The Dutch avant-garde movement De Stijl (Style) is an essential key to any understanding
of the springs of Modernism. It formed around three central figures: the painters
Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg and architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld.
Other members of the original group were painters Bart van der Leck, Georges
Vantongerloo and Vilmos Huszar, architects JJP Oud, Robert van’t Hoff and Jan Wills,
and poet Anthony Kok, who would be joined by graphic designer Piet Zwart and architect
Cornelis van Eesteren.
It was in 1918, a year after the official foundation of the group and the publication of
the first issue of the journal that publicised and promoted the movement's teachings
that the founders of De Stijl explicitly articulated the aesthetic and social vision that drew
them together: the group's first manifesto called for a new equilibrium between the
individual and the universal and for the emancipation of art from the constraints of the cult
of individualism. This quest for the utopian and universal might be summed up in the
aphorism: "The goal of life is man; the goal of man is Style."
Both utopian vision and practical engagement in the production of the real in an industrial
world, De Stijl drew on the Hegelian tradition and on Theosophy, an esoteric doctrine
then popular in the Netherlands and elsewhere. The founders of the movement
were however primarily concerned with the formal – pictorial or architectural – expression
of the principles of universal harmony. Painting, sculpture, graphics, furniture design,
architecture and soon town planning served as the medium of experiment. De Stijl's
creations were multidisciplinary by nature, transcending the traditional academic
boundaries between major and minor arts, between decorative art, architecture and
The guiding theme of the movement during its fourteen years of productive existence
might be taken to be the spirit of the city. The spatiality of the work of art gradually shifts
from being the basis for an analysis of the world to a means of construction of the urban
social and political environment. In this respect, the spatialization of the work of art constitutes
a specific experience of the world, ordering it and giving substance to community,
embodying and making possible the equilibrium between individual and collective, between
rational and sensuous, knowing and doing, spiritual and material.
For De Stijl, the priority was to find a formal language that answered to the problems
of industrial society in the wake of the Great War and to adumbrate the strategies for
the establishment of a new social order.
The method that served the vision was Neo-Plasticism, which at first represented a simple
radicalisation of the avant-garde practice of the time. "The Cubists," said Mondrian,
"refuse to take their own artistic revolution to its logical conclusion. The modern sensibility
cannot be reduced to the integration of multiple points of view, but must tend towards
an immediately universal and rational plastic language." Van Doesburg, for his part, called
for "the elaboration, in connection with the plastic arts, of simple fundamental principles
understandable to all." It was through the rigorous employment of primary colours alone
(blue, yellow, red), unmodulated white and black, and straight lines laid out at right angles,
and the limitation of forms and the geometrization of volumes that this brought that
the members of De Stijl invented a new grammar of forms. The analytical simplification
of the formal lexicon and the harmonious dynamics of proportion offered no scope for
tragedy, in the end projecting aesthetics as a universal.