ObeliskTimeline of Art

De Stijl

The art of the perfectly straight line

De Stijl was nothing if not ambitious. Meaning ‘the style’ and developed by modernist powerhouses Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl art was intended to be the perfect fusion of form and function. A perfect style, reduced to only the simplest elements of shape and color, and applied to all media: painting, decor and architecture.

De Stijl art was the expression of the Mondrian’s theory of Neoplasticism. In the early 20th century, visual arts were commonly referred to as ‘plastic arts’ — a term simply meant to distinguish visual art from writing, music and theater. And so Mondrian’s concept of Neoplasticism, meant, in essence ‘the new art’.

So what was this new art? In his incredibly dense essay Neo-plasticism in Pictorial Art Mondrian described his vision:

“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.”

In practice, Mondrian’s ‘new art’ was a radical set of constraints, intended to create an incredibly simple yet endlessly repeatable visual toolbox using only primary colours, squares and rectangles, and vertical and horizontal straight lines.

Though De Stijl started small, just Mondrian and van Doesburg, it’s aesthetic and ideas soon spread. The Bauhaus, the influential German art school picked up De Stijl’s simplified geometry, and van Doesburg’s magazine, also titled ‘De Stijl’ drew artists from all over Europe into the budding movement. At it’s height in 1918, the group had more than 100 loosely connected ‘members’ dedicated to the vertical and horizontal line.

But trouble was brewing — in 1924, van Doesburg proposed his Theory of Elementarism, a radical manifesto that effectively called bullshit on Mondrian’s neoplastic rules and declared that the future belongs (gasp) to the diagonal line. Furious at the betrayal, Mondrian officially resigned from the De Stijl movement which, with it’s core rules removed, would evolve in style over the next decades.

In 1931, Theo van Doesburg died, and the formal De Stijl movement slowly disbanded. But its impact remains — the Constructivist movement borrowed its primary colors, architects like Charles and Ray Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright applied the dramatic crosshatch of horizontal and vertical lines, and the obsession with a reduction to minimalist perfection has infected art and design to this day.

Reed Enger, "De Stijl, The art of the perfectly straight line," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 15, 2017; last modified July 21, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/modernism/de-stijl/.

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