De Stijl (The Style)
The name of a Dutch art and design journal edited by Theo van Doesburg from 1917 to 1932 and the alliance of artists associated with it, including Piet Mondrian, Bart Van der Leck and Georges Vantongerloo. They were concerned with finding a harmonious balance in life and art through simple abstraction, characterised by strong horizontal and vertical lines and primary colours.
De Stijl arose in the wake of World War I. The Netherlands had suffered the negative consequences of war and as a result many artists had become disillusioned with the cult of individualism and expressionism that reflected a pre-war state of mind. A group of artists, designers and thinkers congregated, searching for a new art that would instil a universal sense of peace and harmony. The group’s first members were painter and architect Theo Van Doesburg, painters Bart Van der Leck and Piet Mondrian, painter and sculptor Georges Vantongerloo, architect and designer Vilmos Huszar and Dutch Architects J.J.P. Oud, Robert Van’t Hoff and Jan Wils, along with poet Anthony Kok.
The group began to explore an abstract visual language influenced by Cubism and Suprematism, made from horizontal and vertical lines, right angles and flat geometric planes of colour. Mondrian originally referred to the style as ‘Neo-Plasticism’ in 1917, writing:
'These universal plastic means were discovered in modern painting by the process of consistent abstraction of form and colour; once these were discovered there emerged, almost of its own accord, an exact plastic of pure relationship – thus the essence of all emotion of plastic beauty.'
The Launch of De Stijl
Van Doesburg and Mondrian were the main theorists of the group. In 1917 Van Doesburg launched a periodical titled De Stijl (or The Style) to promote their ideas. They had grand, idealistic aims for the new movement, believing it could bring about a complete overhaul of society by ushering in a rational order through a universal, utopian art. Van Doesburg’s believed the style could 'develop forces of sufficient strength to enable it to influence all culture' and the motto they developed was, 'The object of nature is man, the object of man is style. They hoped their style would feed through into all art forms, including fine and applied arts, urban planning, typography, music and poetry.
In 1918 the group produced an eight page manifesto signed by Van Doesberg, Mondrian, Huszar, Vantognerloo, Van’t Hoff, Wils and Kok, published in Dutch, French, German and English. The style they worked with became increasingly simplified, reducing painting to the basics of blocks, lines and primary colours.
The utopian idealism of De Stijl was centred on spiritual beliefs. Many of the group’s members had been raised in a Dutch, Calvinist background, while the neo-Platonic philosopher M.J.H. Schoenmackers was highly influential with his emphasis on the geometric order of the universe and the metaphysical properties of primary colours. Mondrian was a member of the Theosophical society, a spiritual movement who believed in “the powers latent in man,” while Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art provided inspiration, promoting the symbolic potential of colour.
De Stijl Architecture
Architects made an important contribution to the De Stijl movement, exploring many of the same ideas as visual artists. They were also influenced by Hendrick Petrus Berlage’s simplified, geometric designs and Frank Lloyd Wright’s emphasis on ‘total design’, integrating all aspects of interior and exterior. Architect Gerrit Retveld became member of De Stijl in 1919 and his Schroder House, 1924, is considered to be one of the movement’s masterworks.
Throughout the 1920s the blocky, simplified De Stijl aesthetic spread throughout Europe influencing many including the German artist Vordemberge-Gildewart, as seen in his Composition 14, 1925. In 1924 Van Doesburg introduced diagonals to his paintings in a style he called Elementarism. This change in direction caused friction between him and Mondrian, who subsequently left the group. Under his own steam Mondrian continued to produce his own distinctive abstract paintings such as Composition with Double Line and Yellow, 1932. Van Doesburg went on to found the Concrete Art style in 1930, which developed more fully after his death in 1932. While the DeStijl movement effectively died with him, many of its members went on to be part of other groups, including Abstract-Creation and CIAM.