THE DESTYLL OR NEO PLASTICISM MOVEMENT OF PIET MONDRIAN (1872-1944) AND THEO VAN DOESBURG(1883-1931) . AN EXPLORATION OF GEOMETRIC, CONSTRUCTIVIST AND ABSTRACT ART FROM 1917-1930 IN HOLLAND , GERMANY AND SOVIET RUSSIA. PART 1

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Theo Van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian were the main founders of Neo Plasticism a revolutionary abstract art movement that emerged between the two World wars. They were both searching for a pure abstract Art form which would appear purified and portray geometric patterns composed of lines and squares.

  As commentators have observed ” Mondrian’s composition with red yellow and blue 1927 is made up of straight black lines and three blocks of primary colour on white ground”. [1].

Commenting further ” The apparent emptiness of Mondrian’s work is the surface of the canvass painted white :it  may be empty of detail but not of substance”. [2].

Mondrian was concerned to strip everything to a basic arrangement that reflected exact proportions as Euclid would have done in his geometric equations. In many ways there is a simplicity to Mondrian’s work. ” The distinctive character- and the decorative character of M0ndrian’s work was gained at the expense of other types of decorativeness “. [3]. Mondrian in his portrayal of art forms is using a Platonic device which represents what he perceived as pure thought. Mondrian disliked Materialism and shied away from the art of the Soviet Constructivists like Vladimir Tatlin and Alexasander Rodchenko. He was a subjective Idealist who tried to construct forms from his own thoughts but unbeknown to Mondrian these forms existed in the real material world. ” By stripping art in this way Mondrian was testing its authenticity , by taking art to a point where reference to objects to the world appears to be completely resisted”. [4].

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Meyer Schapiro a Marxist art critic has commented on their relevance for a materialist outlook.  ” Neo Plasticist work of Mondrian and the later designs of the constructivists and suprematists are apparently influenced in their material aspect as textures and shapes”. [5].

Mondrian always attempted to replicate forms of what he called Freedom and individuality. These of course could not be realised as Materialist Philosophers have shown that thoughts are the reflection of a material reality.”  Mondrian argued that Modern painting was marked by a quest for freedom from individuality and that by expressing the universal as opposed to the Individual neo -plasticism was the plastic expression of the contemporary age”. [6].

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These early paintings of Mondrian shows his very exemplary depiction of real material objects before he progressed to his pure Neo Plasticist work. ” Mondrian previously a relatively conventional Landscape painter had begun to be influenced by symbolist ideas at the same time as he first encountered French post impressionist painting around 1908″. [7].

Unlike other Symbolist painters like Paul Gaugin and Wassily Kandinsky Mondrian developed his art out and from Cubist designs inherited from Cezanne,  Picasso and Braque. He was to take a different rout from the one that Kandinsky particularly developed into.” The anti materialist ideas of course remained important in Mondrian’s drive towards a purified art but the technical means to it were provided by Cubism’s flattening of forms and its shallow pictorial space”.[8].

Theo Van Doesburg  painting on his own was drawn to Mondrian’s art and wrote about Composition No 10 in black and white .” Spiritually this work is more important than all the others.it conceives the impression of peace”. [9]. Mondrian in 1917 composed another Black and white composition.” In 1917 was another black and white composition. The difference this time was that the horizontal and vertical bars were not derived from anything in nature. They constituted so to speak elements in a new pictorial grammar from which subsequent compositions would be built up”. [10].

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Mondrian continued to perfect his exact drawing of lines and perpendiculars with much working over of the lines and the application of colour to make these perfect compositions. ” No v1/composition no 11 is a complex and much worked painting. It contains no fewer than 28 rectangles of widely different dimensions and areas”. [11].

Some commentators have suggested that Mondrian is moving away from Neo Plasticism , this is open to question. I would argue that Mondrian in all his work remained a subjective Idealist .” The first fully neo-plastic painting appeared in 1922.the important point is that Mondrian is moving away from the idealism characteristic of so much early abstraction and taking up a position where the painting is seen as a made thing”. [12].

Mondrian continually works around lines with the background of a white square. ” He worked in a series , exploring the possibilities of compositional types such as asymmetrical compositions built around a white square”. [13].

In Part on of my exploration of Neo Plasticism and the Destyll movement I have concentrated on Mondrian. In Part two I will explore Van Doesburg in more detail.

Here Van Doesburg comments on his view of Neo Plasticism which would in the end lead to a split between the two artists. I will explore this fully in Part 2.

” I assume that the difference between composition (assembling) and construction (synopsis concentration) is an aspect of our time that cannot be underestimated”.  [14].

Commenting further Van Doesburg says ” What we demand of is explicitness and this demand can never be fulfilled if artists make use of individual means”. [15].

It is at this time that Van Doesburg is growing closer to the Soviet Constructivists where forms and shapes can be used as social means and here Van Doesburg suggests a division between painting and Sculpture.” Without the sharp division (sculpture from Painting ,painting from architecture) it is impossible to create order out of the chaos or to become acquainted with the elemental means of formation”. [16].

This so called division was to lead to a separation between Van Doesburg and Mondrian. It has been emphased that Van Doesburg was preoccupied as early as 1917 with the problem of the fourth dimension. However both Mondrian and Van Doesburg were soon to realise that this new plasticism could only be achieved only in Architectural form”. [17].

In Part 1 I have started  to show the revolution art of Mondrian’s abstraction which between the wars showed the influences of art against war and a resolution of a peaceful dimension created through mind and spirit, which meant a rejection of Materialism. In Part 2 I will show how Van Doesburg would be drawn to the materialist art of the Soviet Constructivists and how he broke with Mondrian over the direction of Neo Plasticism or Architectural constructivism.

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FOOTNOTES

  1. REALISM , RATIONALISM SURREALISM SURREALISM ART BETWEEN THE WARS  PG 152-58
  2. DITTO  PG 152
  3. DITTO PG 153
  4. DITTO  PG 153
  5. DITTO   PG 154
  6. DITTO PG 154
  7. ART OF THE AVANT GARDES THE IDEA OF AN ABSTRACT ART PG 249
  8. DITTO PG 249
  9. DITTO  PG 249
  10. DITTO  PG 252
  11. DITTO PG  254-5
  12. DITTO  PG 255
  13.  DITTO PG 256
  14.  CONSTRUCTIVISM THE TRADITION STEPHEN BANN PG 91
  15.  DITTO  PG 92
  16.   DITTO  PG 93
  17.   DITTO PG 115

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