De Stijl, also known as neoplasticism, meaning ‘the style’ in Dutch, was an artistic movement centred in Holland, lasting from 1917 until 1931. It can be said that it was both an architectural movement as well as an Avant Garde movement. De Stijl is described as being about the utopian perception of spiritual harmony, an advocation of pure abstraction. The difference between this form of abstraction compared to the likes of cubism, being that they are very simple visual compositions; there was a reduction to just the essentials of form and colour. These works consisted primarily of horizontal and vertical lines, basic shapes like squares and rectangles as well as primary colours including black and white.
De Stijl was founded by the collection of several artists and architects with the most popular among them being Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg, with both embodying of the neoplasticism movement. These artists focused on the nature of form and colour, with De Stijl representing the essence of meaning within the world we live in, the most basic attributes of the world which they believed represented the true nature of reality itself as apposed to what our eyes tell us. De Stijl artist never framed their paintings because of the belief that these paintings are supposed to be continuous extensions of the world, they were supposed to be an intimate part of the surroundings.
Piet Mondrian was one of the most influential artists of De Stijl. Born in 1872, Mondrian began his career creating landscape compositions but with influence from the change that Japanoism introduced to the art world in Europe and artists such as Van Gogh, he began creating works that were based on symbolism and the philosophies of nature in its raw form. It wasn’t until Mondrian moved to France in 1921 that cubism became prevalent within his work and he began producing cubist paintings. His most popular pieces are geometric compositions included squares and rectangles of different colours and even broke real life inspirations down to their most simplified version such as his work that includes a cow. You can see step by step how the form of the cow is simplified with each step until it just becomes what looks like rectangles randomly placed.
This is one of the examples of art that I was most taken back by when I began researching and learning about abstract pieces. Things that once appeared to be randomly pieced together to create a piece of work is actually meticulously planed and laid out to follow rules that still make it appealing to the eye. Learning things like this changed my perspective on many pieces that artists have created over the years and I had a new found appreciation for works that visually look quite simple to create but actually require a lot of skill to pull of and I look out for things like this in everyday life in graphic designs and posters on billboards.
Art Movements Born Out of Revolution
At the turn of the 20th century, Russia was ruled by the house of Romanov, a dynasty that ruled Russia for over 400 years. Social changes at the start of the 20th century meant a turbulent time for Russia, so much so that it ended the Zaarist autocratic government. Russia’s involvement in World War 1 indirectly lead to revolution. Its troops didn’t receive the supplies needed to face a well organised enemy armed with new industrialised weapons and this decimated the Russian army causing the soldiers to revolt.
By the end of World War 1, the art scene had changed forever. Affected by the experience of war, artists were also excited for the end of the corrupt old order with a new, fairer society taking its place. Many of these artists were devoted to creating propaganda for a new communist Russia.
October 1917, a radical Marxist socialist, Vladimir Lenin, rallied the masses together by the use of the slogan ‘Peace! Land! Bread!’ and began the soviet revolution as well as the union of the socialist republic (also known as the USSR). Lenin’s goal was to remove the upper and middle class from their political standing by terror and replace them with the worker class, giving them a leadership role within society.
When these worker parties took control, arts for the wealthier middle class had been rejected and the need for art as utility for working class became prevalent. This new movement was politically inspired by the aesthetic of supremacism. The works of Kasimir Malevich later inspired constructivism, another abstract movement that focused on applying geometric design principles to all areas of life.
In 1915, Kasimir Malevich pioneered an abstract style named Supermatism. It was an art movement that rejected imitation of natural shapes in favour of geometric forms as Malevich wanted to ‘free art from the burden of the object.’ He apposed materialism, believing that the only true reality is in the spiritual life and that feeling was best expressed through abstract form.
Malevich created the most radical symbol of modern art exploring the theme of non objective art, a black square on a white background. This could be interpreted as the black square representing feelings and the white background being the void beyond this feeling.
Malevich uses the traditional illusion of depth by overlapping flat geometric shapes and objects. Inspired by cubism and futurism found in Europe. Suprematism stands at the heart of architecture, typography, furniture and graphic design over 100 years later.
El Lissitzky was a leader in constructivism and was heavily influenced by Kasimir Malevich’s abstract pieces but instead applied the mathematical structure of architecture to his paintings. He called these paintings ‘Prouns’ which in Russian stand for ‘towards a new art.’
In comparison to Kasimir Malevich’s ‘Airplane Flying’ from above, Lissitzky’s ‘Proun 19D 1920’ has an added 3rd dimension. You can see in this example below that he was experimenting with different opacities and used different mediums such as pencil, varnish and tempera.
El Lissitzky was a socialist and believed that he should use his works to reach a mass audience so he began creating propaganda posters and lithographic prints for his political party. In a lithograph titled ‘beat the whites with a red wedge’ 1919, you can see a red triangle representing the Red Army’s emblem (Bolshevik Army) breaks through a white circle representing the old order.
The typography used are slogans in Russian and are placed in a such a way that reinforce the dynamic movement within the piece. This is how Russian artists of the time used graphic elements as political symbols as they were designed for an illiterate public, symbols replaced text. This would be the main form of communication on billboards and posters for the working class people of this time. Other than the use of propaganda, Lissitzky spread his idea through book design, with images now being read like words and typography used just to be seen. His 61 page book also featured index tabs on the most right side with graphic elements indicating what each page consisted of. This book was named ‘For The Voice’ as it was intended to be read aloud.
‘Our March’ is one such poem in his book accompanied with graphical elements that reads ‘beat your drums on the squares of the riots turned read with the blood of revolution.’ The square on the left signifies the blood stained read square and the right page illustrates the soldiers marching and waving their red and black flags. This probably my favourite piece from Lissitzky as you can feel like motion of the soldiers marching in 2 by 2 and the bold red square is visually heavy hitting. He uses mixed fonts in various weights, with diagonal and horizontal placements.
The Bauhaus was a school in Germany that operated from 1919 to 1933 which combined the crafts and fine arts and stood for ‘house of construction’ or ‘school of building.’ It was one of the most influential design movements in history and is famed for its modernist designs. Founded by architect Walter Gropius, who had started an entirely new type of school at the time, where students would be trained to be masters of their discipline through the experimentation of their creativity and collaboration of peers. The main philosophy of the Bauhaus was creating an simplistic, functional as well as an aesthetic modern life for everyone through art and design, architecture, interior design. The Bauhaus had a profound influence on many of these art and design fields of the future, particularly typography, graphic design, industrial design and architecture.
Germanys defeat in the second World War lead to a new radical experimentation in the arts and crafts field. At the time, many of the political views of the German people had came from the outcome of the Russian Revolution and their new ability to experiment culturally, with the likes of constructivism. For this reason, Gropuis had stated that the Bauhaus was to be apolitical and so created its own style known as International Style. The Bauhaus had become infamous for its simplified forms and the relation between functionality and beauty in the design and this was due to the the influence of modernism, which the school become synonymous with. Many creations that came from the Bauhaus played a huge part in paving the way for the design of the future and can still be found a century later.
Marcel Breur was one of the first and youngest students to attend the Bauhaus and worked in the carpentry shop. One of the most popular creations to come from the Bauhaus was Breurs Wassily Chair which was a revolutionary because of the methods of manufacturing it and materials used to make it. The chair was light due to the bent tubular steel, which was only available because a German company had perfected seamless steel tubing, when previously it would have a been made welded seam which would break once the tube was bent. Production of the Wassily chair ended during WW2.
When researching De Stijl and abstraction artists I realised how these artists could assemble pieces that look like shapes or forms were thrown onto a page but in fact they followed rules and were thoughtfully placed. This gave me the idea try and see what it would actually look like if the geometric shapes were just thrown onto a page or canvas, which would be inspired by El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich’s work. I began by taking 2 sheets of paper, black and yellow, as these were the only colours I had other than white. I cut triangles, squares, rectangles and circles from the paper into different sizes then lay an A2 page on the floor. I gathered all the shapes in a random bundle in my hand and began dropping them on the page while standing. I found that this cause the paper to fly out in all directions and land everywhere except the page so I decided it was better to get closer to the page and drop them while kneeling. Below are the various outcomes from doing this.
I decided to try a new technique when dropping the paper. I gathered the paper by shape and dropped them in layers.
I began with triangles.
Then added the long rectangle strips.
The next layer was circles.
Finally, the bigger rectangles and squares.
I enjoyed coming up with this little side project as it broke up some of my work that was mostly screen based. It was fun to not have to follow any rules or parameters when creating these pieces. Many of the outcomes do just appear to be shapes thrown on the page and next time I would use less shapes so the page didn’t look so crowded. I would also have liked to have some lettering to throw in there or different thickness of paper to had a different element.