Collecting guide: De Stijl
De Stijl emerged from a desire among painters, designers and architects to use art for rational purposes, allied to a utopian vision of social harmony, and gave rise to other radical movements of the 20th century, from the Bauhaus to Abstract Expressionism
In 1918 a manifesto was published by a coalition of Dutch artists, architects, designers and poets who called themselves De Stijl (‘The Style’). Central to their declaration was a desire to connect with ‘the universal’. Their work would not be representational, illustrative or narrative, but reflect a state of ideal harmony.
The founders of De Stijl were certainly not the first artists to yearn for the sublime. However, they were arguably the first to promote the Theosophical concepts of the Russian aristocrat-turned-guru, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky — known as Madame Blavatsky. Theosophy aimed to unite religions and promote brotherhood, and this appealed to a group who wanted to integrate art, life and culture into an international, modern movement.
There is no record of where the name ‘De Stijl’ originated, but the late art historian Paul Overy suggests it was inspired by the book Over stijl in bouw- en meubelkunst (‘Concerning Style in the Art of Architecture and Furniture’) written by H.P. Berlage, a Dutch architect who had a profound influence on the group.
The essential components of De Stijl’s art aesthetic were relatively simple. There were to be no depictions of objects, just simple rectangles in primary colours and black and white. Everything was to be carefully premeditated and counterpointed to create a state of perfect equilibrium. Its proponents had interesting ideas about colour: blue is recessive, so gives the illusion of being far away, whereas yellow is dominant and appears closer; red is stabilising, giving weight to both yellow and blue.
Considering the strict parameters of De Stijl, rifts were inevitable and battle lines were soon drawn. Theo van Doesburg described Piet Mondrian’s use of grey as ‘a pollution’. Mondrian said Van Doesburg’s innovative use of a diagonal was too dynamic to reach an equilibrium. When Marlow Moss took the heretical step of introducing a double black line, Mondrian was temporarily blindsided before briefly adopting the motif himself.
Barring these disagreements and several indignant resignations, De Stijl remained true to its code in affirming the central desire to use art for rational objectives, allied to a utopian vision — and it inspired many future movements, including the artists and architects of the Bauhaus and, later, the Abstract Expressionists.
De Stijl was not so much a movement as an ideal, spearheaded by a group of like-minded artists who dreamed of a modern art that could bring spiritual harmony to the world. Four artists signed the founding manifesto: Van Doesburg, Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo and Vilmos Huszár. Another associate, Bart van der Leck, was broadly supportive of the group but refused to sign, citing his ambivalence towards De Stijl's ethereal objectives.
Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)
Of all the pioneers, it is arguably the charismatic Theo van Doesburg who best encapsulated De Stijl’s theories. A painter, architect, writer, poet, typographer and performance artist, he remained the editor of De Stijl magazine from its first issue in 1917 until his death in 1931.
An energetic man with a daring spatial imagination, Van Doesburg had a cataclysmic world view, fully expecting the collapse of the bourgeoisie at any moment in favour of an ultra-modern civilisation. This utopian society would be housed in cool, white boxes formed of flat surfaces and clean lines, not unlike the prototype he built in Meudon on the outskirts of Paris.
Surprisingly for a card-carrying Neo-Plasticist, Doesburg was also a passionate supporter of Dada, the anarchic art movement that emerged out of the madness of the First World War. ‘Life is an extraordinary invention,’ he said, and his actions implied that the messy realities of the modern world called for a two-pronged attack, both rational and unruly. He wrote obscene Dadaist poetry, which he performed across Europe with Kurt Schwitters, and signed his name ‘Dada-Does’. The artist remained De Stijl’s uniting force until his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 47.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
In 1916 Mondrian was a long way from being the avant-garde hero of Jazz Age New York. Having escaped war-torn Paris, he was living a relatively impoverished existence in an artists’ colony in Laren, around 30km from Amsterdam, trying to figure out the ramifications of Cubism. ‘It was a sombre and painful time,’ he recalled.
However, it was in Zeeland in 1916 that he met Bart van der Leck, a fellow traveller on the road to abstraction who helped clarify his ideas. Soon after, Mondrian was contacted by Van Doesburg, who proposed a magazine devoted to a utopian art that would shake up Holland’s stuffy, conservative culture. Keen to share his spiritual philosophy with the world, Mondrian penned several essays for De Stijl that helped set the tone for this new, minimalist aesthetic.
Mondrian’s unconventional ideas about colour and geometry, and his transcendent emphasis on relations rather than things, brought an ethereality to De Stijl that ensured its cool modernism never became excessively chilling.
Bart van der Leck (1876-1958)
Bart van der Leck was something of a lone wolf. Born into poverty in Utrecht in 1876, he trained as a maker of stained glass, learning to see colours as light and to shape and frame them with a heavy black line. In his twenties he switched to art, attending the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam before moving to Laren, where he applied his early stained-glass training to the cause of abstraction, painting unmixed primary colours onto white backgrounds.
Recalling his first visit to Van der Leck’s studio in The Hague in 1916, Mondrian wrote, ‘My more or less Cubist technique — then still more or less pictorial — was influenced by his exact technique.’ Mondrian encouraged Van der Leck to explore further by flattening and reducing his pictures to geometric forms. The resulting works were playful, witty compositions that echoed the graphic style of advertising with its emphasis on bold motifs and bright colours.
Van der Leck contributed essays on art and architecture to De Stijl and promoted the work of H.P. Berlage. However, his theoretical intention to bridge the divide between painting and architecture through geometric abstraction didn’t quite align with the thinking of De Stijl’s more Theosophical painters, and he broke with the group in 1920.
Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965)
De Stijl’s artists aimed to create an objective art concerned with universal values, and as such they saw a close correlation between art and numbers. ‘In the same way mathematics is the most obvious way of understanding things objectively, art is the most suitable way of feeling aesthetically,’ wrote Georges Vantongerloo in De Stijl.
The elegance of a mathematical formula and its ability to communicate the raw power of an idea resonated with the Belgian-born painter and sculptor, who had arrived in The Hague in 1914, having been discharged from the army during the First World War following a gas attack.
Vantongerloo was invited to join De Stijl by Van Doesburg, who was keen to have a sculptor on board. Eager to explore the possibilities for science in this new art, Vantongerloo contributed essays on mathematics and colour theory to the magazine. He always argued, however, that maths was simply a starting point — ‘as one uses a hammer and a chisel to cut marble’ — to understanding the relationship between geometry and art.
Vilmos Huszár (1884-1960)
Vilmos Huszár understood that simple, asymmetrical forms could have a startling impact on canvas. Born in Hungary in 1884, he emigrated to the Netherlands in 1905 after studying graphic design in Budapest and Munich. He was instrumental in defining the typographic style of De Stijl magazine and designed many of the front covers. He was also the first of the De Stijl artists to make his mark on the European avant-garde, with Fernand Léger remarking on the ‘dynamic potential’ of his paintings following an exhibition in Paris.
As a rule, the artists associated with De Stijl kept out of politics, believing that art was greater than political or social reality. However, their utopian ideals made them broadly supportive of the Russian Revolution. Huszár was arguably the most sympathetic to the cause, forging relationships with the Russian Constructivists and encouraging El Lissitzky to contribute to De Stijl.
Tragically, few paintings by Huszár survived the allied attack on Rotterdam in the last months of the Second World War. What little is left suggests that the artist was a graphic innovator, interested in codifying and ordering colours into energetic, grid-like patterns.
The radical schemes conjured up by the architects associated with De Stijl, notably the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht, have rightly joined the ranks of 20th-century design classics.
Two architects signed the De Stijl manifesto — Jan Wils (1891-1972) and Robert van ’t Hoff (1887-1979) — and they were later joined by Van der Leck’s close friend, Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964). J.J.P. Oud (1890-1963) was also associated with De Stijl, but he refused to sign the manifesto as he feared that his brother, a civil servant, might be compromised by the group’s radical outlook. He was perhaps right: as soon as the first issue of De Stijl was published, Van Doesburg was attacked in the Dutch press for his internationalism and accused of German propaganda.
The De Stijl architectural aesthetic was essentially flat-roofed, geometric and asymmetrical. There were plenty of buildings that didn’t conform to this exacting standard, such as Oud’s modernist jewel, De Unie in Rotterdam, and Van ’t Hoff’s Villa Henny. However, the essential principles of ‘balanced asymmetry’ and universality led to a revolution in modern housing. The architects were keen promoters of modest, standardised housing, and this was particularly true of Rietveld, who created several prototypes for working-class neighbourhoods that inspired a post-war Dutch aesthetic.
Key to De Stijl’s ethos was the attention the architects gave to all aspects of the design process, from the colour of the walls to the doorbells. This revolutionary idea of melding form, function and art continues to influence contemporary architecture today.
Later De Stijl painters
During the 1920s, artists migrated to Paris from all over the world, enticed by the vibrant avant-garde scene and the promise of profound artistic discoveries in the backstreet bars and cafés of Montparnasse. Many De Stijl pioneers lived in Paris during this period and promoted their aesthetic ideals in exhibitions and through their eponymous magazine, bringing them to the attention of younger painters who shared similar geometric interests.
Marlow Moss (1889-1958)
The British painter Marlow Moss (born Marjorie Jewel Moss) met Mondrian in Paris in 1929 while studying at the Académie Moderne. Impressed by her geometric style, the Dutch master invited her to join the Abstract-Creation group, a loose collection of non-figurative artists that also included De Stijl members Georges Vantongerloo and Theo van Doesburg.
Moss became a regular visitor to Mondrian’s studio in the Rue du Départ, and kept up an earnest correspondence with him and Vantongerloo after escaping to England during the Second World War.
She is often described as a follower of De Stijl, but recent research reveals that she brought her own ideas to the movement, inspired by science, technology and revolutionary developments in particle physics. Like Vantongerloo, Moss sought a universal art that was existential in concept but rooted in mathematics.
Tragically, much of Moss’s art was destroyed in a bombing raid over northern France towards the end of the Second World War.
Nicolaas Warb (1906-1957)
Nicolaas Warb was born Sophia Warburg in Amsterdam in 1906. She studied at the city’s applied arts academy before moving to Paris in 1929, where she fell in with the Dutch contingent centred around the De Stijl artists Mondrian and Vantongerloo.
Her early paintings reflected De Stijl ideals, but she soon found the constraints imposed by Van Doesburg and the others too limiting. Her later geometric abstracts were inspired by fashion, jazz rhythms and dance. Like Mondrian, she had an interest in Theosophy, becoming a disciple of the spiritualist Rudolf Steiner.
She wrote a manifesto titled Aperçus et pensées sur la peinture abstraite (‘Insights and Thoughts on Abstract Painting’), in which she outlined her ideas on the moral and spiritual role of abstract art. Warb ascribed emotions to different colours, writing: ‘Abstract art immerses one in an atmosphere of joy and tranquillity.’
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Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart (1899-1962)
Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart was born in Osnabrück in Germany. He apprenticed in furniture-making and studied architecture and interior design in Hanover before becoming an artist. Some of his early, Constructivist-inspired paintings alluded to carpentry tools such as the T-bar and the ruler, and it was this witty and inventive sensibility that prompted Van Doesburg to invite him to join De Stijl in 1924, while he was living in Paris.
Vordemberge-Gildewart had an irrepressibly playful creativity, applying De Stijl’s aesthetic to collage and photomontage. In 1927 he founded the Abstracts in Hanover with the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Their avant-garde ideas soon fell foul of the Nazi authorities, however, and their work was displayed in the infamous ‘degenerate art’ exhibition of 1937. Vordemberge-Gildewart heeded the warning and escaped the country, going into exile in Amsterdam, where he remained until the mid-1950s.