1917–2017, 100 Years of De Stijl
A love of red, yellow and blue.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
Dutch art, to some people (with a general interest in art), is typically seen as the post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh or the Dutch Masters of the Golden Age like Rembrandt or Vermeer. It can’t be denied that these are huge names in the history of art although I myself prefer the more modern representation of Dutch art: De Stijl.
Throughout 2017 the internationally renowned Dutch art movement, De Stijl, celebrates 100 years of its existence since being founded in 1917, primarily by Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck and joined later by Gerrit Rietveld and Vilmos Huszár. The name De Stijl is used to refer to a body of work made from 1917 to the mid 20th century. In 2017 museums, galleries and outdoor spaces in the Netherlands have been marking this 100 year anniversary in their own ways; each exploring different viewpoints and angles of the movement.
To give some context and background to the movement, members of De Stijl wanted to redefine the idea of art in the early 20th century. They wanted to strip it back and give it a new set of rules, a rejection and reaction against the decorative excessiveness of Art Deco, Art Nouveau/Jugendstil and Arts & Crafts. The main principles of the movement focused on an abstract and cut back image using the most basic visual elements; a distillation to simple geometric forms and primary colours. De Stijl’s ethos extends beyond just aesthetics; it has a deeper social message, by removing the personality of the artist in favour of clear and precise universal harmonies — De Stijl artists were embracing the idea of a future utopia. Their aesthetic aimed to eliminate false distinctions between so-called ‘high art’, ‘applied art’ (graphic design/product design) and architecture.
De Stijl artists applied their principles and subsequent aesthetics to predominantly paintings but it extended beyond this, they used the principles for industrial design, graphic art and design, typography, literature, music, interior design, product design and architecture. This expansion across multiple forms is in part due to the rise of the International Style inspiring the the likes of Le Corbusier, Deutscher Werkbund and later the Bauhaus – each of these were also about changing society as much as they were/are about aesthetics. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that De Stijl has had a major influence on modern art, design and architecture throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century with some big names in the art world.
Piet Mondrian is easily the most recognisable and most well known artist from the movement, in the 1920s he began to create the definitive paintings for which he — and the movement— is best known for. By using a limited palette of shades of black, white and primary colours confined inside straight horizontal and vertical outlines, he created his idea of a new abstract art. The simplification and refinement was noticeably different from other art styles. At a glance it may seem that the colours and lines are random with no order but each painting has a system; they are asymmetrical and usually have a dominant block of colour which is balanced with smaller blocks around it to create a ‘fluctuating rhythm’. To Mondrian, the vertical and horizontal elements represented two opposing forces: the positive and the negative, the dynamic and the static, the masculine and the feminine.
He wrote much about this, it was his idea of Neo-Plasticism. Through writing he explained his vision of artistic expression where “plastic” referred to the action of forms and colours on the surface of the canvas as a new method for representing modern reality.
“As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. The new plastic idea cannot therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation — this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour.”
His writings and many others from the movement were published across the first eleven issues of the movement’s journal aptly titled ‘DE STIJL’. Most famously included here was his long essay ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’. The De Stijl journal was important for Mondrian and his fellow artists; it was their vehicle to express their individual and collective ideas. Started in 1917 by fellow movement founder, Theo van Doesburg, the first edition of the magazine’s cover has the words DE STIJL in fragmented square capitals. In this issue, Theo van Doesburg credits the artist Vilmos Huszar as the designer of the letters.
Interestingly, from a design perspective, the cover was the only part of the magazine which was ‘designed’ . The inside pages were delivered to printers as plain text and set by the printers in their standard and available typefaces. This cover however is incredible in its design and it is the perfect specimen of the movement and its principles. The square composition is changing with each direction, interlocking with one-another with the deconstructed title typography. The fact that the title, composition and sub-text are all justified into a defined rectangle, small in size on the cover with masses of space surrounding it creates an overall minimal feeling. So much detail for such an early piece of design history. Later issues were subsequently designed throughout the whole journal with more expressive typography and layout styles.
Typography and the creation of alphabets and letter forms was one of the design practices in which De Stijl artists partook in. Movement co-founder, Theo van Doesburg’s iteration is probably the most recognisable and possibly influential. It is seen as one of the earliest sans-serif, modular typefaces. Constructed of evenly weighted strokes where each character is divided 5x5 into 25 smaller squares, the result is very square and blocky letter forms with some extreme characters such as the K, R and X. It was used on multiple occasions by van Doesburg for design jobs and logos; utilising its square form. It was digitised and issued by the type foundry, ‘The Foundry’ in 1997 as part of their Architype Headline series.
This style of modular type design using horizontal and vertical strokes and a clear system has been utilised throughout history, for example Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet, (also digitised by The Foundry) uses this system. The rational here was to “embrace the limitations of the CRT technology used by early data display screens and photo setting equipment”. Reading about this in an interview between Crouwel and VBAT CD, Graham Sturt, he explained this in more depth:
“The number of dots available, it was a very low resolution machine at that time. So round shapes changed every time. With 6 points lettering or 12 or 24 points lettering. You need more dots to make nicer lines. So I thought I should do a typeface without round curves, only with straight lines because than it always stays the same. And that’s how I came to the idea of the New Alphabet. It is a kind of example. I designed it, knowing that you couldn’t use it. It was unreal, but it was more or less an exercise for myself in thinking for modern machines.”
Another inherently digital style typeface is Lo-Res by Zuzana Licko of Emigre. A family of fonts using pixelated and bitmapped methods to distil the letter-forms down to their most minimal forms hence the name Lo-Res (low resolution). This typeface system also doesn’t have curves as it only uses horizontal and vertical strokes to create letter-forms. This is the pure distillation of form to create each letter, where each letter is still recognisable and legible.
Using De Stijl typography and Crouwel’s New Alphabet I myself created a series of letters where I challenged the idea of legibility through a modular typeface system. It takes the clear angles of van Doesburg and Huszar’s letters and the unconventional shapes of Crouwel’s to challenge legibility by sticking to strict guides. The name of the font is Ronde & Scherp/Round & Sharp, referring to the variants in the letter-forms on the corners.
Theo Van Doesburg
Theo Van Doesburg not only contributed typography to De Stijl but as a key member and co-founded he also produced a large number of paintings using the same principles of a refined colour palette and a reduction of forms. However, he dared to deviate from Mondrian’s ‘perfect’ image of horizontal and vertical lines (Neo-Plasticism) to develop his own sub-style of ‘Elementarism’. This was van Doesburg’s attempt to modify the strictness of Neo-Plasticism, he also began giving a title to each work, to give a sense of dynamism to each of his painting and pieces, something he felt lacked in Mondrian’s composition paintings. Mondrian saw this as an attack on his purist ideals and left the group.
What van Doesburg’s paintings have is a sense of life and energy; they are more than just clinical (arguably boring) horizontal or vertical lines; it was said that van Doesburg was more interested in architecture and interior design than fine art which could be the reason for the shift towards diagonal and somewhat three-dimensional lines and planes. He was interested in the concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – a complete synthesis of the arts, and its practical application in design schemes for daily life. The Café l’Aubette in Strasbourg is an example of a piece of architecture by van Doesburg; here you can clearly see how he incorporated both diagonal and regular forms to create bold interiors.
Despite De Stijl made up of multiple key members, during its heyday van Doesburg was the image and ambassador of the movement; he travelled across Europe to promote the movement and its messages. Throughout this travelling he became briefly involved with Dadaism through Kurt Schwitters, Constructivism through El Lissitsky and Bauhaus through Walter Gropius.
However when wanting to work together, Gropius and the Bauhaus didn’t believe their ideas would match with De Stijl, with this disappointment van Doesburg decided to set up his own institution very near to the Bauhaus’ building and he acquired students who were interested in the progressive ideas of De Stijl. Sure, this extended the group’s reach and allowed more people to learn and become involved but this dilution of introducing other movement’s ideas into De Stijl was the start of its demise as it began to stray from its initial principles and intentions.
Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg are the two most renowned and influential artists of De Stijl (also Rietveld but less as an artist and more as an architect and product designer). In 1983 the Dutch Post, PTT, decided to honour the Netherlands’ iconic modern art movement through the accepted celebratory medium at this time: Stamps. Of which the icon of Dutch graphic, Wim Crouwel was was given the opportunity to visualise. This became one of his iconic pieces of minimal typographic design; despite or due to it only really using Helvetica paired with un-altered images of the artists work, however this was not his first idea.
“In the beginning, if you see the sketches I tried to use typefaces from van Doesburg, one of the artists of De Stijl movement. Then I decided for the final design not to use this typeface because the illustration is already from the period and I used the most neutral typeface, Helvetica.”
As mentioned before De Stijl was where Gerrit Rietveld was introduced to the world. Joining the group in 1918/19 the designer and architect is well known for the unique and daring design of his Red and Blue Chair/Rood–Blauwe Stoel. It was designed with a ‘dramatic interplay of straight lines’ each line creating forms; Rietveld believed that the form itself always prevailed over the choice of material. Using primary colours it is described as ‘non-representational’ and ‘austerely objective’; as one of the first 3D pieces of De Stijl art the chair was not designed to be sat in comfortably but more for personal reflection, the stern position was to keep the sitter upright and toned up as much physically as mentally. Rietveld himself said of the chair in very few words:
“The chair was specifically built to show that it is possible to create something beautiful, a spatial creation, with simple machine processed parts”
I’ve seen multiple versions of Rietveld’s chair across De Stijl exhibitions and museums, some coloured brightly and others as plain wood and every time I see them it amazes me by its design. It is so abstract and unconventional for its time and even now (this is very much my opinion on the movement as a whole). As an architect Rietveld’s most important piece of work is his Rietveld Schröderhuis in Utrecht designed in 1924 and Built for Mrs. Truus Schroder-Schrader. The house’s interior is like a machine; interchangeable sliding doors, panels and partitions can be moved at any time to accommodate the families needs; creating new spacial arrangements.
The house floor-plan is likeable to a Mondrian painting. Rietveld’s aim in constructing this house was “to give to a yet unformed space, a certain meaning.” Open plan during the day and closed off with individual private rooms at night. Towards the end of the year I was able to take a proper look inside and experience how the space could be adapted, very forward thinking and something that should be implemented for today’s homes. I’ll explain this better further down.
“De Stijl architecture follows an anti-cubic concept. Rather than attempting to fit all functional spatial cells together into a closed cube, you project them centrifugally from the centre outwards.”
During 100 years of De Stijl in 2017 I chose to travel around and visit a number of exhibitions across the country. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam covered it very well throughout the year, as you would expect but I also went further afield to Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amersfoort, Den Haag and Eindhoven to see more and expand my knowledge but also to ascertain my own true opinion of the movement and the relevance of its 100 year anniversary; what does this mean in today’s society.
When I was in Rotterdam at the end of 2016 I made sure to check out the building, De Unie as it is immediately recognisable and reminiscent of De Stijl with its red, yellow and blue vertical and horizontal shapes. Built in 1925 by J.J.P. Oud who was a more lesser known member of De Stijl. Like the Rietveld Schröderhuis it stands out in the street, but for all the right reasons.
I visited Rottedam again towards the end of 2017 where Het Nieuwe Insituut had a small installation by Sabine Marcelis. Throughout the year I had seen many modern variations on De Stijl but this seemed the most accurate. Here she had reinterpreted a Mondrian painting as a three dimensional space where what was flat colour was now extruded and transparent volumetric forms. The use of light allowed for the highlight of colour and focus whilst keeping the 3 primary colours separate.
Towards the end of 2016 and at the start of 2017 the Stedelijk Museum began their celebration of De Stijl. Two main exhibitions were held at the museum; ‘De Stijl at the Stedelijk’ and ‘Chris Beekman: De Stijl Defector’, the latter being less interesting and the former being very interesting. I covered some of the works on show at the exhibition in a VBAT blog that came out in March this year but there was more that I wasn’t able to mention then, such as the work of General Idea and their Infe©ted Mondrian painting. Here they used one of Mondrian’s paintings but instead of using the traditional red, yellow and blue, the yellow was replaced with green to represent the idea of the painting being infected.
General Idea was a collective of three Canadian artists, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, who were active from 1967 to 1994. As pioneers of early conceptual and media-based art their work often focused on the AIDS crisis and this is what the green here represents. The reason they chose to ‘attack’ Mondrian’s style and other De Stijl artists is for ‘topical aesthetic discourse’, the mutual penetration of art and life is once again regarded as a feasible vision. There was more work by General Idea in Utrecht.
Also on display was Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Red Rocker. Clearly included in the exhibition due to its use of simple primary colours as well as its geometric form and in turn the idea of abstraction through minimalism for which Kelly utilised in his work.
The exhibition at Bijzondere Collecties was also related to De Stijl’s centenary, celebrating 100 years of Dutch Design and ‘Modernism in Print’, this I covered very in depth on a specific VBAT Medium blog post; it was one of the most interesting and inspiring exhibitions that I’ve been to in a long time.
Amersfoort is known as the birthplace of Mondrian and therefore it is where the national Mondrian museum is based: the Mondriaanhuis, (they use his Dutch surname before he changed it to Mondrian to appear less Dutch in Paris) although I feel that this was built out of necessity and just for tourists and the inquisitive – something to pull people to the small city of Amersfoort (like me) but also probably for educational visits.
The museum covers his whole life and the styles which he experimented with, from his early impressionist landscape-squee oil paintings through to his iconic abstract work which is interesting to see as it shows the development of him as an artist. Although, it feels a bit cramped – trying to show a lot in a small space. There is also a small reconstruction of his apartment here, complete with 19th century lighting aka non-existent; it would be more interesting if it was actually original, of course, as this just seems forced and almost unnecessary.
Despite this negativity and cliché there was a really great immersive video that saved my experience of the museum. In a dark room was a cube onto which images of Mondrian’s life were projected onto. Images of where he grew up, where he and how studied, places he moved to and socialised; all this amongst moving compositions of his work; much like the static exhibition it covers his styles but in a more interesting and exciting way. It ends with an amazing rendition of his very late work with lines bursting out from the cube, onto the floor and up the walls which you can see this in the video below but it’s much better to experience it for real.
The main reason I travelled to Amersfoort however was to go to the Kunsthal KAdE to check out their Kleuren van De Stijl/The Colours of De Stijl exhibition. De Stijl is obviously focused around the primary colours; red, yellow and blue and used predominantly in block form but the Kunsthal KAdE took the idea of the autonomous power of colour and curated their exhibition to look at artists who used colour in this way.
This exhibition was excellent and well curated, covering a broad range of styles in such a confined format. Upon entering it was impossible to miss this vast painting, ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III’ by Barnett Newman. A vast amount of red with tiny strips of yellow and blue on either side; Newman sought to liberate the primary colours from the weight of De Stijl and other colour theories by using them expressively rather than didactically.
Next to this are some works by Yves Klein in his trademark International Klein Blue; an iconic artist and figure who committed his life’s work to his shade of blue paint but also performance art (including his own shade of blue paint). There were also more contemporary and modern examples such as Olafur Eliasson’s installation in the gallery which explored the use of light to blend colour.
Across the city of Den Haag, multiple buildings were covered in renditions and inspired designs of De Stijl artist’s work aka ‘the Mondrianisation’ of the city. Officials called it “the largest Mondrian painting in the world to celebrate the Netherlands’ ‘best-known abstract artist’” which to me just screams ‘COMMERCIAL TOURISM’. However I imagine that it was well perceived in the city. If it means that normal and dull glass skyscrapers were transformed into something more visually stimulating then that is good and from the perspective of a graphic designer they are attractive graphic shapes. If anything, it shows that people appreciate the work of the artists and the importance they have, accepting that the Netherlands is known for De Stijl just as much as van Gogh.
At the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag there was a general exhibition on De Stijl with plenty of Mondrian, van Doesburg and Rietveld; the main attraction for everyone however was Mondrian’s unfinished last painting: ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’. The painting is the culmination of the artist’s career and the transition from simple abstraction to more complex compositions. As impressive as it was to see such an important painting in the movement, it was somewhat marred by the amount of people wanting to take photographs and selfies with the painting whilst ‘pondering’ at the painting; it reminded me of the time I went to the Louvre in Paris and saw the same attraction of the Mona Lisa, quite sad.
I visited the Van Abbe Museum whilst I was in Eindhoven for Dutch Design Week where they had a small exhibition regarding De Stijl: the usual stuff now such as De Stijl magazines, Mondrian paintings and van Doesburg sketches. However there was something there which I really connected with, it was exactly what I thought whilst in the Mondriaanhuis in Amersfoort and in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag which was a collection exploring “The Blanketing of De Stijl’s Visual Language”.
It’s nothing new for people to take existing art movements’ visual image and reinterpret it for something for which it does not relate to and due to the iconic and easily replicable image of De Stijl it happens a lot. The Van Abbe Museum (and the Mondriaanhuis) showed a selection of new representations of De Stijl in various frivolous forms (the Van Abbe Museum saw this as negative appropriation and the Mondriaanhuis saw this as positive celebration).
The original ideas and principles aren’t implemented into these objects, they are just a canvas for which red, yellow and blue shapes and black lines can be placed onto/into. There is no justification for using De Stijl references other than ornamentation for which De Stijl was originally conceived against when founded. To create these kinds of stand-out products also goes against another principle of the movement; that of wanting to create a universal language which these do not conform to.
I was able to go inside the Rietveld Schröderhuis in Utrecht and I was amazed by the architecture and design of the interior way more than the exterior. Rietveld designed the house with incredible attention to detail and a genius way of utilising space. During the 1 hour I was able to walk around all of the house across both floors with an audio-guide explaining everything; the museum guide also gave a demonstration of how the space could be changed from open during the day to closed during the night like I mentioned earlier. I loved this demonstration and was amazed how every single aspect was considered, even today I find this design almost too modern and radical. The video below shows the house and the interchangeable interior.
I also visited the Centraal Museum in Utrecht where more General Idea artworks were exhibited including ‘infe©ted’ iterations of Rietveld’s chair and Mondrian’s more complex paintings, as well as typographic images of one of their main issues again, AIDS; all in their colours of red, blue and green. Again these were as striking as in the Stedelijk, the sheer crass of General Idea to take such iconic pieces and perfectly re-create them with one small subtle alteration is impressive.
There were a number of other smaller exhibitions across the Netherlands that I saw and many I didn’t get to witness but was able to read about. But so after 100 years what is the importance and legacy of De Stijl? Why is this important that it’s being celebrated, why did I spend so many weekends walking around these cities to find museums and exhibitions? Why did I commit so much time to experiencing this and writing all this?
To me, De Stijl is one of the most modern art movements and almost contemporary in its look and it is still relevant as ever. I find it fascinating that paintings and architecture from this time are still seen as extreme, un-conventional and even revolutionary despite decades old. For example, I can’t help but think that the Rietveld Schröderhuis is a ridiculous piece of architecture. It does not fit in its environment at all and for that matter Rietveld’s chair is also ridiculous; there is nothing like it and this is why I love it. It stands out, its different and it’s modern–too modern.
You could almost say that at the time in the early 20th century De Stijl artists where designing for the future or for a different planet. I however can’t see a time in the future where we would all be living in houses like the Rietveld Schröderhuis, as ‘minimal’ as De Stijl is, its not right for most people now and will never be, it will always remain extreme and radical–which is its appeal.
As an art movement though it is one of, if not the the most iconic. Even the most basic art fan and their mum would recognise a Mondrian painting as much as they would a van Gogh. The extreme and radical nature of it is what makes it what is it.
But is it still relevant in today’s society? Why is it important when art, design architecture have developed their own cultures, traditions and canons? What we can take from De Stijl is the rejection of the distinctions between these disciplines. The founders of De Stijl believed that a common understanding between visual arts was crucial. Van Doesburg himself said in 1926:
“Let’s refresh ourselves with things that are not art: the bathroom, the W.C., the bathtub, the telescope, the bicycle, the automobile, the subways, the flat-iron…Art, whos function nobody knows, hinders the function of life. For the sake of progress we must destroy Art,”
To conclude, the highlight of 100 years of De Stijl in 2017 for me is Post NL’s commissioned stamp set commemorating the movement by studio Putgootink. The set showcases the paintings, sculptures, diagrams, buildings and principles of the movement for what they are, it doesn't fetishise them. It is distinctly functional with the set being a large composition with each indivudual stamp having its own beautiful composition; it perfectly summarises the movement as well as being a great piece of design.
Thanks to VBAT for facilitating this process of learning about De Stijl, allowing me to travel and explore, also to NBTC Holland Marketing for their ‘Mondriaan to Dutch Design’ program throughout 2017 celebrating the movement and to the Instagram page De Stijl in De Stad/ De Stijl in The City which explored the history and modern iterations of the movement where I learnt a lot.