the Influence of De Stijl

Brent Coulton


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The Influence of De Stijl as an Art Movement

Brent Coulton

The De Stijl movement arose in the aftermath of World War One, and spanned from 1917 to 1932. It was formed by a small artistic group concentrating on representing the world by simplifying art with the use of horizontal and vertical lines as well as right-angled geometric shapes. Only the primary colours were used in conjunction with black, white and grey to create the "abstract expression" of "pure reality" (Meggs 271). Their works involved two and three dimensional art, architecture, text and type face styling to express this two angled and three coloured approach to representing the world. Their work was intended as an expression of the future for a world experiencing enormous change and development both scientifically and politically. The advent of the De Stijl art movement has influenced many facets of the world we live in today.

As much as World War One was important to the history of the world, De Stijl was important to the history of art. De Stijl rose from the turmoil of war as a form of expression to meet the needs of a generation living under a new social order. The objective of De Stijl art is an attempt at representing the scientific world by disregarding all complex elements of the natural world. Through the elimination of all but primary colours plus the simplification of all shapes to vertical and horizontal line and right angle geometric shapes, De Stijl invites the viewer to focus on the ultimate basic representation of nature.

The group of artists who joined together to form the De Stijl movement were based in the Netherlands. Theo van Deosburg, Piet Mondrain, Bart van der Luck and Vilmos Huszer were the main collaborators who started the movement in 1917 and managed to gain supporters throughout the movement, such as architect Gerrit Rieveld in 1918. Towards the start their paintings were all very similar and "virtually indistinguishable" (Meggs, 271) from one another. Their views and interests led them into further exploration of three-dimensional works, poetry and other text related art works. De Stijl has had its greatest influence, however, on the evolution of modern architecture.

As founder and leader of De Stijl, Theo van Doesburg lead the way to representing the world in pure simplification and stated that it could be achieved by "finding practical solutions to universal problems…elementary and universally intelligible principles of visual art must be established-which is what is attempted here."(Ashton 83-85)

The De Stijl movement was intended to become the new art form for a new century, representative of the shift in the post war world towards a system dominated by mathematical and scientific developments. It did this through the elimination of the complex aspects of art thus mirroring the logical simplicity of math and science. Its influences have since been adopted into many aspects of art, modern design, and other forms of expression.

The De Stijl art movement spawned the development of the journal, De Stijl. The text in the journal and in other written works produced during the time were stylized to eliminate any curves or diagonals; however, some traditional san serif type was still used. The text they designed was a combination of rectangles arranged to resemble letters in a stencil-like fashion made to fit in a horizontal and vertical line grid. Other type styles eliminated all curves and diagonals by adjusting parts of letters to fit into the parameters of a vertical and horizontal grid. Their designs with type were unique, adhering to the same framework as the art of De Stijl. This influence has persisted in the typefaces of certain stylized works ever since.

Gerrit Rieveld was formally schooled as an architect and subsequently his interest in the De Stijl art movement led him to explore and develop a unique style in three-dimensional structures. The use of "planes in space with dynamic asymmetrical relationships" (Meggs 274) was used in Gerrit Rieveld's design of the Schroeder house in 1924.

Its asymmetrical design created a three dimensional interpretation of the De Stijl style. He also used De Stijl in the design of many furniture pieces. His 'red and blue chair' was the first chair ever made in an abstract style and was intended for mass production to "relieve the factory labourer from the boredom of hard and repetitive work, by means of machines" (Roper). Some of his smaller works, such as the furniture pieces were used in the Schroeder house. These design elements have since been used in architecture around the world.

The basic principle of De Stijl art is to represent the world through ultimate simplification. The concept of the De Stijl movement evolved from social, religious and political events that shaped Europe and was to become the framework for all future artistic expression. One such example occurred in Holland when the Calvinistic movement brought into question the validity of religious icons, "Dutch national character owes a great deal to the influence of 16th-century Calvinism. Almost the first act of Calvinism was the destruction of the images of worship in their churches. They felt that any representation of a religious image was a detraction from the absolute sanctity of god… The De Stijl artists'… reason for banishment of every representation of nature… was, for them, a distortion of the divine purity of the laws of creation… Abstraction was the only way of maintaining their faith in universal values". (Friedman 13). It could be said that the Calvinistic cross is a De Stijl work because it is pure abstraction of the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. Even though the cross is not actually an image of Jesus, when seen it sparks a complete understanding and feeling of worship towards him and what he represents. If an image of a person were placed on this cross, then the represented person would detract from the absolute sanctity of god. Thus the act of worship would be focused on the image of Jesus and not on what he stood for.

The principle of the De Stijl movement could be thought of as a direct influence on the design and stylization of images and should only present the essence of the subject without actually giving any detail. Any elaboration would result in the distortion of the divine purity of the subject. In other words, if they produced art representative of any subject with any amount of detail it would be manipulating the viewers' interpretation rather than letting their minds interpret the image based on previous experiences in life. Many De Stijl paintings don't actually have a definite subject in an attempt to eliminate the real world in exchange for the "Neoplastic" (Freidman 40) interpretation through pure abstraction. If there is no subject but detail is still present in the painting then the rule of pure representation is still broken.

Using stylized art as a trigger to initiate the mental image through representation could be considered the main aspect of De Stijl's influence in graphic design. The logo is thought to be a simple and straightforward image that does not dictate an actual image's outward appearance but produces a representation "of pure reality" (Meggs 271) of the image. The idea of the ultimate representation in the De Stijl art form while still depicting a subject was achieved by only a few of the De Stijl artists. These works, which involve subjects, could be said to have influenced modern design.

The painting, Composition II, Skaters (1917) by Vilmos Huszar, is an early work in the De Stijl movement where the image is simplified to squares and rectangles yet can still be interpreted to represent ice skaters. The image of the ice skater is so simplified and does not present any distinguishing properties such as body features or clothing which would distort the interpretation, thus the mind will produce it's own image of an ice skater. Interestingly, in several of the figures of skaters in this painting, the head was relocated to avoid overlapping and giving a three dimensional element to the painting. The De Stijl belief of two dimensional representation, is related to their dismissal of diagonal lines needed for perspective and tonal variety suggesting distance, is necessary to preserve the ultimate simplification of values in the De Stijl art movement

Perhaps, Bart van der Lecks' work created some of the more design-conscious art, where the image is still recognizable while still following the principles of De Stijl. His work often had aspects of a recognizable subject; still they were presented as planes of primary colour and simplified shape. Mondrain wrote in regards to Bart van der Lecks' Donkey Riders (1917)

(this image is upside down! :< ) ooops

"I told van der Leck that I thought this thing he reproduced was still too abstract (you can still see the donkeys)". (Freidman 75). I find this interesting in that Mondrain didn't approve of the realistic aspects in van der Leck's early art even though they were good friends and influenced each others work and the establishment of De Stijl principles. Mondrain's art was completely abstract without subject. "For Mondrain, the painting is the painting is the painting -- without suggestion, without directions, but with an all-pervasive definition of order. (Freidman 76)"

Bart van der Leck was a huge contributor to the establishment of many aspects of De Stijl, such as being "the painter who first used primary colours in spatial flatness" (Freidman 78). In 1918, van der Leck abandoned his current style, and for a short time concentrated on paintings "that were not based in reality" (78). By the end of 1918, he had "returned to realism"(79) but his non-realistic work had created "inter-changeable aspects in his work. At the point where his painting merged with reality, reality could slip from his painting. This was the essence of his conception and it is where he differed from Mondrain, van Dousburg and Huszar." (79) He had created a unique style that incorporated De Stijl beliefs though not necessarily De Stijl in the purest sense and this may be why he did not choose to sign the "first manifesto of De Stijl" (77) in the same year. He never gave a reason but it could be thought to be linked to his unique approach or with his "disapproval of the beliefs of certain aspects of other members such as van Dousburg".

Many modern graphic design principles loosely follow the rules of De Stijl. In particular, the comparison to van der Leck's style where shapes and lines are organized to represent an object yet only as the simplest form. In modern design, the image is rarely limited to right angled shapes; rather they can include any number of shapes in any style yet the idea of ultimate representation is still applied. While other art movements have had substantial effect on the elements of graphic design, the extreme approach of De Stijl's restriction to primary colours plus vertical and horizontal lines has also had a profound influence.

One of the most famous logos, The Nike swoosh, could be interpreted as De Stijl in its design, even though the image doesn't actually show any recognizable form or subject and has no reference to a specific time period.

The swoosh has become a representation of Nike, "the winged goddess of victory" and is a "symbol of victorious encounters, the goddess Nike presided over history's earliest battlefields… who inspired the most courageous and chivalrous warriors at the dawn of civilization for a whole feeling of achievement and power" (Nike) The swoosh applies to De Stijl principles because it embodies the spirit of the winged goddess yet presents no aspect of her as a being. This representation has proven its success because of the longevity of this logo. "The first shoe with the Nike swoosh was introduced… in 1972"(Nike). In addition, the Nike swoosh follows the principle of De Stijl, as being simply representative by using primary colours. Even though the use of vertical and horizontal design is compromised, the 'swoosh' still presents as a two dimensional logo, simplified to its extreme. A parallel could be made between this design and the style of Bart van der Leck since it duplicates De Stijl in a similar fashion with an intended subject represented in extreme simplicity. While the subject in the swoosh is not readily apparent it could be interpreted as a representation of flying and so bring to mind the winged goddess, Nike, therefore content is arguably present.

The logo for the McDonalds franchise could be seen as another example of De Stijl. The obvious similarities would include the use of primary colours for the "M" and the associated text and the simplified two dimensional design. The main association to De Stijl, as with the Nike swoosh, is its link to the idea of pure representation. The McDonalds logo while derived from the text in the name, has taken on the bigger role of representing the company's values and goals with one simplified image. These two famous logos have withstood the test of time and this could be interpreted as proof that changes in society will not date an image that is refined to pure representation.

The De Stijl art movement introduced a unique style that has revolutionized art and design in many aspects ever since. Political and social change in the early part of the 20th century created a climate where movements such as De Stijl could take a foothold. The subsequent growth and impact of DeStijl is vast in art today. Perhaps, it is because of DeStijls principles of simplicity that have made it such an effective style, able to endure the test of time in the competitive art and design markets of today.

Works Cited

Ashton, Dore, ed. Twentieth Century Artists on Art. New York: Panthion Books, 1985.

Friedman, Mildred, ed. De Stijl: 1917-1931 Visions of Utopia. New York: Walker Art Center, 1982.

Lynton, Norbert. The Story of Modern Art. New York: Phaidon Books, 1980.

Roper, Quentin. "A History of Industrial Design." The Home of Q Design. 23 Jul. 2000. Q Design. 15 Oct. 2000.

Meggs B. Phillip, A History of Graphic Design. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

Nike web page. 15 Nov 2000.