modernism in art

late impressionism through surrealism

De Stijl


• SH essay, De Stijl Part I: Total Purity

• SH essay, De Stijl Part II: Near-Abstraction and Pure-Abstraction

• SH essay, De Stijl Part III: The Total De Stijl Environment

• SH video, Piet Mondrian, Composition no. II, with Red and Blue

• review SH essay, Abstract art and Theosophy

key terms and concepts: primary colors, primary values, realism, formalism, social agency, Theosophy

Why did the artists of De Stijl eventually decide to only use horizontal and vertical lines, the colors red, yellow, & blue, and the values black & white? Why not the color orange, or diagonal lines, for example? How did Mondrian and the others arrive at these elements? Recall this key passage from Mondrian's art theory:

     Question: But I still don't understand why you favor the straight line and have come entirely to

     exclude the curved.

     Mondrian: ... Because all curvature resolves into the straight, no place remains for the curved.

     Question: Did you come to this conclusion suddenly?

     Mondrian: No, very gradually. First I abstracted the capricious, then the freely curved, and finally

     the mathematically curved.

     Question: So it was through this abstracting that you came to exclude all naturalistic representation

     and subject-matter?

     Mondrian: That's right, through the work itself. The theories I just mentioned concerning these

     exclusions came afterward ... .

How can we see this gradual evolution in Mondrian's multi-year exploration of trees such as the examples below? In what sense can the elements of De Stijl be called the “essence of everything in the universe”?  Why does Mondrian call this DE Stijl, THE style, not just “a” style, or "his" style?  In what sense is this aspect of Mondrian’s work fundamentally realistic (an objective truth of nature), even though it is totally abstract?  

Another aspect of Mondrian’s work is more formalist:  once he discovered the elements of De Stijl by abstracting (v.) from natural objects, he began to create pure-abstract (n.) works, attempting to arrange those elements in ways that are totally harmonious and balanced.  However, even there the aim was not “merely” sensual, decorative beauty like the Fauves, but rather a totally pure and harmonious work that he thought of ultimately as spiritual (recall his interest in Theosophy, similar to Kandinsky).  

Which brings us to the social agency of De Stijl. What was Mondrian ultimately hoping to achieve with his art? Why did his artistic project and social aims ideally require, not just a few isolated works of art, but total design environments -- product design, interior design, architecture; maybe even sound design? How does Rietveld's Schroder House attempt to create such an environment?

* Note:  there are lots of similarities between  Mondrian and the Purists, including the quest for “purity,” the use of geometry, the idea that aesthetics is a matter of universal law and not individual or cultural taste, and the desire to create whole design environments, not just isolated works of art or objects.  Know these similarities -- but don’t equate the two movements.  Mondrian had no special interest in machinery or modernity, and the Purists had no interest in spirituality ... .

Mondrian, Composition in Yellow, Red, and Blue, 1927

Rietveld, Schroder House, 1924