De Stijl in Holland 1917–20

Theo van Doesburg Stained-Glass Composition IV

Theo van Doesburg
Stained-Glass Composition IV, stained-glass window in three parts for the hall, designs for the interior and exterior of the De Lange House, Alkmaar 1918
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The De Stijl movement was founded in October 1917 by the painters Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck and Vilmos Huszár with the architect J.J.P. Oud and the poet Antony Kok.

As the works in this and the following room demonstrate, they developed two differing creative approaches to non-figurative art. Some works use a physical object or form as a starting point, whether a card-player, seated woman, or cow for van Doesburg, or a working men’s procession for Bart van der Leck. The component parts of the object are pared down, and recomposed as a geometric framework. By anchoring the abstract image in external reality, this approach avoided the pitfall of decoration for decoration’s sake.

Theo van Doesburg Composition in Dissonances 1919

Theo van Doesburg
Composition in Dissonances 1919
Kunstmuseum Basel

The second option proceeds in the reverse direction. It consists of devising or adopting an organised system of lines, forms or colours and generating variations based on repetition, rotation, or reflection. In this creative process, any object notionally depicted is conceived of as an ornamental motif. In van Doesburg’s stained glass, for example, an abstract version of a seated woman or a skater morphs into a module which is multiplied and flipped in every direction to generate an overall design.

Theo van Doesburg Rhythm of a Russian Dance 1918

Theo van Doesburg
Rhythm of a Russian Dance 1918
© 2010 Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

Soon Mondrian was transcending even this alternative with pictures that were no longer abstractions of perceived reality, but independent compositions, metaphorical representations of the harmony of the world. ‘The artist no longer needs a particular starting point in nature in order to achieve an image of beauty,’ he explained in 1919. ‘He spontaneously creates relationships in equilibrium – complete harmony – the goal of art.’ In 1920, van Doesburg similarly began to make purely non-objective compositions, without reference to existing objects or figures.

Theo van Doesburg Composition IX 1917-18

Theo van Doesburg
Composition IX 1917–18
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

De Stijl 1917–20

The term Neo-Plasticism (nieuwe beelding), coined by Mondrian in 1919, has come to define the new approach to art associated with De Stijl, characterised by horizontal and vertical lines harmonised in geometric equilibrium, with a limited palette of primary colours. Like most art movements, however, the homogeneity of De Stijl has been overstated. Artistic practice does not always follow theory, and the artists did not necessarily adhere to the aesthetic rules they proclaimed in their manifestos. The works in this room, moreover, belong to the early years of the movement, when such principles were still being developed.

Most of these works have a flat surface, minimising traces of the artist’s hand. However, while van der Leck and Huszár used only the primary colours red, blue, and yellow, accompanied by white, grey and black, Mondrian did not follow suit until 1920. In fact, this seemingly iconic ‘rule’ was followed only sporadically in painting by Vantongerloo and van Doesburg, while in architecture it did not appear before 1923. Moreover, van der Leck, Huszár and van Doesburg did not restrict themselves to horizontal and vertical lines. The static equilibrium stipulated by Mondrian as an expression of repose was also occasionally ignored.

Van Doesburg’s Composition XVIII in Three Parts 1920, which includes the first tentative attempt to express time by translating the same small white square across a tripartite space, signals the end of the first phase of De Stijl in Holland and opens his activity in Germany.

Theo van Doesburg Composition XI 1918

Theo van Doesburg
Composition XI 1918
Guggenheim, New York