In 2017 it will be exactly 100 years since the launch of the Dutch art and design movement known as ‘De Stijl’. The Netherlands is set to mark the centenary with a year-long programme of events under the title Mondrian to Dutch Design. 100 years of De Stijl. As home both of the world’s greatest Mondrian collection and of one of its major De Stijl collections, the Gemeentemuseum will be at the heart of the celebrations in 2017. No fewer than three separate exhibitions will be held at the museum to pay appropriate tribute to the group’s revolutionary achievements. The event kicks off on 11 February with an exhibition about the genesis of a new kind of art that has forever changed the world we live in.
De Stijl’s iconic red, yellow and blue palette is still in vogue. You see it in today’s fashion and magazine design, on packaging, in advertisement and in video clips. But who actually invented the movement’s distinctive signature style? This spring, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag unravels the history of De Stijl’s radical new art. Key to it was the friendship and reciprocal influence between the movement’s two foremost painters: Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck.
Meeting and collaboration
The two artists met during the First World War in the Dutch village of Laren (then an artists’ colony). The resulting friendship was to produce the fundamental philosophy of De Stijl. Van der Leck’s use of primary colours enchanted Mondrian, while Mondrian himself was the great pioneer of radical abstraction.
The two men had very different backgrounds. Van der Leck had worked since the age of 15 in various stained glass workshops in and around Utrecht before enrolling at the State School of Decorative Arts in Amsterdam at the age of 23. Mondrian had started by studying at home for his qualifications to teach drawing and then gone to Amsterdam to attend the State Academy of Fine Arts from the age of 20. He became a landscape painter, but in 1912, while working in Paris, changes direction radically by adopting abstractionism. In the summer of 1914, Mondrian went to the Netherlands to visit his family. A week later, the First World War broke out. After a couple of months in Domburg, he settled in Laren. In April 1916, Van der Leck and his family also moved to Laren and from then on the two artists saw each other regularly. They recognized a common interest in exploring new avenues in art. Both were using geometrical shapes, flat planes of colour and a simplified colour palette. And both saw this new visual idiom as representing an inextinguishable belief in progress.
New kind of art
Van der Leck and Mondrian shared a strong conviction that the modern world needed a new kind of art. Van der Leck’s ideas were based on his experience as a stained glass artist and his admiration of the formal simplification found in Egyptian art. Mondrian had quickly distinguished himself with his landscapes, always looking for an underlying essence that led him ever further in the direction of abstraction.
Mondrian was immediately excited by Van der Leck’s use of colour, while Van der Leck found inspiration in Mondrian’s quest for abstraction. Following Mondrian’s example, Van der Leck began calling his paintings ‘compositions’ and found the courage to abandon his figurative approach.
Abstraction and ‘doorbeelding’
Mondrian discovered the key to abstraction in the Cubism he encountered in Paris. During his first two years there, he concentrated mainly on reworking earlier figurative paintings in a Cubist style. Van der Leck employed a different approach: a method he called ‘doorbeelding’ (an untranslatable term approximating to ‘decomposition’). Starting with a figurative sketch – for example, of a person or an animal – he gradually reduced it to geometrical shapes. But, working independently of each other, both arrived at a method of producing abstract art.
Mondrian and Van der Leck agreed on some things but argued about others. They soon proved to have conflicting ideas about the use of their geometrical idiom. Whereas Van der Leck wanted to keep his geometrical compositions as open as possible, Mondrian quickly began to use lines to link the various shapes together. In the summer of 1919, when Mondrian returned to Paris, communication ceased.
Despite its brevity, the collaboration between Mondrian and Van der Leck was to be of inestimable value to the new art movement launched with Theo van Doesburg’s publication of his new De Stijl magazine in 1917. Their experiments with abstraction and colour prepared the way for De Stijl and the invention of the now world-famous red, yellow and blue colour combination.
2017: 100 years of De Stijl
This will be the first exhibition ever to examine the exact nature and lasting influence of the relationship between Mondrian and Van der Leck. Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck. Inventing a new art will include items on loan from institutions like MoMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and will be the first of three major exhibitions to be held at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the course of the Mondrian to Dutch Design event. The De Stijl centenary will be celebrated throughout 2017 all over the Netherlands.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue and a new children’s picture book by Joost Swarte.
In 2017, we celebrate 100 years of designing the future. That vision began with the foundation of De Stijl in 1917, featuring characteristics that are still visible in contemporary Dutch Design. To celebrate this milestone, NBTC Holland Marketing and their partners declared 2017 the Year of Mondrian to Dutch Design. This is marked by the introduction of the storyline, Mondrian to Dutch Design, which guides visitors to interesting locations throughout the Netherlands. All these locations are connected to works of art from the era of De Stijl and modern design. Dutch museums, cultural heritage sites, and events focus on the work of leading designers, opening the doors of their studios, and honouring artists such as Mondrian, Rietveld, Van der Leck and Van Doesburg.