories of modern Holland in English are few and far between, it is interesting to note that it was not just the Dutch economy that benefited from being neutral during the Great War, the artists who were living in Holland also had a peaceful place, unruffled by conflict, where they could develop their avant-garde art. And, it should be added that this open-mindedness extended from the government to the artists in the Netherlands. Under the leadership of the energetic Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), a new movement emerged. De Stijl would be the bridge between pre-war Cubism and post-war interpretations or developments of post-war Cubism by linking France and Germany and Russia into an international art market. After the War, van Doesburg could be a broker among the nations who had so recently gone to war with one another. Although Walter Gropius did not want such a strong personality as van Doesburg at the Bauhaus, this was the artist and leader who spread and supported new ideas in art and architecture after the War.
The stance of neutrality carried over into the movement itself: De Stijl was a grouping of artists, designers and architects, some of whom never met each other and, because of their diverse practices, never exhibited together. The name “De Stijl” was deliberately selected by Van Doesburg to make the point that “The Style” of the Modern Era must include architecture. In other words, modern design encompassed all art forms, modern was The Style. The collective enterprise named itself after the title of Gottfiied Semper’s 1861-63 book Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or Practical Aesthetics. But, fifty years later, there was a philosophical edge to De Stijl that combined mysticism and the search for ideal geometric forms such as the Perfect Straight Line. This combination of the material and spiritual would guide De Stijl towards directions that would be unique in European art and design. Because it was Mondrian who was the most famous of the De Stijl artists, history has placed him at the center of this movement, but the refugee was but one of many very interesting and important artists who defined the European calamity and continued making art and creating new ideas in the process.
It has been pointed out by art historian Yves-Alain Bois that, as a signal of its inclusiveness, De Stijl was a style, an idea, a group of artists and the name of a publication started by van Doesburg in 1917, the year that De Stijl was founded. One hundred years ago, during a terrible war, the year 1917 proved to be unexpectedly auspicious to the worlds of avant-garde. In Holland, De Stijl artists began to come into their own, and in Russia, a Revolution overturned the old order, including the concept of fine art, ushering in a new movement the avant-garde artists called Constructivism. As was mentioned earlier, 1917 was also the year Pablo Picasso bade farewell to Cubism with an innovative combination of set design and costumes for the Ballets Russes production of Parade. It was at the mind-blowing presentation of the ballet that a dazed and dazzled poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined a new word, “surrealism.” Change and Revolution were in the air, and with the first modern war producing wholesale carnage in the background, it was clear that one era hand ended and that artists had to take the responsibility of interpreting the modern era.
During this extremely productive period, the post-war avant-garde emerged, changing design, architecture, and fine art. De Stijl emerged at the same time as Dada in Zurich and Berlin, the Russian Avant-Garde in the Soviet Union and the Bauhaus opened a year after the War ended—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, or the desire to re-design the world, these groups were forged from the urgency of the time.
In 1918, De Stijl issued its manifesto which reflected this consciousness of time. Statements one through four are a clarion call for the new: 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-war as well as in the art of the present day. 2. The war is destroying the old world with 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 realise the internal life as well as the external life.
Although Theo van Doesburg thought that a new world was being created, his goals were political and were strictly limited to art itself. For the leader of De Stijl, it was necessary for artists to renounce nationalism and individuality and seek the “universal” by which he meant a collective consciousness that could expand beyond art to society itself. In moving forward, both De Stijl in Holland and Constructivism in the Soviet Union took a step that Cubism never took—into complete abstraction, but each group did so for very different reasons. De Stijl artists assumed that contemporary art had to have an end point, a place where it would reach its end point and dissolve, disappear by ridding itself of all elements that were not definitional or absolutely necessary. If, these artists, asserted, art examined its own essential nature, from its actual media to its semiotics, then the result would be a universal language. This reductive language was termed “Elementarism” which should produce a whole in which all the parts were equal.
When Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) returned to Holland and encountered these emerging principles of the role of art in society and the essential nature of art, he had absorbed Cubism. Back in the Netherlands, it became clear that he had to change again. It is important to stress that by the time of the War, Mondrian was not a young man. He was a mature artist who went to Paris at the unusually old age of forty. For his entire career, Mondrian had been a symbolist, and, although he decided to change his conventional style, wrench himself out of old ways of thinking, his Cubism was always imbued with the spiritual. Along with Kandinsky and Malevich, Mondrian was a follower of Theosophy, a pan religious international movement led by Madame Helene Blavatsky who searched for the essence of the world and the universe. For these artists, art was a search for the truth.
In their book, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism, Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness wrote of Mondrian’s lifelong adherence to religion, which he took very seriously. He was a seeker of truth, moving from the Dutch Reformed Church to the Reformed Church where the artist did several religious commissions. However in 1900, “Mondrian experienced some sort of deep crisis in faith. He gradually withdrew from the Reformed community and turned to more esoteric forms of spirituality, particularly theosophy–a syncretic blending of Judeo-Christian mysticism, evolutionary science and a variety of Eastern spiritualities (especially Indian and Egyptian)–which had become popular in Europe around the turn of the century. In 1908, he attended a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner, who was in Holland as part of a wide-ranging speaking tour, and in May, 1909 Mondrian formally joined the Dutch chapter of the Theosophical Society..The most important years of development and transition in Mondrian’s work from 1912 to 1915, during which he methodically worked toward non-objective abstraction. He moved to Paris in late 1911 or early 1912 (initially renting a room at the headquarters of the French Theosophical Society) and stayed until 1914 when he returned to the Netherlands to visit his ill father and quickly found himself immobilized by the outbreak of World War I. His exposure to Parisian cubism during those two years deeply impacted him, but he internalized its significance differently than did his French peers: he saw in cubism a new formal language form wrestling with the essentially theological questions that had preoccupied him.” In a footnote the authors pointed out that in Holland, the Dutch Theosophical Society held two meetings on the question of the relationship between art and theosophy. It is not known if Mondrian attended or read the proceedings of these meetings but after the second session he began Evolution in 1910.
Evolution was the last overtly religious painting with clear Theosophical theme and Mondrian followed the lead of Cubism and appropriated its geometrical mark making. Horizontals were references to seascapes or the vastness of the ocean and the verticals were signifiers of church spires and the extension towards the heavens. The “plus-minus” paintings occupied Mondrian during his Paris years. The colors were neutral and monochromatic and vaguely reminiscent of the Analytic phase of Picasso and Braque, although the theme and intentions were very different. For Mondrian, the lines purified the natural world, stripping away excess information and revealing the “‘fundamental interrelatedness’ that provides structure and meaning in the world..Rather than reproducing natural appearances, Mondrian believed that modern painters should devote themselves to identifying the most basic relations of color and shape, within which all other visual forms become thinkable as possibilities. Specifically, he believed that painting become more ‘aesthetically purified; when (1) naturalistic color is pushed toward the primary colors from which al colors are derived and (2) naturalistic lines are pushed toward the horizontal and vertical geometric axes between which all other lines might be conceived.” The authors conclude “The important point is that Mondrian’s grids are profoundly intelligible from within a Protestant theological framework. They were in many respects meant as theological manifestoes, oriented as visual articulations of the ‘vastness,’ ‘the immutable’ and the ‘real’ within which all concrete experience unfolds.”
For Mondrian, the road from the plus and minus paintings to the grids ran from Paris before the War to Paris after the War. In between was his sojourn in Holland during the War. In can be argued that his break from Cubism and his refuge in De Stijl provided Mondrian with the crucial abstract language, the kind of linguistic vocabulary Cubism did not have, to express his principles of universality. However, De Stijl was split between the spiritual aspect of Theosophy that drove the thinking of Piet Mondrian and the more pragmatic needs of a post-war world that had become, if not godless, at least thoroughly modern. It was these other artists who were experimenting with complete geometric abstraction during the War that provided Mondrian with the tools with which to build his unique structures. In his classic book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Reyner Banham opened his chapter on Holland with the words,
“During the war of 1914-18 the Dutch alone, of all nations who had contributed to the growth of a new architecture, enjoyed the benefits of neutrality, and in the development of their architecture alone can the break between the first and second phase of the developing twentieth-century style can be seen unobstructed by the confusions of the War..in Holland the war years were, if anything, a period of increased building activity, forcing the development of talents that were maturing after 1910, which rapidly brought young men to the top, and drove pre-War currents of ideas to their logical (or illogical) conclusions—all without any serious breaks or interruptions of development except those precipitated by the ideas and personalities involved. The break—and it is a real break with the past—comes in late 1917 with the foundation of the group de Stijl, but the ideas of this group, far from being born of the agonizing experiences of the War, were product of discussions, experiments and building work that had been going on since 1911..”
De Stijl was indeed a neutral island between French Cubism and a growing appreciation of German industrialism that was preparing to whisk Expressionism away.