As World War One was raging across Europe, in Holland in 1917 it must have made complete sense to a small group of Dutch artists to reject the messy reality of the outside world and to create an art movement founded on the idea of balance, universal harmony and a complete absence of individual expression.
The movement they created was De Stijl (The Style). Their strong colourful abstract images are still with us today. They have become part of what we think of as contemporary and modern, having found their way into iconic fashion design, architecture, design and advertising. One of the main artists of the movement, Piet Mondrian, remains hugely popular. His instantly recognisable colourful grid paintings are some of the most iconic images of twentieth century art.
The De Stijl movement began in Holland in 1917. Architect and artist, Theo van Doesburg, had for some time held the idea of forming an association of avant garde artists. Things came together when he met fellow Dutch architect Jacobus Oud and artists, Piet Mondrian, Vilmos Huszár and Bart Van der Leck who all shared his vision. The synergy of this meeting of minds enabled the movement to take shape and gave it its force and influence.
The movement was of its time and came about as a new consciousness was unfolding across Europe. By 1917, the First World War had been raging for three years and artists, in particular, felt an imperative to reclaim the balance and harmony that was being systematically destroyed.
As a neutral country, Holland provided the group with a unique opportunity to develop their utopian ideas whilst the rest of Europe strived to make sense of the ugliness and tragedy of war. There was a sense that if universal harmony was allowed to permeate every aspect of life including politics, architecture, music and theatre as well as the visual arts, man could regain Paradise and the whim of the individual could no longer exert itself with such tragic consequences.
This sense of purity and the purification of the arts was what the De Stijl artists wanted to bring about. It was rooted in the Dutch Calvinist religion which promoted simplicity and banned the use of religious icons which were seen as diminishing the Divinity of God. In turn, the De Stijl artists regarded the use of recognisable objects in paintings as a destruction of the purity of nature and of creation itself.
They worked within a severely restricted set of rules to create their new kind of visual art—horizontal and vertical straight lines, right angles, the three primary colours of red, yellow and blue as well as black, grey and white. Their ideas were revolutionary. Their art became known as neoplasticism and its influence would eventually extend across Europe and beyond and still resonates today.
The artists placed a total ban on the depiction of recognisable objects and in restricting their creative process to line and colour they eliminated the possibility of their art becoming too subjective and personalised. They wanted to give viewers a pure experience and thus enable them to purify their own vision of reality.
It's not surprising that against the backdrop of a futile and barbaric war, the need to control one's destiny became so important. De Stijl paintings are characterised by this sense of control and imbued with a spirit of calm rooted in strength of line and colour.
In tandem with the art, van Doesburg published the De Stijl magazine to provide a platform for the group to write about and explain abstract art. He believed art should be supported by an explanation of the theories behind it. In his opinion,
the truly modern i.e. conscious artist, has a double vocation – in the first place to produce the purely plastic work of art, in the second place to prepare the public's mind for this purely plastic art.
For the De Stijl artists, their writings and their art went hand in hand.
Van Doesburg continued to fund, edit and publish the magazine until his death 1931. For the first number of years, articles were dominated by painting but gradually the emphasis moved to architecture, poetry, typography and other art forms.
Mondrian and Van Doesburg are the artists most closely associated with the De Stijl movement today. They were polar opposites in character. While the introverted Mondrian never wavered from the style and continued to paint in the controlled manner so characteristic of the movement, the outgoing and sociable Van Doesburg went on to embrace Dadaism, was influential within the Bauhaus movement and collaborated with architects Cornelis van Eesteren and Gerrit Rietveld on numerous projects as well as designing and building his own house in Meudon in France.
It's said that Mondrian and van Doesburg fell out over van Doesburg's inclusion of the diagonal line in his work and there was a split for a number of years but they did reconcile and, along with other members of the group, continued to correspond and exchange ideas until Van Doesburg's death in 1931.
Van Doesburg was the glue that held the movement together and De Stijl did not survive beyond his death but its influence was widespread and it played a significant part in the development of modernism in art and architecture throughout the period and beyond.