De Stijl, Dutch for The Style, is a term associated with the work of an art group founded in 1917 in Amsterdam and gathered around the ideas of Dutch artists Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian. The tendencies of this group towards shaping a new direction in modern art are integrated into Piet Mondrian’s term “Neoplasticism”. Neoplasticism, which all members of the group embraced, nurtured the visual language based on reducing formal elements to straight lines, square and rectangular shapes, and primary colors. Along with Mondrian and Doesburg, members of De Stijl group were Vilmos Huszár, Jan Wils, Bart van der Leck, Gerrit Rietveld, Robert van ‘t Hoff, and Jacobus Oud.
The origin of De Stijl / The Movement and the Avant-garde Art Review
The collaboration between Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg was crucial to the development of the movement. Given that this art movement originated during the First World War, which then meant the most massive suffering in history, De Stijl’s philosophy unequivocally dealt with the artistic tradition associated with the pre-war period. According to De Stijl artists, the vision of redefined art for the new time was the abstraction in painting, architecture, and applied art. The abstract structure rested on refined geometrized forms that built equivalent relations with the balanced asymmetry of horizontal and vertical fields. In addition to painting and fine and applied arts, the new De Stijl aesthetics covered architecture, industrial design, typography, music, and poetry. As was often the case with Avant-garde movements, De Stijl circle printed its own publication – as a form of collective engagement and a model of communication with the public. The group’s periodical De Stijl first appeared in 1917 and the last issue was published in 1932. In this publication, Mondrian introduced the concept – De Nieuwe Beelding in de schilderkuns or The New Plastic in Painting, which he wrote about in a series of 12 articles.
Neoplasticism is a system of values and methods in painting developed by Piet Mondrian. The idea of Neoplasticism was to some extent inspired by M. H. J. Schoenmaekers’ The Principles of Plastic Mathematics. Although on a similar path as Malevich with his Black square from 1913, we still cannot say that Mondrian was acquainted with the currents of Malevich’s work at that time. It is enough to take into account the war circumstances and the post-war sanctions to which Russia was exposed, to assume that timely information about the emergence of Suprematism could hardly reach Mondrian.
The ideas of Neoplasticism were based on a visuality devoid of any component of mimesis. This abstract painting aimed to nullify the principles of figural representation, perspective, and traditional image structure.
The attitude towards nature this painting affirmed implies dealing with the general principles of nature, neglecting the individual peculiarity of a certain scene, excluding repetitiveness and symmetry in order to achieve universal visual language with an emphasis on the flatness of the image.
The equilibrium of neoplastic composition is reflected in the success of presenting the duality of the natural principles. Confronted principles in nature such as positive and negative, dynamic and static, male and female in neoplastic composition are represented by the relationship of basic visual elements – lines and geometric forms. These geometric forms are rectangular or square shapes as well as primary colors – blue, red, and yellow with non-colors black, white, and gray. The struggle of horizontal and vertical elements composed in such a reduced painting language is by no means a product of calculation, but a product of an instinctive arrangement of lines, fields, and colors. This struggle, with its visual dynamics, should bring an authentic natural impulse translated into the equilibrium of new plastic. Neoplasticism confirmed this authenticity by not agreeing to mediate between the natural starting point and what is presented. In neoplasticism, red is not red as an element of something in nature, it is there in the capacity of red as an autonomous phenomenon.
In 1925, Theo van Doesburg developed a new approach to Neoplasticism, which, in addition to the duality of the Horizontal and the Vertical, also included the Diagonal. In De Stijl later, Doesburg explained Elementarism with the need to strengthen the duality of vertical and horizontal lines in the painting. By introducing the diagonal elements Doesburg believed that a structure based on the dynamics of the relationship between the vertical and the horizontal in the mind of the observer can be reinforced by a diagonal line which, by disturbing that harmony, actually enhances its meaning. This theory was not accepted by Piet Mondrian, who considered it a blow to the concept of Neoplasticism and who soon after left the group in 1923.
De Stijl Architecture
Architects played a significant role in the development of the philosophy of De Stijl art movement and especially in its later global popularization.
The dramatic changes that the First World War left in terms of policies, economic crisis, new borders were reflected on a micro level in the reconstruction of the destroyed urban housing fabric that was to be realized throughout Europe.
The abstract qualities of Neo-plasticism have been transposed very successfully into the field of modern architecture. Excluding ornaments and guided by the idea of high functionality of the space, De Stijl architects created a new vision of architecture for the post-war period. As in painting, the search for authentic equilibrium in relation to vertical and horizontal fields was present in architecture. Relying on the primary colors – blue, red ,and yellow as well as the more present colors – white, black ,and gray, the architects created revolutionary solutions in the field of housing – both individual and collective. Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence on artists from De Stijl movement was enormous.
The Rietveld Schröder House and The Red and blue chair
The only house built entirely on the principles of Neoplasticism is The Rietveld Schröder House by Gerrit Rietveld in Utrecht. This house breaks with the previous architectural tradition by presenting new elements of dynamics both in the exterior and in the interior. The annulment of static principles is perhaps the dominant impression of the space. In order to achieve a dynamic and changeable open zone, a system of sliding and revolving panels was used. The arrangement of linear elements in primary colors in interaction with balconies and dominant fields in white, gray and black creates an authentic spatial equilibrium in neoplastic form of ultimate simplicity. The Red and Blue Chair, a symbol of De Stijl aesthetic in applied art, was designed in 1918. The principles of the relationship between horizontal and vertical surfaces are noticeable in this design while the primary colors were included in 1923.
Following in the footsteps of modernist experiments inspired by Frank Loyd Wright, Robert van ‘t Hoff also made a significant contribution to the field of residential architecture. His famous house in the manner of De Stijl is Villa Henny in Utrecht. This house was built from 1915 to 1919.
This house is characterized by highly geometric exterior lines, a flat roof, and the experimental character of its construction, considering that it was among the first to be built entirely out of reinforced concrete.
In 1927, Jacobus Oud was among the 15 architects who contributed to the modernist Weissenhof Estate exhibition. The projects that mostly show the influence of De Stijl’s neoplastic principles in the work of this architect are the Weissenhof Row Houses and the Café de Unie in Rotterdam.
De Stijl movement had a significant influence on later generations of artists of the second half of the 20th century. A global phenomenon such as the International Style in architecture relies heavily on the principles of Neoplasticism. In addition to architecture and painting, typography, design and fashion continue to reinterpret the ideas of De Stijl.
- Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)
- Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
- Vilmos Huszár (1884-1960)
- Jan Wils (1891-1972)
- Bart van der Leck (1876-1958)
- Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964)
- Robert van ‘t Hoff (1887-1979)
- Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud (1890-1963)
Related Art terms
- Abstract Art
- Avant-garde Art