Specialist Odette van Ginkel on the De Stijl artists led by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesberg, whose strict geometric style shaped Dutch Modernism
De Stijl, or The Style, was an art movement born from the desire to connect existing forms of art and design — its tenets inspiring a flourishing school of practice. The movement was a response to a host of creative practitioners making work in the early 20th century who sought to explore the expression of abstraction. The champions of De Stijl were greatly influenced by architecture and urban planning, and saw the stark forms of right angles and crossed lines, magnified by bold colour, as a way to dig into what has proved to be a bottomless well of compositional and conceptual creativity.
The name has its roots in the writings of German architect Gottfried Sempler, but was galvanised by a periodical published by Theo van Doesburg and a host of others in The Netherlands in 1917 that expressed the Dutch interpretation of ideas put forward by German Expressionism, French Cubism and Italian Futurism. The movement gained and maintained influence through the initially scandalous exhibitions of work by Piet Mondrian — who coined the term Neo-Plasticism (for new plastic art) to describe his eventually revered compositions — as well as the ambassadorial work of van Doesburg, who brought his concepts to the Bauhaus in the early 1920s. The last issue of De Stijl was published in 1932 as a memorial to van Doesburg, who had died a year earlier.
1. Theo van Doesburg
The founder of the movement, Theo van Doesburg, was a Dutch architect, designer, and writer, as well as a painter. He is represented by a stained-glass window he created for a housing block in Rotterdam in 1918. Although this is one of many he designed for his frequent collaborator, architect J. J. P. Oud, ‘only a few of these have survived’, says Odette van Ginkel. ‘The furniture for the model houses is by Gerrit Rietveld,’ she notes, referring to the Dutch designer of the famed and oft-copied Red Blue chair.
Above: Theo van Doesburg, Stained Glass Compostion VIII, 1918-19. Stained glass. This work was offered alongside those below in our Modern Art sale on 9 June 2015 at Christie’s in Amsterdam and sold for €18,750
2. Marlow Moss
Marlow Moss, White, Yellow, and Black, 1947. Oil and pencil on canvas. This work work was sold for €223,500 on 9 June 2015
Related to De Stijl is British artist Marlow Moss, who worked in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. Her work was clearly influenced by Piet Mondrian and his French disciple Jean Gorin, who rigorously adhered to his master’s exploration of geometric compositions and use of primary colours. Little-known even among those well-versed in 20th-century Modern work, Moss was celebrated in an exhibition at Tate Britain in 2014. ‘All her early work was destroyed,’ says van Ginkel, ‘and her abstracts are seldom seen on the market.’
3. Bart van der Leck
Bart van der Leck, Untitled, 1937. Glazed terracotta plate. This work was sold for €17,500 on 9 June 2015
Another De Stijl practitioner, Bart van der Leck worked with stained glass before studying painting. His initial figurative work was influenced by both Art Nouveau and Dutch Impressionsim, but he made a radical stylistic shift after meeting Mondrian in 1916. He went on to help found the movement, but then distanced himself from it, returning briefly to narrative forms. His later craft practice, however, clearly evinces his belief in the style.
4. Carel Willink
Carel Willink, Untitled, 1923. Watercolour, pencil and collage on paper. This work was sold for €27,500 on 9 June 2015
Although he’s best known as a Surrealist, the early geometric abstractions of Dutch artist Carel Willink are likened to the Constructivist work of German artist Kurt Schwitters, who was influenced by Theo van Doesburg. ‘The early abstract works he made when living in Berlin are rare and interesting,’ says van Ginkel.
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