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de Stijl

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Dutch periodical founded by Theo Van Doesburg in 1917 and published in Leiden until 1932; the name was also applied from the 1920s to a distinctive movement and to the group of artists associated with it. The periodical’s subtitle, Maandblad voor de beeldende vakken (Monthly Journal of the Expressive Professions), indicates the range of artists to which it was appealing, and van Doesburg’s intention was that it be a platform for all those who were concerned with a new art: painters, sculptors, architects, urban planners, typographers, interior designers and decoratve artists, musicians, poets and dramatists. The search for a nieuwe beelding (new imagery) was characterized by the elementary components of the primary colours, flat, rectangular areas and only straight, horizontal and vertical lines. Former ideals of beauty had to be relinquished in favour of a new consciousness to represent the spirit of the times.

It has been assumed that the periodical’s name De stijl was taken from the writings of the German architect Gottfried Semper, which were drawn upon frequently by H. P. Berlage and others. It must also be said, however, that from 1910 many young artists had argued that a new style had to be found. The term nieuwe beelding was frequently used at this time. Van Doesburg considered that the Moderne kunstkring led by Cornelis Kikkert (1882–1965) in 1910 was the early stage of international modernism in the Netherlands, and De stijl was founded to continue this tendency. Before World War I works of Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism, the newest tendencies in Germany, France and Italy respectively, had been exhibited in the Netherlands; De stijl was established in deliberate contrast with these movements. Although most of those involved with De stijl felt a connection with Cubism, they also believed that the movement had become obscured by more fashionable aesthetic principles, and that its original tenets could be realized through De stijl and its associated movement.

The periodical’s first three years (1917–20) were fundamentally distinct from the subsequent years. These first 36 issues had a standard format (245×185 mm or 260×195 mm), and most were printed on grey-white paper, sometimes with a green or grey cover. The motif on the cover was taken from a woodcut by vilmos Huszár. Illustrations were scarce: occasionally a colour illustration was provided as a separate insert; advertisements were carried only on the inside of the cover pages. The exact print run is not known but is estimated at several hundred. With few exceptions, each issue was in Dutch, and circulation was virtually exclusively in the Netherlands; the Italian periodical Valori plastici made reference to it only in 1919. The contents included editorials by van Doesburg, who was also frequently the author of polemical articles. Many contributions were by architects, including J. J. P. Oud, jan Wils, Gerrit Rietveld and robert van ’t Hoff, the last-named being responsible for the periodical’s financing. Piet Mondrian was, however, responsible for around 70% of the contents of these early issues. His series on ‘De nieuwe beelding in de schilderkunst’ was followed by one on ‘Natuurlijke en abstracte realiteit’. De stijl gave Mondrian the opportunity to publish the aesthetic theories that he had attempted to articulate from 1909; the later impression that he and De stijl were synonymous results from his huge contribution to these early issues.

Probably influenced by Futurism, van Doesburg discovered the manifesto as a means of succinct dissemination of his ideas and those of his associates. The first of these appeared in the first issue of 1918 as a call to all those who wished to launch a new art and culture to unite. It was published in Dutch, French, German and English and was signed by van Doesburg, Mondrian, Huszár, Georges Vantongerloo, van ’t Hoff, Wils and the poet Antony Kok. The second manifesto, published in April 1920 in Dutch, French and German, focused on ‘word painting’, and it was signed by Kok, van Doesburg and Mondrian; van Doesburg was the most outspoken representative of the new ‘visual’ poetry, and in the next issue he published his first poems under the pseudonym I. K. Bonset.

The periodical changed completely in its fourth year. It took on a ‘landscape’ format (190×255 mm or 210×260 mm) and completely new typography and logo. The name ‘De stijl’ was printed in black over the red letters ‘nb’ (nieuwe beelding). The new design by Mondrian and van Doesburg became De stijl’s international face. Even the sub-title changed, to Internationaal maandblad voor nieuwe kunst, wetenschap en kultuur (International Monthly for New Art, Science and Culture). The word ‘international’ was emphasized by the inclusion of the places of publication (Leiden, Antwerp, Paris, Rome). When visiting Paris in June 1919 Mondrian realized that De stijl’s ideas were virtually unknown beyond the Netherlands. He had the ambitious idea of outlining the main points in personal statements, and became convinced that his aesthetic theories would only be disseminated if published in French. With the help of the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, a collection of these statements was published under the title of Le Néo-plasticisme (see Neo-plasticism). Mondrian urged van Doesburg to leave the Netherlands to publicize De stijl, which by a great effort on the latter’s part (travelling, giving lectures, classes, etc) was achieved within a few years.

Changes to De stijl were also apparent in its content. It became entirely the instrument of van Doesburg, reflecting his activities and ideas. Through his self-publicity he was also able to publish in other (often French) periodicals. Dada also began to play a part in his ideas, particularly in relation to words in visual compositions. In several appearances in Dutch towns in 1923, with his companion the pianist Nelly van Doesburg, Huszár and Kurt Schwitters, he confronted the public in person with his ideas, having organized appearances in Germany a few months previously. Having adopted a second pseudonym of Aldo Camini to publicize his other literary activities, he followed Schwitters’s example with Merz (see Schwitters, Kurt) and founded a separate periodical for these interests, Mécano, edited by ‘I. K. Bonset and Theo van Doesburg’, with the subtitle of Internationaal tijdschrift voor geestelijke hygiene, mechanische esthetiek en neo-Dadaism (International Periodical for Spiritual Hygiene, Mechanized Aesthetics and Neo-Dadaism); four issues appeared between 1922 and 1923.

Single issues of De stijl were often dedicated to a particular subject; the first of these (1921) was an overview of I. K. Bonset’s poetry, the second a report on the Constructivist International, an artists’ congress held in Cologne in August 1922. Several months later in 1922 an issue appeared with a Dutch translation of El Lissitzky’s typographical poem for children ‘Pro dva kvadrata’ (Of two squares). On the fifth anniversary of the periodical’s foundation van Doesburg collected the most important articles or excerpts from them in an Anthologie, 1917–1922. The tenth anniversary of De stijl was celebrated with an exceptional cover design, intended to mark the periodical’s influence. On the front cover was a grey portrait photograph of van Doesburg, with a laudatory text by Sigfried Giedion printed in blue; on the back cover, also in blue, the development of De stijl was symbolized by a grey tinted photograph of a globe, with ‘Neo-plasticism’, the starting point of De stijl, printed horizontally, and ‘Elementarism’ printed diagonally across it.

The popularization and acceptance of De stijl’s ideas were largely due to van Doesburg’s ideas on architecture and the role of primary colours. Van Doesburg’s visit to the Weimar Bauhaus in 1922 was crucial for the dissemination of his ideas. His meeting in Berlin with the young architect cornelis van Eesteren was also significant, particularly in his ideas regarding axonometry. In 1923 van Doesburg organized an exhibition at Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris of Les Architectes du groupe De Stijl; the periodical published the accompanying manifesto ‘Vers une construction collective’. The show prompted an intensive debate on De stijl in Parisian architectural circles. Some months later various objects were displayed at a group exhibition at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, which were the work of previous and current contributors to the periodical. This was the only time in van Doesburg’s lifetime that special issues of such French periodicals as L’Architecture vivante and L’Art et l’architecture aujourd’hui were devoted to De stijl, but again, mainly to its architectural theories. For van Doesburg this meant not only recognition but also new commissions. The most important of these was the redecoration of the Café de l’Aubette in Strasbourg (1928), where he collaborated with Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The introduction of Elementarism, in which the diagonal played an essential role, was by 1924 responsible for a definite break with Neo-plasticism and with its greatest exponent, Mondrian. The last issue of De stijl issued by van Doesburg was dedicated to his Elementarist work at the Café de l’Aubette. The publication of such competing periodicals as I 10 and Cercle et carré forced van Doesburg to evolve new ideas about the visual arts and architecture, and in 1931 he brought together a group of like-minded people, who published Art concret. The final issue of De stijl (1932) was a memorial to van Doesburg, who had died in 1931.

H. Henkels
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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