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de Stijl
By Natalie Baird

De Stijl was loosely based on the concept around Cubism, as many of the artists within the movement had been exposed to it before the First World War. The war forced many Dutch artists to flee to Holland and Cubism was the style they dwelt on in their isolation. (McNamara, 1999) In Dutch de Stijl means "the style" but within the concept of the movement, it was meant to mean "The style". Members of de Stijl envisioned one universal style to unite the art and real environments. The de Stijl journal was first published in 1917 and the last in 1932. This gives a rough idea of the years that the movement was present, however the strongest years were in the twenties. The hierarchy of De Stijl included many artists, some who were enormously instrumental such as Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian plus others who had very little to do with the movement. Other artists who contributed to De Stijl were Vilmos Huszar, Bart van der Leck and architects Cornelis van Eesteren, J.J.P Oud and Gerrit Rietveld. (Bois, 1993, p. 107-108)

Two fundamental concepts behind de Stijl were historicism and essentialism. Historicism meaning that the art of today and tomorrow would have evolved from all past art and eventually art would become integrated into the day to day environment. Essentialism meaning that each art form must isolate the essence that is relative to it and therefore secure its autonomy from the other arts. (Bois, 1993, p. 108)

The key philosophy of De Stijl was a process of elementarisation, integration and collaboration. This philosophy was at the heart of Modernist movements however de Stijl came up with the concept of collaboration. Elementarisation was the practice of each art form finding the essence that was at its core, stripping away superfluous elements (as mentioned above). Integration meant each component must be in balance with the others and no one element should have more emphasis than the others. (Bois, 1993, p. 109) Once an art form has gone through these processes it can then look outward and seek another art that has a common denominator to collaborate with. Within de Stijl the most successful and well-known collaboration between the arts was the marriage of painting to architecture. This collaboration was the subject of many debates within the de Stijl group of artists. (Bois, 1993, p. 109)

Planarity, that of the picture plane and the wall link painting and architecture. Painting wasn't merely just applied to architecture, for decorative art held no interest for the de Stijl artists, each art collaborated to form a synthesis or a whole. Through architecture, painting solved a several problems - that of the vertical and horizontal within buildings, circulation within the space of a building, painting also created the new concept of the screen. (Bois, 1993, p. 117)"Interior Perspective of a University Hall" (1921-23) is a plan of Cornelis van Eesteren's architecture with colour by Theo van Doesburg, which demonstrates integration of an oblique composition on the roof, the horizontal nature of the roof and the vertical nature of the walls. An example of the problem of circulation within a room being over come is realised in a model by Gerrit Rietveld and Vilmos Huszar, "Spatial Colour Composition for an Exhibition" (1923). The colour planes overlap the corners where two walls meet encouraging the viewer to move their eyes around the room. The screen was invented through the use of planes of colour, which could be placed around and through each other. (Bois, 1993, p. 125)

Many artists associated with de Stijl didn't stay on with the group for long, however there were a few that contributed solutions to problems that de Stijl encountered. For example the oppositions of figure to ground, colour and non-colour, and frame had to be solved in order for painting to be fully integrated. Bart van der Leck is credited with elementarising colour and stripping it back to the three primary colours plus the non-colours black and white. Piet Mondrian went on to solve the opposition between colour and non-colour. Vilmos Huszar first solved the figure/ ground opposition, but failed to incorporate any other elements such as colour into his paintings. However this was seen as an important step. Van Doesburg and Mondrian used the grid to destroy any sense of ground;  Mondrian later drew the conclusion that it was too repetitive and stopped using it however van Doesburg used the grid throughout his paintings. (Bois, 1993, p. 110-112)

Theo van Doesburg was a painter, but also the visionary within the movement. He traveled and lectured on de Stijl to spread its utopian message. (McNamara, 1999) In a lecture given at Weimar, Jana and Berlin in 1922 van Doesburg praised machinery as being able to realise social liberation and also outlined how de Stijl as a "universal plastic language" could succeed where other modernist movements failed. (Van Doesburg, 1922, p.95-97) Van Doesburg collaborated with Cornelis van Eesteren and J.J.P Oud on architectural projects. However his Counter-Compositions in 1925 caused a rift between him and Piet Mondrian, as the compositions were similar to Mondrian's at the time, but oblique. Van Doesburg's oblique composition was more successful when in collaboration with architecture where it could counteract the vertical and horizontal of a building. (Bois, 1993, p.117)

De Stijl's ideology was mostly utopian, believing and striving for a world where art and life could merge and become one. Only a few pieces of art fulfilled it's many rules and regulations while the most successful artist to come out of the movement was Piet Mondrian. As for uniting the world in a collective style - de Stijl certainly attempted however the restrictions caused many rifts within the group, so it was no wonder they couldn't present a cohesive style to the world. Van Doesburg championed the machine, however it really led him and the rest of the group up a blind alley, for as it comes to the end of this millennium it seems the technology could get the better of the human race.


Bois, Y, 1993. "The de Stijl Idea".

van Doesburg, T, 1922. "The Will to Style".

McNamara, A, 1999. "de Stijl". Lecture given on 8 September at QUT, Brisbane.