Having lived in Holland for 12 years, I was under the impression that I had a fair grasp on Dutch art history. I was familiar with names such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Mondrian from a young age; I even have a distinct memory of making a collage in the style of Piet Mondrian during my primary education. We had learned about his preference to use primary colours in his works: red, yellow and blue.
Last month, I was back in the Netherlands, revisiting memories and growing nostalgic over my town of birth. While I was there, I decided to visit the Gemeente Museum, where they have a continuous Piet Mondrian & De Stijl exhibit. I thought that this would help enhance what I already know on the artist and his style. Much to my surprise, I walked out of the exhibit thinking, ‘Wow, I knew almost absolutely nothing about this guy!’
Piet Mondrian was just one artist among several who were united under De Stijl, a school of art founded in the Netherlands circa 1917. The theory and practice of De Stijl group shook the foundations of modern art on an international scale.
As I previously mentioned, Piet Mondrian embraced painting in black, white, primary colours, and straight lines. His early works, which for the most part reflected reality as he perceived it, transformed gradually and became progressively abstract. What influenced Mondrian the most was one of many avant-garde movements: cubism. Cubism was primarily characterized by the use of geometric shapes and a monochromatic use of colour. Although Mondrian’s early work is realistic, over time he becomes inspired by the cubist style and adopts his own style.
I was also surprised to discover that there was another founding father of De Stijl movement: an artist named Theo van Doesburg. Doesburg was a man of many talents, practicing poetry, painting and architecture. Unlike Mondrian who’s version of this avant-garde movement was called neoplasticism, Doesburg preferred calling this movement elementarism, as it emphasized linear and geometric shapes with subtle shifts in tone and angle. This different perception of the style is perhaps what led to Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg’s split in 1924. Doesburg believed that the power and importance of abstraction lay in the harmony which could be achieved by it. He also felt that despite elementarism being a simple and minimal approach, on a spiritual and moral level it is uplifting. This is particularly visible in his work, The Dancers.
It’s funny how you can live in a place for so long and think you know about its cultural background, but then years later you can turn back and realize that there are many gaps to fill in.