In 1917 Theo van Doesburg, a brilliant 34-year-old artist who had recently been demobilized following a two-year army stint on neutral Holland's border with Belgium, rounded up a group of like-minded Dutch artists and founded a tiny avant-garde magazine called "De Stijl"--The Style.
Many little magazines with ambitions just as grand were published in Europe in the aftermath of World War I and yet "De Stijl" is the one we remember best, in part simply because of the catchy, dead-serious presumption of its title (van Doesburg wisely had changed his mind about naming it "The Straight Line").
Mostly, though, in America we remember "De Stijl" because we can connect the name with a pristine vision: severe planes of solid color (red, yellow, blue, black, white or shades of gray) aligned at right angles. Piet Mondrian, the greatest painter associated with the group and a towering figure in 20th-century art, is largely responsible for this emphatic, omnipresent after-image.
The great service of the huge De Stijl exhibition that opens today at the Hirshhorn Museum is that it vastly extends our knowledge of the aims and achievements of this small band of artists, architects and designers. Mondrian holds his ground but Mondrian was above all a visionary painter. The peripatetic van Doesburg was the tireless locomotive that pulled De Stijl along and, as the exhibition makes abundantly clear, he pulled it in many directions at the same time.
Thus among its some 250 objects "De Stijl, 1917-1931: Visions of Utopia," which originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and which will, appropriately, travel to the Netherlands after its 11-week stay in Washington, contains more architectural plans, building models, typographical displays and pieces of furniture than it does paintings.
In the Hirshhorn installation we look first upon Mondrian's great diamond-shaped painting of 1925 loaned by the National Gallery of Art, and then, turning around, gaze upon Gerrit Rietveld's "Red-Blue Chair" of 1917, a stunning icon that is less a chair than an idea: beautiful, pure, abstract. The show continues in more or less chronological fashion.
Led by Mondrian's example, van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck and Vilmos Huszar gradually built an abstract art from subjects as different as trees, card players and donkeys. For a brief period just before 1920 their paintings looked amazingly alike. Except for Rietveld's Schroder House of 1924, van Doesburg was involved in most of the movement's architectural experiments--the most notable are the studies of color planes floating in space that he based upon models built by Cornelis van Eesteren in 1923, and the most entertaining is the Cafe Aubette, a spellbinding period piece he designed with Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp in the mid-'20s.
The architectural models, ranging from table-top size to full-scale reproductions, are highlights of the exhibition, bringing home the contrasting visionary-real world impulses of the De Stijl movement as nothing else possibly could. There is no mistaking that in the real world of architecture, the art that in van Doesburg's mind encompassed all others, De Stijl was largely a failure, and not simply because very few of its buildings actually got built before the movement expired with the onslaught of the great depression and Van Doesburg's death in 1931.
The deeper reasons can be found in the utopian aspirations of the movement itself. "Europe is dead," van Doesburg wrote in 1921. "Concentration and property, spiritual and material individualism were the basis of old Europe. It has imprisoned itself in that . . . It is going to rack and ruin." But in the same breath he could add, "A new Europe has already begun to grow within us . . . It does not exist in words, but in visual deeds and inner strength. With that the new world scheme is being formed."
This blissful confidence in the dawn of a new age in which the human personality would be transformed stands in remarkable contrast to the social, political and economic chaos that followed World War I. Nonetheless, the attitude was widely and fervently shared by progressive artists of the time. The Futurists had called the tune even before the war and, afterwards, the Russian constructivists and the artists gathering at the Bauhaus in Germany during the early 1920s believed somehow that art was a way station on the road to a new order, a new freedom for mankind.
What distinguishes the De Stijl movement from the others, what is apparent in the insistence upon horizontal-vertical divisions and primary colors as the basic building blocks of art, is the passionate intensity of the belief. De Stijl (pronounced "stale") was the purest of the pure.
In this the De Stijl artists were very puritan, very Dutch. Despite the fact that De Stijl esthetics grew out of Cubism, as demonstrated most cohesively in the transformation of Mondrian's art, it is impossible to disagree with art historian Hans L. C. Jaffe when he argues that "it is not going too far to assert that this art could not have originated in any other country."
Jaffe argues persuasively that in their passionate drive for abstraction the De Stijl artists were playing out an iconoclastic impulse that had its roots in Dutch Calvinism. The absolutist nature of their efforts in all fields, the simultaneous yearning for clarity and for mystical, universal expression, is evident in the work and in the words. "Deep behind all change is the unchangeable, which is of all ages, and which reveals itself as pure creative beauty," Mondrian wrote.
This impassioned state of mind was behind the whole, wide-ranging De Stijl enterprise. Arguably no other movement has had more influence upon the look of 20th-century culture--the rectilinear grid has become nearly omnipresent, evident in buildings, light fixtures, wall paper, advertisements and (of course) floor coverings (those old linoleum squares were direct rip-offs of Mondrian's art)--but compared to the original inspiration all of this is no more than a sham, a gloss.
As we know, utopia did not arrive. But the De Stijl artists left some magnificent signposts--paintings, for the most part--of universal harmony.
The exhibition was supported by grants from the national arts and humanities endowments, Champion International Corporation and the government of the Netherlands. It continues at the Hirshhorn through June 27.