In Depth

The Netherlands celebrates 100 years of De Stijl

Curator Hans Janssen on the Dutch art movement's origins and enduring influence ahead of a major retrospective on its founders in The Hague

Piet Mondrian is among the best-known artists involved in the De Stijl movement. Home to the world's greatest collections of both Mondrian and De Stijl artworks, the Gemeentemuseum will be at the forefront of festivities in 2017 to mark the movement's 100th anniversary.

Among other events, the museum will take the unprecedented and unique step of presenting its entire Mondrian collection – no fewer than 300 works – in a single, great retrospective. This also includes works on loan from several museums around the world. I particularly like Mondrian's Composition in Black and Grey from the Philadelphia Art Museum - the first time it has been on loan outside the US.

In the early 1900s, the art world in the Netherlands was very much oriented towards the past, and a young generation of artists wanted to break away. The weight of tradition created a pressure cooker, so to speak, and it took almost five years for the new movement to flourish. When a small group of artists, spearheaded by Mondrian and Bart van der Leck, finally succeeded in exploring new frontiers, what they found was remarkable: an art that was as direct as life itself, modern and future-oriented.

I would say that De Stijl was exactly "on time", although only a few people understood this new art movement, let alone liked it. So for that reason one could say it was ahead of its time.

Mondrian was a well-trained landscape painter. In 1912 he went to Paris to develop his own work in a formal sense, focusing on the possibilities of line and colour to unveil beauty without the intervening disturbance of representation. When he met Van Der Leck in the small village of Laren at the beginning of 1916, he had already discovered possibilities to bring the image forward from the plane, as he called it, which meant the composition was no longer a window onto another world behind the frame, but that the composition was something that projected forward into the space in which the onlooker perceived the work. Illusion was not referring to something that was seen in the past, but something that happened in the "now" and was defining the future, much the same as dance or music projects into the future (takes anticipation of the moments ahead). He did this by composing his paintings out of restricted lines and colour fields, in what could roughly be described as primary colours.

Meanwhile, Van Der Leck had trained as a stained-glass worker and explored the possibilities of painting with light. Flat colour fields and heavy contours were the trade of his representational art when he met Mondrian. At that time he had already explored direct working of colours in space, searching for an "open image", as he called it, unbound and transformative, directly influencing the perception of space. Architecture had to be made into an illusionistic world.

The compositions of Mondrian are, in general, instantly recognisable and for that reason they are often regarded as a kind of marketing tool or branding. But something completely different, almost the opposite, is what is hiding behind the effort of the artist. What that is can only be discerned when one is prepared to concentrate, to make time and to lose oneself in front of the paintings themselves. In the Netherlands and all over the world, there is no element in modern culture that does not lead back to what these two artists did.

HANS JENSSEN is an expert on Mondrian and curator for modern art at large at Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; gemeentemuseum.nl.

Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck: Inventing a New Art runs from 11 February – 21 May as part of the year-long Mondrian to Dutch Design: 100 years of De Stijl programme. See holland.com for more information.

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