Van Doesburg’s ambition for an international visual language that could be applied across different disciplines complemented a broader desire among artists for a synthesis of the arts. Artists were looking at interactions between painting, poetry, sculpture, music, film, theatre and architecture, as well as new ideas of viewer participation.
Works of art mimicked the appearance of machine production. There were no signs of handicraft on their smooth, precisely worked surfaces, and they were often presented anonymously without a signature. Favourite techniques included stencil, film, monotype, stamping and typography, while musicians began to use the sound of machines. Like the composer George Antheil’s Le Ballet Mécanique, the artists promoted in De Stijl wanted to express the modern era by every available means.
The representation of time in space was also a major preoccupation. Van Doesburg wrote admiringly in De Stijl about Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter’s graphic scores, as well as the films that developed from them. The passage of time in these works was conveyed by the changing size and rhythm of elementary forms of the square, circle and bar, as well as graduations in tone. Related motifs appeared in paintings by Henryk Berlewi, Francis Picabia and Victor Servranckx, in which parallel lines of different thickness create a sense of kinetic and mechanical rhythm.
Painters were at the forefront of a reinvention of typography and graphic design. Innovative page layouts with superimposed words encouraged diagonal or simultaneous reading, while devices such as repetition, photomontage and the use of diverse fonts and colours also energised the text.
Examples of the magazines and other documents through which ideas and artistic expressions were exchanged among artists, designers and writers across Europe are presented here using the ‘leger and träger’ freestanding exhibition display systems, invented in 1924 by the De Stijl-affiliated architect and designer Frederick Kiesler.