The Return of Rationalism in Western Art

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The De Stijl Movement: 

Neoplasticism*, Mondrian, and Spinoza’s Influence on Modern Art in the 20th Century 


“The rhythm of relations of color and space makes the absolute appear.” 

– Piet Mondrian

(1) Piet Mondrian, Tableau I, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, 1921

(Piet Mondrian, Tableau I, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, 1921)

At the close of the Middle Ages when Western Europe began to embrace Aristotelian philosophy, the arts grew and flourished in ways not seen before in the world. Through the use of observation and experimentation, the keystones of Aristotle’s approach to the world, artists were able to develop ways of turning flat, two-dimensional canvasses into lifelike, three-dimensional ones. Statues were no longer stoic blocks of granite but came to life in marble with the appearance of the human form all but drawing breath beneath the chisel. Architecture became more prominent not just for the fortresses and cathedrals of the powerful aristocracy and clergy, but for the continent’s growing urban centers and its ever-aggrandizing merchant class. Art and architecture had evolved into a visual wonderland, a miracle for the senses … and it flourished and remained so, unchallenged, for the next several centuries.

By the latter half of the 19th century, Western Europe ushered in an Industrial Era that brought with it new gifts and challenges of its own to the world of art. The invention of the camera in 1816 would make its way into the cultural mainstream by the mid 1800’s supplanting portraiture and other visual painted mediums from many a wealthy benefactor’s attention, and patronage as a way of life would begin to wane. Artists now had competition from this new technology and had to devise ways of appealing to their audience in a manner that a photograph could not accomplish. 

Paints, now commercially produced, no longer tied an artist to his studio. He could travel, on trains if he so chose, and paint wherever he wanted, even outdoors. A new breed of independent artist in Paris, now the center of the art world in Western culture, would begin to challenge their techniques and visual perspectives, playing with light, texture, and subject matter. No longer tied to a patron, these artists had the freedom to observe and experiment with their canvasses as they chose to.

Despite their tumultuous beginnings, and change is almost always met with resistance, the Impressionists, as they came to be called, soon fell into a new way of representing the world they saw around them and gradually began finding an audience and appreciation for their work.

However, despite these newer styles and techniques, these artists were still producing empirical pieces of art. Art that was still meant to be a purely visual experience, to perhaps evoke an emotional response, to look like what it appeared to be. They were still engaging the same Aristotelian philosophies that had begun at the dawn of the Renaissance. It was still art whose appreciation and understanding relied merely on the senses of the viewer.

(2) Claude Monet, The Sheltered Path, PMA, 1973

(Claude Monet, The Sheltered Path, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1873)

Movements like Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Symbolism, Synthetism, Post-Impressionism, Secessionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Primitivism … all artistic schools of thought between the mid-19th century and early 20th century, were engaged by pioneering artists trying to push the boundaries of how art was perceived, but each, in its own way, was still producing empirical, retinal, representational artwork.

By the turn of the 20th century, some artists were beginning to challenge the old notions of empirical visual arts and, knowingly or unknowingly, began reaching back to the rational concepts that Plato, and Western Europe, embraced before the Renaissance. This search for more recondite solutions for their expression would lead to an abstraction of empiricism and usher in an era of the avant-garde and modern art.

Plato’s writing on aesthetics in the Republic, his book about an idealized, utopian society, can seem harsh to modern man. He argued that two-dimensional shapes are the most elementary and advocated for the banishment of all art from his idealized Republic. He believed that poets and dramatists were just as far from the truth as the lowly painter as they imitated human experiences in fictional portrayals. Even worse, he condemned artists because they stirred emotions, thus clouding one’s ability to think rationally. Plato argued that even great works of art, such as the epic poems of Homer, should be banished from his utopian society. In essence, artists, Plato believed, were unworthy rivals of philosophers. He felt that they tried to reveal the truth but could only do so with poor imitations and descriptions of reality. Plato’s negative view of art is extreme, yet his definition of art as mimesis, an imitation or representation of the real world, could be applied to much of Western art from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

Artists were beginning to think beyond the representational, the retinal, the exclusively empirical confines of their predecessors and new, albeit short-lived,  schools of thought began popping up all over Western Europe from places like Russia, Switzerland, Great Britain, and Italy, as well as France. Prior to World War I, artists like Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso had already begun experimenting with abstracting empirical art with Cubist paintings involving collaging and creating multiple dimensions simultaneously on their canvasses. Others like Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini would conduct experiments with the concepts of speed and technology in their paintings of the Futurism movement which were closely related to the works of Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg whose hard-edged, machine-like aesthetic gave birth to Vorticism. “Machine aesthetics” came into play as abstract ideas as a byproduct of the Industrial Era.

(3) Juan Gris, Man in a Café, PMA, 1912  (4) Pablo Picasso, Man with a Violin, PMA, 1911-12

(⬆︎ Juan Gris, Man in a Café, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1912)  
(Pablo Picasso, Man with a Violin, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1911-12 ⬆︎)

(5) Gino Severini, La Modiste (The Milliner), PMA, 1910-11                         Workshop c.1914-5 by Wyndham Lewis 1882-1957

(⬆︎ Gino Severini, La Modiste (The Milliner), Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1910-11)
(Wyndham Lewis (Workshop), Tate Gallery, London, 1914-15 ⬆︎)

Soon abstraction would influence a multitude of artists like Robert Delaunay with his highly lyrical and brightly colored canvasses termed Orphic-Cubism, or Orphism, and Mikhail Larionov, whose forays into Rayonism captured the light rays that reflected from objects.

(7) Robert Delaunay, Three-Part Windows, PMA, 1912
(Robert Delaunay, Three-Part Windows, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1912)

(8) Mikhail Larionov, Red Rayonism, The Merzinger Collection, Switzerland, 1913

(Mikhail Larionov, Red Rayonism, The Merzinger Collection, Switzerland, 1913)

Art historians credit Wassily Kandinsky with the first purely abstract painting which he painted in 1910. (Some, however, place the date at 1913 believing Kandinsky predated the work himself). The question Kandinsky and many other artists at the time were struggling to answer was whether to paint the world as it looked to their human eyes, or to try to achieve something more sublime, more universal, and more pure through abstraction. Kandinsky embraced abstraction as a way to express the depths of his spirit. His abstract paintings contained a tremendous range of colors, lines and abstracted forms composed in ways that bear no resemblance to the objectively visible world.

Founded by Russian immigrants and native German artists in Munich, Kandinsky was a member of the short-lived Der Blaue Reiter, or Blue Rider group prior to World War I. The group, which included the artists Franz Marc, August Macke, and Paul Klee among others, believed in the promotion of modern art; the connection between visual art and music; the spiritual and symbolic associations of color; and a spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting. The group, however, was disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Both artists Franz Marc and August Macke were killed in combat and Kandinsky, along with the other Russian members of the group were forced to move back to Russia because of their foreign citizenship. Their movement only lasted three years, from 1911 to 1914, but their influence would be long-reaching and enduring.

(9) Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII (First Abstract Watercolor), Musée National d'Arte Moderne, Paris, 1910 or 1913

(Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII (First Abstract Watercolor), Musée National d’Arte Moderne, Paris, 1910 or 1913)

After World War I there was a turning away from old forms and philosophies among architects and designers, just as there was among artists and writers. The first and arguably most influential of these movements was Dadaism. Begun as an interdisciplinary movement that sought to undermine social, political, and cultural orthodoxies, the artists involved in this movement produced works that were intentionally absurd and irrational. Its philosophy and concepts were solidified by 1916 in the artistic centers of Europe as a scathing response to the values that had brought about the First World War. Short-lived as it was, the scope of Dadaism’s influence was international and its techniques provocative. 

(10) Jean (Hans) Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance), MoMA, 1916-17                    (11) Man Ray, Self Portrait (Gelatin Silver Print), The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1916

(⬆︎ Jean (Hans) Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance), MoMA, 1916-17)
(Man Ray, Self Portrait (Gelatin Silver Print), The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1916 ⬆︎)

It was, however, with the Suprematism movement from Russia, when artists like El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich began reducing form to a minimum: just a small number of simple, geometric shapes in solid colors on a white background that were meant to be non-representational pictures whose purpose were to simply evoke “pure feeling.” The Constructivism movement, also from Russia, included artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin and, like the Suprematists who also pursued geometric abstraction in its ideology, was inspired by functional structures and technologies. Its emphasis on social purpose became the basis for the Soviet State architecture of the 1920’s. In fact, one of the important trends of the 20th century would be the increasing parallels between – even merging of – art and design, which had been separated since the end of the Renaissance.

(12) El Lissitzky, Gravediggers (Plate 9 from the Portfolio Victory over the Sun), PMA, 1923    (13) Vladimir Tatlin, Machinatorium (The Monument to the Third International, Tatlin's Tower, Sketch), 1919

(⬆︎El Lissitzky, Gravediggers (Plate 9 from the Portfolio Victory over the Sun), Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1923)
(Vladimir Tatlin, Machinatorium (The Monument to the Third International, Tatlin’s Tower, Sketch), 1919 ⬆︎)

The First World War sent many an expat back to his home country as nations either began expelling non-citizens or homelands began recalling its citizens at its outbreak. In Western Europe only Denmark, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands remained neutral throughout this conflict. 

Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was in Paris when World War I broke out and was forced to return to his home in the Netherlands where he and his compatriots would remain isolated from most of Western Europe for its duration. Its people, who had abided by a strict policy of neutrality in international affairs that dated back to 1830 with the secession of Belgium from the Netherlands, hoped that its strategic position between the German Empire, German-occupied Belgium, and the British would guarantee its continued safety. No longer able to communicate freely with their European neighbors or share in the exchange of  ideas with their foreign peers, the people of the Netherlands had to look at themselves, their surroundings, their history, and their own heritage for inspiration during these years.

By 1917, having weathered the isolation of the First World War, two pioneers of abstract art, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, began a magazine titled De Stijl, which simply meant “the style”, in Dutch. The magazine emerged largely in response to the horrors of World War I and the wish to remake a fresh society in its aftermath. Ultimately though, it would become a vehicle for Mondrian’s ideas on art, and in a series of articles in the first year’s issues he defined his aims and used, perhaps for the first time, the term “neoplasticism” which became the term used for the type of abstract art he and the De Stijl circle practiced.

The followers of the De Stijl movement, who included artists like Bart van der Leck, Vantongerloo, and Vordemberge-Gildewart, as well as the architects Gerrit Rietveld and JJP Oud, looked at viewing art as a means of social and spiritual redemption. They embraced a utopian vision of art and its transformative potential. They believed in expressing the artists’ search “for the universal.” The individual, they espoused, was losing its significance. They created an austere language, a visual language, consisting of precisely rendered geometric forms – usually straight lines, squares, and rectangles, and the use of primary colors. They believed they’d created a language that would reveal the laws that governed the harmony of the world.

It’s all too easy to assume that the highly structured, non-objective, mature paintings of Mondrian are exercises in art for art’s sake. Nothing could be further from the truth because he was not an aesthete; he was an idealist: since the world was without order, Mondrian would supply it. Mondrian never permitted diagonal lines or bars in his compositions because they were too violent. No violence, indeed no interactive movement, is possible without the diagonal, and conflict and violence were forbidden in his manifesto. If you could spend a quiet hour with a Mondrian painting, you would understand the gift of its certitude in an uncertain world. His paintings are a response to the social and political moment of its day.

(14) Piet Mondrian, Composition, PMA, 1936

(Piet Mondrian, Composition, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1936)

These ideas were Platonic in theory since they relied heavily on the mind and not the senses to synthesize a true communion of the absolute and harmonic understanding: but it was also purely Dutch. The De Stijl movement’s concepts, which enveloped neoplasticism, were a philosophy manifested in an artistic movement.  

Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher, was one of the early thinkers of the Era of Enlightenment at the close of the Renaissance. Despite living in the same Dutch neighborhood at the same time as the artist Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the greatest empirical, or visual, artists in Dutch art history, Spinoza came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy. He believed that the world and universe could be intelligible to humans if examined rationally, and that it is through human reason that everything is best understood.

It is not accidental that characteristic elements of the De Stijl movement can be related formally to their Dutch origins. The Netherlands is considered more or less a flat country. Because of the land’s horizontalness, the horizontal line is usually a straight, level line. Verticals, such as trees, buildings, and even people, are even more noticeable as they punctuate the flat landscape. Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg considered these aspects of the landscape when he began the formulation of the De Stijl movement’s theory around 1912. He saw the need for the reintroduction of the straight line and of the rectangle into the language of art and architecture. He stated that, “various spiritual means of expression in architecture, painting, music, and literature will be universally realized … each being enhanced by the others.” His manifesto sought unity as a whole and called for a new medium that was anti-Cubist, anti-Symmetrical, anti-gravitational, and anti-decorative.

  (15) Theo van Doesburg, Landscape with Hay Cart, Church Towers, and Windmill, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands, 1901 (16) Theo van Doesburg, Composition VIII (The Cow), MoMA, 1918

(⬆︎ Theo van Doesburg, Landscape with Hay Cart, Church Towers, and Windmill, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands, 1901)
(Theo van Doesburg, Composition VIII (The Cow), MoMA, 1918 ⬆︎)

(Empirically, we view the parts to form complete image; Rationally, we must view the whole to discern its parts.)

In Spinoza’s philosophy there is an evident emphasis on the importance of the whole entity. It seems to be an abstract concept, but it very clearly relates to the universe in general, and to art and architecture specifically. He discusses the notion of a “substance,” or something that “the conception of which can be formed independently of the conception of another thing.” The universe must be taken in as a complete entity and not looked at in pieces. Only one such substance can exist, for a plurality of substances would cause a contradiction within the definition. The one and only substance is nature, an infinite concept, which is “conceived as a whole or totality of things.” The concept of the whole, a form of metaphysical monism, implies to both synthesis and oneness.

The De Stijl movement played to a similar sensitivity to the whole, but, in this case, to the wholeness of a design. One of the most important ideas inherent in this movement was “the integral relationship of the parts to the whole and of the whole to the parts.” One should not attempt to separate the function of a part individually, for often it only functions successfully when viewed in the context of the whole. At the same time, if a part of the design is removed, the whole does not function in the same manner. An architect or artist following the De Stijl movement’s philosophy would design with regard to the entire composition – not for the individual pieces of the design. The De Stijl movement’s elements and Spinoza’s philosophy imply an importance of each part to the whole: unity in plurality. Whether the whole be an architectural structure, a piece of artwork, or the world, comprehension of it lies in the whole and not its parts.

The concept of wholeness has implications concerning the relationships between parts, an issue that Spinoza addressed in his philosophy. He believed that the relationships between things in the universe were more important than the characteristic qualities of actual things. All things in the universe necessarily fall into one single system and therefore must have intersections. Things interact and converse at their boundaries where they change into another thing. These interactions, or dialogues, are what is important about the ‘things’ … their being is not. They are not two distinct systems, but they operate together in a cooperative relationship where “there can be no ideas which are not ideas of extended things, or extended things of which there is no idea.” This cooperative idea of relationships is important in art and architecture where ideas produce forms and forms interact with each other.

Directly correlating to Spinoza’s ideas about relationships is the De Stijl movement’s attitude of “relations rather than things” in art and architecture. The artist or architect in the De Stijl movement was most concerned with relationships between positive and negative elements. This type of relationship produces the most dynamic interactions. For example, the painters in this movement observed how primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, and the “non-colors”, black, white, and gray, related to each other by often combining them, side-by-side, in the same composition. The artist was more concerned by how these opposing elements behaved together and the effect their relationship achieved. The aesthetic of the elements alone was not important. In dealing with the relationship between parts, the De Stijl movement’s followers continued to show interest in the wholeness of the design, thereby demonstrating Spinoza’s principle of parts relating to the whole.

(17) Georges Vantongerloo, Composition, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, 1917-1918

(Georges Vantongerloo, Composition, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, 1917-1918)

Spinoza’s regard for reason and the affinity he showed toward rationalism were behind both the importance of wholeness and the importance of relationships. Spinoza said that passions and emotions distract man’s view of the whole. Feelings cause humans to favor one part over another which does not embody an emphasis on the whole. The whole must be evaluated and studied on a purely rational level. According to Spinoza, only reason can solve problems effectively. Other things, such as emotions, faith, and the supernatural, cause humans to misjudge and to become less analytical when formulating solutions. Reason always produces truth. By allowing imagination to enter one’s thinking, emotion becomes a factor, and consequently distracts the mind from finding the best solution. Because modern, and by extension, contemporary art require the viewer to engage his mind and not just his senses in its understanding and appreciation, many people immediately dismiss or dislike modern and contemporary art in favor of the empirical mediums. 

The individuals involved in the De Stijl movement attempted to design with regard to truth. The search for an element of truth in design is the main reason behind the introduction of the straight line. Undulating lines are not as direct. In their rationale design process, individuals sought to “construct without any illusion, without any decoration, which is one of the principle aims of the De Stijl movement.” Many of the artists and architects achieved this truth through a process of stripping down their forms to the basics. They attempted to display the inner structures and construction of designs. Truth in design were these inner-lying structures. Just as Spinoza believed that reason produced the best solutions, the De Stijl movement emphasized that a rational process would produce the best design. Both were also concerned with the search for truth. Just as Spinoza considered emotions valueless, so the De Stijl movement’s artists and designers moved away from the synthesis of design with feelings, faith, and emotion.

(18) Jacob Issackz van Ruisdael, Winter Landscape, PMA, late 1660's                (19) Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue and Yellow, PMA, 1932

(⬆︎ Jacob Issackz van Ruisdael, Winter Landscape, Philadelphia Museum of Art, late 1660’s)
(Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue and Yellow, PMA, 1932 ⬆︎)

(Mondrian’s landscape exists here as a rational whole devoid of empirical distractions.) 

Among the artists in the De Stijl group, Piet Mondrian stood out as one of its most faithful adherents. He referred to his work as “neoplasticism.” In an essay he wrote in 1920, he explained what he meant by the term: “Logic demands that art be the plastic expression of our whole being … it must also be the direct expression of the universal in us – which is the exact appearance of the universal outside us.” At that time people referred to painting and sculpture as the “plastic arts” to distinguish them from written art forms like music and literature.

The term plastic does not refer to the material though plastic has existed since at least 1907. Rather it referred to plasticity, the condition of stuff that can be formed into other stuff. The term neoplasticism was a rejection of the plasticity of the past. It was a word intended to mean “New Art.”

Neoplasticism became the term used and associated to describe the abstract mode of the De Stijl movement and Mondrian became inseparably connected to it. Based on Mondrian’s own writings, it can be best described as a philosophy  which attempted a total overhaul and purification of all art that had come before it. His distinctively grid-shaped paintings were meant to reveal the timelessness and spiritual order underlying the endlessly changing appearance of the world. Rejecting the individualistic, emotional tenor of the then dominant German and Austrian Expressionism movements, the style harnessed the power of the “mutual relation of forms,” which could express a spiritual, even transcendental harmony. Not unlike Plato’s concepts of art, neoplasticism saw art as a “plastic equivalent” of the fundamental order of the universe rather than an expression of raw emotion. Aesthetically, the pared-down essentialism and flat, geometric sensibility of neoplasticism would, like Constructivism, prove significant across several mediums and movements, like Bauhaus, Concrete Art, Purism, and later American abstraction.

The movement’s founders and artists believed there was a utopian approach to aesthetics through function, line, and specific colors, and in their magazine, De Stijl, they laid out four main concepts:

The first major concept was historicism in which art of the past and present are evident in and become part of everyday life. The universal and lasting purity achieved at the intersection of horizontal and vertical lines acted as a hopeful opportunity for wholeness and redemption after the nightmare of World War One. 

The second major concept was essentialism, or elementarism, in which the art refers to the essence at the core rather than using unnecessary elements. In relation to Mondrian’s geometrical, abstract paintings, this is evident in the black horizontal and vertical lines on an off-white background to which blocks of primary colors are added. The grids of thick black lines that enclosed flat areas of primary color exemplified their radically reduced visual language.

The third major concept was integration in which all elements must be balanced and equal. Mondrian advocated paintings without a center and many of his works have no obvious point on which the eye can rest. The edges of his painting are as important as the middle. The horizontal and vertical lines often suggest a stillness and suspension which arises from two mutually opposed forces holding each other in balance. 

The last and fourth major concept was collaboration with other artists, styles, and movements, and in this movement’s case, this would mainly be in architecture. Spinoza’s rational foundation for his theories appealed to many in the architectural world. Although it did not have the same obsession with technology as Constructivism, inspired by functional structures and technologies as it was, neoplasticism shared the same wish that utilitarian function should be absorbed into everyday life. The architects involved in the De Stijl movement recognized that “passions distract us and obscure our intellectual view of the whole,” so these designers achieved the movement’s abstract quality mainly through the continuous simplification and reduction of designs. Ornament and decoration were the first aspects that were eliminated; neoplasticism’s artists and architects viewed ornamentation as something that disguised the structure and function.

From the beginning neoplasticism advocated that its new aesthetic meant that, as Mondrian wrote, “architecture and painting can merge…and can resolve into each other.” He went on to say, “While neoplasticism now has its own intrinsic value, as painting and sculpture, it may be considered as a preparation for a future architecture.”

A number of noted architects created neoplastic buildings. In 1923 Vilmos Huszár and Gerrit Rietveld created their Space-Color-Composition for the Berlin Juryfreie Kunstschau Exhibition, where visitors were guided by color planes and black vertical lines on the wall and floor through two connecting rooms. In 1925, J.J.P. Oud became well-known when the facade he created for the Cafe de Unie in Rotterdam caused controversy with its colored, asymmetric, horizontal and vertical design. And that same year in Paris, the Austrian architect, Frederick Kiesler, created his City in Space installation for the International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. The suspended structure was originally meant to be a set backdrop but evolved into a prototype for a new neoplastic city.

(20a) Space-Color-Composition, Vilmos Huszár and Gerrit Rietveld, Berlin Juryfreie Kunstschau Exhibition, 1923 (1)  (20b) Space-Color-Composition, Vilmos Huszár and Gerrit Rietveld, Berlin Juryfreie Kunstschau Exhibition, 1923 (2)  (20c) Space-Color-Composition, Vilmos Huszár and Gerrit Rietveld, Berlin Juryfreie Kunstschau Exhibition, 1923 (3)

(Space-Color-Composition, Vilmos Huszár and Gerrit Rietveld, Berlin Juryfreie Kunstschau Exhibition, 1923)

Those who were followers of the De Stijl movement tried to keep the philosophy and tenets of the movement in all aspects of their work. The most famous example of neoplastic architecture was the Rietveld-Schröder House built in 1924 in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It further demonstrates the De Stijl movement’s emphasis on relationships that was derived from Spinoza’s philosophy, and was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and lauded by the committee as “an icon of the Modern Movement in architecture… [that] occupies a seminal position in the development of architecture in the modern age.” When Schröder, designed the house, he not only designed for the building itself but also for all the things inside the house. He designed every piece of the house as proof of the De Stijl movement’s way of life.

(21a) Rietveld-Schröder House, Ultrecht, the Netherlands, 1924    (21b) Rietveld-Schröder House (Sketch), Ultrecht, the Netherlands, 1924

(21c) Rietveld-Schröder House, Ultrecht, the Netherlands, 1924       (21d) Rietveld-Schröder House, Ultrecht, the Netherlands, 1924

(Rietveld-Schröder House, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 1924)

Rietveld illustrated a concern for the importance of the whole in his design for the Rietveld-Schröder House. The house is a complete composition or “total work of art.” It emphasizes the important relationship between a person and his dwelling. The house is scaled to human dimensions with all its parts easily accessible to allow a person to function efficiently within it. Moveable partitions within the house gives a person the freedom to alter space in order to fulfill his needs or wishes while creating a relationship that allows him to adapt to his surroundings. 

A “visual independence of parts” exists, but these parts work closely together to compose the whole. All the parts of the house, including the facilities, furniture, and special equipment, are important to the whole, and were all designed in relation to the whole. Moveable partitions in the upper floor function either to connect space or to separate it. These are essential to relate parts to the whole. In order to show the whole in harmony and to reinforce this concept of a total design, Rietveld developed a special relationship between the exterior and interior of the house. The interior of this building is divided by adjustable panels which were used to separate or merge living spaces. On the exterior of the house, seemingly unconnected planes give a clue to the underlying, interior sliding partitions. Other connections to the outside, such as the corner windows and balconies, which allow space to flow from the outside to the inside, further emphasize the wholeness of the design. The house obviously contains a “unity in plurality.”

(22a) Diagram of the Rietveld-Schröder House        (22b) Diagram of the Rietveld-Schröder House         (22c) Diagram of the Rietveld-Schröder House

(Diagram of the Rietveld-Schröder House)

In his design for the Rietveld-Schröder house, Rietveld did not allow emotion to influence his design but rather dealt extensively with practical concerns. He understood that function, especially in a house, is not constant: “Function was an accidental, a causal, need that would change with time and indeed always change in the course of time.” In response to this observation, Rietveld designed a plan that could adapt to changes in function. This architectural style is often, and perhaps more properly, referred to as Rationalism and was the coming together of technological progress and social commitment.

Neoplastic artists viewed interior and furniture design as part of the totality of the creation of space. The most famous example of neoplastic furniture design was the Red and Blue Chair created by Rietveld in 1923 and placed in the Rietveld-Schröder house. His innovative view of furniture design was met with criticism claiming that his chair was uncomfortable. Rietveld responded to his critics, saying, “You are absolutely right. I hurt my ankles on the bits that stick out. But, on the other hand, it’s not really a chair: it’s a manifesto.” For Rietveld, more important than the chair’s function was the way in which the chair structured the space in which it was placed, the chair becoming more of a sculpture or a work of fine art.(23) Gerrit Rietveld, Red Blue Chair, MoMA, 1918-1923

(Gerrit Rietveld, Red Blue Chair, MoMA, 1918-1923)

Although this visual vocabulary was seemingly simple, Mondrian and his colleagues took pains to achieve a dynamic balance in their work. Mondrian, in particular, was motivated by the belief that his art revealed the essential spiritual structure which supports the world as we experience it. By employing asymmetrical structures, geometric lines and simple colors, the De Stijl group’s original proponents believed that they could abstract beyond the limits of conventional art. Although most of these artists agreed that their work should follow a set formula, they often argued over details and never produced a unified aesthetic theory. 

Their work constantly alluded to conflict, resolution and synthesis: a theme borrowed from the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel’s dialectic method. For Hegel, only the whole was true. Every stage or phase or moment was partial, and was therefore partially untrue. Hegel’s grand idea was “totality” which preserved within it each of the ideas or stages that it had overcome or subsumed. Overcoming or subsuming is a developmental process made up of moments, stages, or phases. The totality was the product of that process which preserved all of its moments as elements in a structure, rather than as stages or phases.

Although neoplasticism shared its metaphysics with Suprematism and other burgeoning abstractionist art, one finds a greater belief in harmony and contemplation in Mondrian’s work than in that of those who simply reduced form to a minimum of geometric and abstracted shapes that offered no deeper purpose. However, even Mondrian’s concepts took time to develop and evolve  into the pure state of abstractionism it eventually became. His earliest attempts to express neoplasticism in his paintings manifested themselves as collections of various colored squares and rectangles arranged on a white field. Already, the image surface was completely flattened with no area of the canvas that could be considered the focal point. To him, the squares and rectangles represented the ultimate essence of abstracted form, but the range of colors he was using still seemed too complex, and the hues still too impure. As he matured as an artist and became the primary champion of neoplasticism, only then did he begin to reduce his palette, purify the hues, and add black lines.

(24) Piet Mondrian, Composition in Color A, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, 1917  (25) Piet Mondrian, Composition with Gray and Light Brown, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1918

(⬆︎ Piet Mondrian, Composition in Color A, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, 1917)
(Piet Mondrian, Composition with Gray and Light Brown, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1918 ⬆︎)

As neoplasticists honed in on their efforts to express a perfectly harmonious abstract concept, Mondrian arrived at what he finally felt was a true expression of his thoughts:

“As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form…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.”

By 1920, Mondrian had arrived at what would become known as the iconic aesthetic of neoplasticism. Mondrian himself, as well as the other painters involved in neoplasticism, as well as designers and architects, would continue to copy and expand upon this style, using it to create unique abstract geometric compositions to be used on houses, in fashion, and in advertising as well as fine art. The look of neoplasticism influenced the Bauhaus artists, inspired Constructivism, and even affected artists generations later who were associated with Minimalism.

The essence of neoplasticism was found in its idealism: a pure representation of the human mind. The clearly defined rationale of the style demanded that its paintings could only be abstract. The representational world was chaotic and impure. Harmony could only be found in simplification, paring down, and abstracting the fundamental building blocks of the aesthetic experience. 

While it may seem like neoplasticism placed a burden of extreme limitations on artists, those limitations in fact allowed for a tremendous range of expression.

Rather than exploring the limitless details of the material world, neoplasticism was devised to explore the most essential inner dimensions of the human experience. It dealt not with empirical necessities like trees and hills and human forms, but with rational concepts such as space, movement, order, and patterns. The style was a pure expression of the physical universe according to its simplest functions and abstracted to its most basic state.

Following the development of his mature neoplastic style, Mondrian sought to express a more dynamic rhythm in his abstractions, and in as early as 1919, he began producing his “lozenge” paintings in order to create a more vibrant tension on the picture plane. The “lozenge” paintings are known as such because of their diamond-shape that results from Mondrian using an unconventional orientation for his square canvases by turning them on a ninety-degree angle with a corner at the top. His innovation introduced the diagonal line of the canvas edge into his grid of horizontal and vertical lines. Very often the lines appeared to extend beyond the edges of the canvas as they intersected with the diagonals at varied intervals. Mondrian provided an important precedent for the shaped canvases of the Minimalists in the 1960s. 

(28) Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, PMA, 1926

(Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1926)

Theo Van Doesburg worked with the Bauhaus art school in the 1920’s. It is there when he adopted diagonal lines in his work to the consternation of Mondrian. They argued over the use of these diagonal lines and Mondrian promptly resigned from the De Stijl group in 1924. Unlike Mondrian’s foray into his “lozenge” paintings which were still painted vertically and horizontally when tilting the final canvas ninety-degrees, around 1925 van Doesburg decided to begin including diagonal lines in his work and argued that other artists should follow suit despite the de Stijl movement’s former allegiance to right angles. Van Doesburg called his variation “Elementarism,” because he believed that introducing the diagonal into his compositions increased their dynamic effect. From the outset of its initial publication in 1917, van Doesburg was De Stijl magazine’s, and its movement’s, chief ideologue and facilitator, and he remained so until his death in 1931.

(26) Theo van Doesburg, Contra-Composition of Dissonances, XVI, the Hague, the Netherlnds, 1925 2         Counter-Composition VI 1925 by Theo van Doesburg 1883-1931

(⬆︎ Theo van Doesburg, Contra-Composition of Dissonances, XVI, the Hague, the Netherlands, 1925)
(Theo van Doesburg, Counter-Composition VI, Tate Gallery, London, 1925 ⬆︎

Despite Mondrian’s splitting from the De Stijl group in 1925, neoplasticism continued as a medium and a philosophy, independent of the De Stijl movement. Mondrian would leave the Netherlands at the end of the First World War in 1918 and return to Paris where he would stay for twenty years before ultimately settling in New York City where he would bring new artists into his style and philosophy of painting.

The rise of fascism in France caused Mondrian to leave Paris in 1938 for London, where, full of uncertainty, he left a number of works unfinished but continued to develop his neoplastic vocabulary. He added many more thin black lines to his compositions, creating an overlapping effect, and experimented with color lines. When Paris fell to the German army in 1940, he left Europe altogether settling in New York City where he lived until his death.

(29) Piet Mondrian, Vertical Composition with Blue and White, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1936                            (30) Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, Tate Modern, London, 1937-42

(⬆︎ Piet Mondrian, Vertical Composition with Blue and White, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1936)
(Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, Tate Modern, London, 1937-42 ⬆︎)

In New York, Mondrian felt a renewed sense of energy and vitality; he loved the city, and the works he created there were his most innovative. He began using overlapping thin lines, bright with color and a sense of the city’s liveliness. As an “elder statesman” in a city quickly emerging as the world’s new art capital, Mondrian, neoplasticism, and his concepts and theories had a profound effect and influence on both the development of abstract art and modern architecture and design moving forward in the 20th century. With its roots in philosophy, neoplasticism and the De Stijl movement broke ground for the entire modern art movement. 

(31) Piet Mondrian, New York City I, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, France, 1942     (32) Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, MoMA, 1942.43

(⬆︎Piet Mondrian, New York City I, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, France, 1942)
(Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, MoMA, 1942-43 ⬆︎)

Modernism could be described as one of the most optimistic styles in art and architectural history, drawing from notions of utopia, innovation, and the reimagination of how humans could live, work, and interact. The artists and architects who were involved in the De Stijl movement in the early 20th century were the avant-garde of their time. Their ideas, however, reflected references to the past with its reemphasis on rational thought as opposed to empirical thinking. Spinoza’s philosophy contained important themes or ideas that influenced these people working in a different field from him two centuries after his death. His ideas about the importance of the whole, the importance of relationships rather than things, and the importance of rationalism were carried from their purely theoretical, philosophical, original state into a physical one.

This allusion to the past in formulating a new style may not have been a conscious effort by the De Stijl artists and architects, but rather a display of continuity in Dutch ideas and thinking over time. Instead of reordering past artistic and architectural methods, they allowed a past philosophical viewpoint to create, either knowingly or intuitively, the foundation of ideas they needed to develop a new style. The influence of neoplasticism, extensive in art, architecture, and culture, has often been synonymous with Mondrian. Theoretician, design historian, and practitioner of this philosophy, Stephen Bayley, once said: 

“Mondrian has come to mean Modernism. His name and his work sum up the High Modernist ideal.” 

In its own time, the movement influenced a number of Dutch artists like the modern movement’s Jan Sluijters and Jacoba van Heemskerck, as well as constructivists like the English artist Marlow Moss and German model-painter Carl Buchheister. In addition to painters, during the height if neoplasticism’s influence, modernist architects such as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier incorporated the concepts of the De Stijl movement into their designs. However, architecture has continued to be influenced by the movement as can be seen in Moshe Safdie’s Habitat of 1967, and in the noted architect, Cesar Pelli’s design for his 1984 West Wing expansion of the Modern Museum of Art with what has been called “Mondrianesque skin,” which included an exterior of multicolored glass in a neoplastic grid. In 2014 Hiroshi Sugimoto designed his Glass Tea House, “Mondrian,” shown at the Venice Architecture Biennale, and in 2017, Richard Meier painted the City Hall building in The Hague, the Netherlands, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the De Stijl movement. 

(33) Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mondrian Pavillion Tea House, Venice Biennale, 2014    (34) Richard Meier's City Hall in The Hague, 2017

(⬆︎Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mondrian Pavillion Tea House, Venice Biennale, 2014)
(Richard Meier’s City Hall in The Hague, 2017 ⬆︎)

Since the height of neoplasticism in the early twentieth century, the movement has influenced many later twentieth century artists as seen in the hard edge painting style of Ellsworth Kelly, and the geometric Op Art of Bridget Riley. Donald Judd, the American Minimalist, was influenced by neoplasticism as expressed in his essay, “Some Aspects of Color in General and Black and Red in Particular.” Even Abstract Expressionists, like Ad Reinhardt acknowledged the importance of the movement in his own work.

(35) Ellsworth Kelly, Red Yellow Blue III, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1966

(Ellsworth Kelly, Red Yellow Blue III, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1966)


(Donald Judd, Untitled, MoMA, 1991)

Mondrian’s work would soon seep into popular culture. Fashion designers would begin to feel the influence of neoplasticism in the modern world. Lola Prusac created Hermes bags with neoplastic designs in the 1930s, and fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent debuted his very successful, “Mondrian Collection,” in 1965 where he declared, “The masterpiece of the 20th century is a Mondrian.” Even into the 21st century, Nike produced a tennis shoe with neoplastic designs in 2008, and more recently, Alexander McQueen’s couture house collections reflected the influence of the movement, as seen in its 2014 ballet flats.

(37) Lola Prusac, Monrian Hermes Bag     (38)Yves Saint Laurent, Mondrian Dress, 1965

(⬆︎Lola Prusac, Monrian Hermes Bag, 1930’s)
(Yves Saint Laurent, Mondrian Dress, 1965 ⬆︎)

Given Mondrian’s concern that neoplasticism not become a mere technique or take on a decorative purpose, the abundance of contemporary merchandise from coffee cups to refrigerator magnets featuring neoplastic design is an ironic testimony to the continuing influence of the movement.

“Neo-Plasticism creates harmony through two extremes: the universal and the individual. The former by revelation, the latter by deduction. Art gives visible expression to the evolution of life: the evolution of spirit and – in the reverse direction – that of matter.”

– Piet Mondrian

– Richard Di Via –

* There are various spellings of the term neoplasticism and its variants. I chose to use the spelling adhered to by Marilyn Stokstad in her seminal book, Art History. 



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