○ Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-1943), by Piet Mondrian,
○ Contra-Composition with Dissonance XVI (1925), by Theo van
○ Rietveld Schröder House (1924), by Gerrit Rietveld,
○ Red and Blue Chair (1923) by Gerrit Rietveld,
Mostly Located At:
○ Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Holland,
○ Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Holland,
○ The Mondriaan House, Amsterdam, Holland.
This new movement ultimately emerges with Mondrian’s painting Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921). With this work, a new way of perceiving the universe and its forces, in a purely abstract manner, reaching for a utopian ideal of total harmony, across all arts. Applying an elemental pictorial vocabulary, Mondrian created a new abstraction concept, crucial in the evolution of Modern Art.
The “Nieuwe Beelding”, or Neoplasticism, extracted its motivation from the ideas of the theosophist M. H. J. Schoenmaeker (1875-1944). This new movement searched for a new universal language establishing strong relationships between painting, sculpture, design and architecture, borrowing its name from the theosophist theory. Schoenmaeker based his Neoplatonic philosophy on the purity of geometry, claiming that the true reality of the universe was based on a mathematical structure, manipulated by geometrical forms. This movement officially emerges with Piet Mondrian’s work Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921). This work translates all of the fundamental ideals of Neoplasticism – structural format and elementary use of primary colours -, resulting in a new way of perceiving the universe and its forces, in a purely abstract manner, reaching for an utopian ideal of total harmony, across all arts. Applying an elemental pictorial vocabulary, Mondrian (1872-1944) created a new abstraction concept, crucial in the evolution of Modern Art, and established himself as the leading figure in both the artists order of the De Stijl and the movement of Neoplasticism.
Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921) Piet Mondrian
The magazine and new alliance of creators, De Stijl (“the style”), founded in 1917, set the precedents for the birth of the new plastic order of collective, international and global style (instead of an individual take on art, as it was previously done). Based on theosophy, upon Mondrian’s contact with M. H. J. Schoenmaeker, a very well known Theosophist, who believed in the promotion of spiritual evolution through the use of the term ‘New Plastic’ (opposites as an expression of hidden unity, union of the real/ideal, tangible/intangible). This new movement of Neoplasticism emerges ultimately with Mondrian’s painting mentioned before, when the artist finally reached the perfect balance between the restrained elements, which he had been working on for about a decade. While the artist attempted several plays on the geometrical composition, with different colours, beyond the primary ones, in this one, Mondrian finally understood the power of the primordial elements and the equilibrium between opposing forces, which led to the founding arguments of the new Neoplastic order. In this manner, Neoplasticism embraced the two-dimensional plane of the canvas and the purity of geometrical abstraction, rejecting all forms of figurative and illusionistic art of the past.
Founded in 1917, in Holland, by Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) -with the help of Mondrian -, as a magazine and alliance of artists, designers and architects, it had the utmost goal of achieving peace and harmony through the creation of a new art. This new aesthetic translated into geometric abstraction – the reduction and purification of art to its fundamentals (colour, line and shape) -, and was set on the ideal of the equivalency between pictorial and spiritual progress, which would result in a renewed society; art would no longer be necessary once it was completely integrated in life. The group’s aesthetic (not bound only to painting) set the precedents for the Neoplastic movement, with the same principles that would found the movement, which can be seen as the “style” of the movement, as its translation suggests.
De Stijl, Vol. 1, no. 1, Delft, October 1917 (detail), by Theo van Doesburg and Vilmos Huszár.
The composition is limited to an elemental and simple image, where only straight lines, solid planes of primary and achromatic colours and the simplest of forms (rectangles and squares) are shown, abstractedly extracted from the perceived reality. This geometrical abstraction is the pinnacle of non-objective art, which exalts the foundations of plasticity and the dimensional planes of the arts as a medium itself (depending if it is applied to painting and graphic design – two-dimensions – or applied to sculpture and architecture – three-dimensions). While painting is the foundation of the movement, its ideals see in architecture the full potential of art, where one can inhabit a three-dimensional version of a neoplastic painting.
Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black (1929) by Piet Mondrian.
The reduction of art to its basics is seen as a means to renew modern society, and should be transversal across all human experiences. The distilled representation of reality, translated in the simplification of subjects into three basic visual elements, marks, for the creators, the evolution of abstraction and art, which leads to an ordered and harmonious society, and thus to humanity’s progress (coinciding with the modern progression of the world).
Neoplasticism marks the birth of Geometric Abstractionism, with ideals much deeper than the simplistic viewpoints of decorative and indigineous art. This is one of the most important avant-garde movements of the 20th century, paving the way for Hard-edge painting (1959-1970s), Color Field Painting (1940s-1960s), Minimalism (1960s), modern architecture, especially Bauhaus (1919-1933), and contemporary Fashion Design. This might be one of the most echoed aesthetics across contemporary pop culture, even referenced in computer software.
The neoplastic aesthetic is marked by the limited use of visual elements: primary colours (red, blue and yellow), non-colours or neutral colours (black and grey or white), rectilinear shapes (rectangles and squares) and thick black lines. These aspects are transposed from the two-dimensional painting and graphic design to the three-dimensional sculpture, design and architecture.
Piet Mondrian’s association with M.H.J. Schoenmaeker, a known Theosophist, exposed him to new concepts of perceiving reality. The artist carried the belief in the promotion of spiritual evolution through the use of the term ‘New Plastic’.Theosophy is a form of Western esotericism or religion founded in the late 19th century, in the United States, which believes that the perception of the universe is an outward reflection of the divine absolute, that governs all of existence. Schoenmaeker’s Neoplatonic philosophy, specifically, explains the opposites as an expression of a hidden unity, a union of the real and the ideal, the tangible and intangible, based on the pure geometrical form. Mondrian, inspired by Schoenmaekers’ publications The New Image of the World (1915) and Principles of Plastic Mathematics (1916), also strove to reach the ultimate balance between the two opposing forces that rule the universe and the human experience, the rational (the mathematical approach) and the mystical (the asymmetrical approach), in search for the mystical essence of the universe, an ideal that was adopted by his fellow creators.
Endowed of formal purity, the reduction of art to its basics is considered as the medium which carries the renewal of modern society within itself. The distilled representation of reality through the three basic visual elements and the asymmetrical compositions, strive to reach a perfect harmony of visual elements as a translation of the underlying and invisible structure of the universe. The dynamic balance is further accentuated by the primary colours, which serve as the funding stones that constitute the “cosmic building”.
Both Doesburg and Mondrian fundemented their visual theories on several philosophies beyond Schoenmaeker, such as Plato and Hegel, especially about dualism (objective and subjective, abstraction and nature, symmetry and asymmetry, colour and non-colour). In the first manifesto, published in the De Stijl journal, they delineated their principles about dualism, and their stand against individualism.
Manifesto I by Theo van Doesburg, from De Stijl, vol. II, nr. 1 (November 1918): p. 4.
Developed under neoplastic ideas by Theo van Doesburg, around 1925, its visual ideals strove away from its “father” and instead insisted on a more dynamic and energetic form of geometric art. After 1923, after his association with the Bauhaus, van Doesburg searched for more powerful and energetic forms of art, in a way to respond to the downfalls of World War I, and began to change his views about the correlation between painting and architecture. This, along with his introduction of diagonals to painting, caused major conflicts between him and Mondrian, which would ultimately end their friendship, when Mondrian left the De Stijl in 1925. Van Doesburg, instead of focusing on the balance between the strict horizontal and vertical lines, and between the positive and the negative, considered that the “Balanced relationship is not the final result” and asserted that Elementarism ruled through the application of diagonals in order to extinguish the notion of such limited opposites, by stating that it was “neither left nor right, neither symmetry, nor statics, nor the exclusively Horizontal-Vertical.”
Counter Composition V (1924), by Theo van Doesburg.
This new idea was firstly revealed in his Manifesto of Elementarism published in the issues of 1926-1927 of De Stijl. This aesthetic results in the aggression of many of van Doesburg influences, in particular the ideas of the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) of merging painting and architecture. Van Doesburg echoes the Constructivism ideals in his essay Towards a Collective Construction (1924): “We have established the true place of colour in architecture and we declare that painting without architectural construction…has no further reason for existence.” The artist combined all of these ideas of unifying painting and architecture in his design for the dance hall of Cafe L’Aubette, created between 1926 and 1927, which counted with the collaborations of Dadaists Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) and Jean Arp (1886-1966).
Ciné-dancing (“cinema-dance hall”; also known as Grande Salle or Ciné-bal) in L’Aubette (1926-1927), Place Kleber Strasbourg, by Theo van Doesburg. (CC BY 2.0, by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)
In his painting works, which he named “Counter-Compositions,” van Doesburg introduces diagonal lines to his compositions, achieving the desired dramatics he so wanted to achieve. His new way of perceiving art influenced few of his fellow creators from De Stijl, which practice Elementarism for a time, as did the painter Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart (1889-1962), the artist Bart van der Leck (1876-1958), the sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), and the architects J.J.P. Oud (1890-1963) and Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964). In 1931, De Stijl and Elementarism saw their end upon the death of Theo van Doesburg.
Contra-Composition with Dissonance XVI (1925) by Theo van Doesburg. (CC BY 3.0, by Sailko)
The two-dimensional compositions have specific formal qualities that add to its restrained and rational nature. The sense of depth is completely eliminated (no perspective, no distinction of planes), in order for the three visual elements (colors, shapes and lines) to prevail. The rectilinear forms are defined by a grid of thick black vertical and horizontal lines, painted with solid fields of primary colour planes, and, despite its fundamental geometrical essence, these are mainly asymmetrical compositions. The solid colour planes of primary colours, outlined by thick black lines, which are seen as coloured planes themselves, suggests something entirely different from Cubism. There is also some level of rhythm and dynamic tension created by the different shape sizes and orientations in primary directions(horizontal and vertical). This is accompanied by a feeling of both instability and balance, conveyed by the mathematical distribution of weights and counterweights and of mismatched rectangles, making even the most stable of geometric figures, the square, seem precarious, and at the same time balanced by colours. Ultimately, the neoplastic paintings show the reflection of the balance between the desire for universal artistic purity and the deep personal philosophies which founded the movement.
Composition VII: The Three Graces (1917) by Theo van Doesburg.
The visual principles were also very widely applied to typography and graphic design, as it was echoed in the jmagazine De Stijl, for example in the first cover by Vilmos Huszár (1884-1960). Theo van Doesburg designed a new alphabet to be used in his posters, signage and magazine covers, enclosing each letter inside a square shape. Van Doesburg designed several posters, like the one for the Section d’Or exhibition in 1920, and all of Café l’Aubette’s signage. Van Doesburg with the collaboration of László Moholy-Nagy, designed the cover for Bauhaus Bucher 6 (1925), a true fine example of the neoplastic aesthetic. Bart van der Leck also contributed with many posters throughout his life, for example a poster for Delf Salad Oil Factories (1919).
Design for a poster for the Section d’Or exhibition (1920) by Theo van Doesburg.
Cover of the Bauhaus Bucher 6 (Basic concepts of the new creative art). Book cover (1925) – graphic design – Van Doesburg and László Moholy-Nagy.
Design for a Directory of the Aubette in Strasbourg (1927) by Theo van Doesburg.
Printed matter for the opening of Cafe-Restaurant Aubette in Strasbourg (1928) by Theo van Doesburg.
Transposing those ideals to the tri-dimensional realm, seen as the ultimate goal, while painting was considered as an intermediate medium, designers, sculptors and architects searched for the “perfect environment”.
Sculpture: Mondrian saw sculpture as a natural progression from painting to architecture (the full resolution of Neoplasticism). Many artists who began their career as Neoplastic painters transitioned to the three-dimensionality of sculpture. Painter and sculptor Georges Vantongerloo extracted the use of primary colours, the asymmetric assembly and the dualism between the vertical and the horizontal, from painting. He transposed those principles into his sculptures, for example in Composition from the Ovoid (1918) and Two Plastics (c. 1919), exploring both colour and geometrical volume. The painter, photographer, typographer and sculptor César Domela (1900-1992) also based on these pictoric principles, visible on Neoplastic Relief #10 (1930), and later, his works show a clear reference to Elementarism and made it his own, by changing the angles of the diagonals. Harry Holtzman (1912-1987), an American painter who dealt with reliefs as well, who, unlike the others, did not belong to the De Stijl group, borrowed his visual language from Neoplastic painting, which can be seen in examples such as Sculpture I (1940) and Sculpture (1941-42), where the artist applies primary colour to fabric that is attached to masonite, assembled in the form of a parallelepiped.
Two Plastics (c. 1919) by Georges Vantongerloo.
Interior and Furniture Design:Interior and furniture design are considered by Neoplasticists as a fundamental part of designing a space; they turned the architectural space into a habitable Neoplastic painting, to the very last detail, including ashtrays. Perhaps the most iconic of Neoplastic designs is the famous Red and Blue Chair (1923) designed by Gerrit Rietvel, to be inside his Rietveld-Schröder house. However, the original design was received with criticism, as many talked about how uncomfortable it was, to which he responded: “You are absolutely right. I hurt my ankles on the bits that stick out. But, on the other hand, it’s not really a chair: it’s a manifesto.” Rietveld prioritized how the chair was structured in space and how it integrated with the surroundings which it inhabited, more than its actual function, pushing it closer to the sculptural concept, an art piece, instead of a simple piece of furniture.
Red and Blue Chair (1923) by Gerrit Rietveld. (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Dingdongchathan)
Architecture: Since the birth of the movement the notion that “architecture and painting can merge…and can resolve into each other”, as written by Mondrian, is well set in its foundation. Mondrian himself dealt with the three-dimensionality by designing a backdrop for The Ephemeral is Eternal (1926) play, by Miche Seuphor (1901-1999), and some other projects. Several architects followed the neoplastic aesthetic, such as Vilmos Huszár, Gerrit Rietveld, J.J.P. Oud and Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965). Huszár and Rietveld collaborated on the design for the Berlin Juryfreie Kunstschau Exhibition, Space-Color-Composition (1923), where colour planes and black lines running up the walls and down the floor guided the visitors throughout the exhibition rooms.
Model for the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of Gerrit Rietveld and Vilmos Huszàr (1923) Colored photo, by Theo van Doesburg. Published in L’Architecture Vivante (1924), by Paul Overy (1997). The style. London: Thames and Hudson, pp. 94-96.
In 1924, Gerrit Rietveld designed his famous Rietveld-Schröder House, the most well known icon of neoplastic architecture, considered since 2000 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described by the committee as “an icon of the Modern Movement in architecture… [that] occupies a seminal position in the development of architecture in the modern age.” A year later after the construction of the famous house, the facade for the Cafe de Unie (1925), in Rotterdam, granted fame to J.J.P. Oud, causing some debate around its neoplastic language. The Austrian architect, Frederick Kiesler created an installation in that same year called City in Space (1925), to be featured in the International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. Regarding this installation, designed initially to be a backdrop, the suspended structure transformed into a model for a new Neoplastic city.
Facade for the Cafe de Unie (1925) by J.J.P. Oud, Rotterdam. (CC BY-SA 3.0, by F. Eveleens)
Rietveld Schröder House (1924), by Gerrit Rietveld, Utrecht, The Netherlands. (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Andreas 2309)
Furthermore, Theo van Doesburg believed that stained-glass was an obvious form of transcribing painting characteristics into architecture, considering his artistic philosophy, as he wrote:“Architecture as a construction method…synthesizes every function of human life.” One fine example is his Stained-Glass Composition III (1917), commissioned by Openbare Lagere School, in Sint Anthoniepolder, Maasdam. Van Doesburg cooperated many times with fellow creators in projects (in spite the fact that most were never finished) such as a Workers’ Housing Complex project (1920-1923) in Rotterdam, by Oud. Perhaps van Doesburg’s biggest accomplishment was his design for Cafe L’Aubette (1926-1927), in collaboration with Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber- Arp, fully embodying his Elementarism point of view.
Stained-Glass Composition III (1917) by Theo van Doesburg.
Neoplasticism, a movement that became synonymous with Mondrian, its doctrinaire and most dedicated advocate, greatly influenced not only art and architecture, it has had a deep impact on culture to this day. “Mondrian has come to mean Modernism. His name and his work sum up the High Modernist ideal,” that is a fact referred to by design historian, Stephen Bayley. Despite the disagreement between Mondrian and van Doesburg, their aesthetic creation of aggregating art and life, painting, sculpture and architecture, through their use of primary colours enclosed in geometrical shapes, continues to echo in our time. Having in mind the movements ultimate goal of becoming so much more than its decorative aspect, or a simple technique, to become something intrinsic in people’s lives, one might say it reach its purpose when one sees neoplastic designs scattered across contemporary merchandising, from your sneakers, to your refrigerator magnets, it has survived the test of time in the frivolous world of modern and contemporary culture.
Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-1943), by Piet Mondrian.
The movement was firstly influenced by Cubism, which can be pinned down to when Mondrian moved to Paris in 1912, and saw an exhibition of the analytic cubists, Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1963). Although his work was greatly influenced their work, it was Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906) Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887) who inspired him to abstract from the reality of a tree to create more geometrical designs of an abstracted reality, starting in The Gray Tree (1912), and carrying it through his multiple compositions, transposed to his fellow creators designs. The Russian Constructivist, El Lissitzky (1890-1941) also played a crucial role in deepening Theo van Doesburg ideas around geometric abstraction and its combination with architecture, when promoting De Stijl at the Bauhaus between 1921 and 1923, inspiring him to develop his subtheory of Elementarism.
In painting, its language echoes in the works of the English artist Marlow Moss (1889-1958), the German Carl Buchheister (1890-1964), and set the precedents for the following American movements of Hard-Edge painting, visible in Ellworth Kelly’s (1923-2015) works, Op Art, as seen in the aesthetic of Bridget Riley (1931-), and in the Abstract Expressionism of Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967), who recognized its significance in his own work.
Red Yellow Blue White and Black II (1953) by Ellsworth Kelly.
Bolt of Colour (2017-2019) by Bridget Riley (Installation view, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas). (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Colmandavid)
In sculpture, Neoplasticism was a clear influence on the work of the Minimalist Donald Judd (1928-1994), something that was celebrated in his essay, “Some Aspects of Color in General and Black and Red in Particular” (1993). In fashion design, the neoplastic language was translated into clothing on various occasions, for example Lola Prusac’s (1895-1985) Mondrian’s Hermes bags (1930s), Yves Saint Laurent’s (1936-2008) debut “Mondrian Collection” (1965) – who asserted that “The masterpiece of the 20th century is a Mondrian” -, Nike’s sneakers with neoplastic designs (2008), and Alexander McQueen’s (1969-2010) house couture designs.
Untitled (1991) by Donald Judd. (CC BY-SA 4.0, 2019 Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: John Wronn)
Dress from the “Mondrian Collection” (1965) Yves Saint Laurent, wool with silk lining (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). (CC BY-SA 4.0, Yves Saint Laurent (photographed by Gray Geezer))
And finally, in architecture, the movement inspired modernist architects, being referenced in designs of Walter Gropius (1883-1969), such as the Bauhaus building itself (1925-1926), Le Cobursier (1887-1965), something visible in the Palace of Justice (1956), Moshe Safdie (1938-), in his Habitat 67 (1967), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), in the Neue Nationalgalerie (1968) for example, Cesar Pelli (1926-2019), in “Mondrian Skin” (1984) – the west wing expansion of MoMA -, and Hiroshi Sugimoto (1948-), in his glass tea house entitled “Mondrian” – showcased at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Bauhaus building (1925-1926) by Walter Gropius, in Dessau, Germany. (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Spyrosdrakopoulos)
Palace of Justice (1956) by Le Corbusier, in Chandigarh, India. (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Sanyam Bahga)
Habitat 67 (1967) by Moshe Safdie, Montreal. (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Concierge.2C)
Neue Nationalgalerie (1968), by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in Berlin, Germany. (CC BY-SA 2.0 de, by Harald Kliems)
“Mondrianesque skin” (1984) by Cesar Pelli (West Wing expansion of the Modern Museum of Art). (CC BY 2.0, by hibino)
Neoplasticism has influenced a number of subsequent art movements, aesthetic of design and architecture, from the Bauhaus, to Minimalism and Color Field Painting, and has greatly influenced contemporary culture, and has been used and referenced in many fields of creation.
It is estimated that between 1600 and 1700 about 5 million paintings were created in the Dutch context alone.
“Neoplasticism creates harmony through two extremes: the universal and the individual. The former by revelation, the latter by deduction. Art gives visible expression to the evolution of life: the evolution of spirit and – in the reverse direction – that of matter.” Piet Mondrian
“To be white, red, yellow, or black is to be a painter. Today it is not sufficient for a painter to think of colour; he should be colour, feed on colour and transform himself into painting. That is the essential thing.” Theo van Doesburg
“Painting today is architectural because in itself and by its own means it serves the same concept as architecture – space and the plane – and thus expresses ‘the same thing’ but in a different way.” Bart van der Leck
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition No. III, with red, blue, yellow and black Date: 1929 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 50 x 50.2 cm Location: Private Collection
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Broadway Boogie-Woogie Date: 1942-1943 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 127 x 127 cm Location: MoMa, New York, USA
Artist: Piet Mondrian Title: Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue Date: 1921 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 95.7 x 95.1 cm Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Holland
Artist: Theo van Doesburg Title: Contra-Composition with Dissonance XVI Date: 1925 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 180 x 100 cm Location: Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Holland
(CC BY 3.0, by Sailko)
Artist: Theo van Doesburg Title: Composition XVII Date: 1919 Medium: Tempera and oil on canvas Size: 50 x 50.5 cm Location: Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, Holland
Artist: Theo van Doesburg Title: Counter Composition V Date: 1924 Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 100 x 100 cm Location: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Holland
Artist: Gerrit Rietveld Title: Red and Blue Chair Date: 1923 Medium: Painted wood Size: unknown Location: Auckland Museum, New Zealand Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Dingdongchathan
Artist: Theo van Doesburg and László Moholy-Nagy Title: Cover of the Bauhaus Bucher 6 Date: 1925 Medium: Print Size: unknown Location: Basic concepts of the new creative art – Book cover
Artist: Theo van Doesburg Title: Design for a poster for the Section d’Or exhibition Date: 1920 Medium: India ink on transparent paper mounted on panel Size: 65 x 62.5 cm Location: Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, Rijswijk, Holland
Artist: Theo van Doesburg Title: Model for the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of Gerrit Rietveld and Vilmos Huszàr Date: 1923 Medium: Photograph Size: unknown Publication: The style. London: Thames and Hudson, pp. 94-96
Artist: Gerrit Rietveld Title: Rietveld Schröder House Date: 1924 Medium: Concrete, brick, and plaster, wood, steel girders Size: unknown Location: Utrecht, Holland Image Credits: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Andreas 2309)