Into the Avant-Garde: De Stijl

I’m currently trading David Hopkins’ Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction, alongside several books coming up for review, including Vincenzo Bilof’s The Violators and Philip Fracassi’s Shiloh. I’m doing this because I am woefully ignorant of the Dada and Surrealism movements. I figured if I’m going to run a blog about weird art, I better change this, and quickly.

Academically, I can only speak from my experience in the English department, but Dada and Surrealism was virtually absent from the curriculum when I was earning my BA. I don’t know if this holds true for other fine arts departments. Either way, I am documenting my Dada and Surrealism education here, appended with an invitation to readers who wish to join the journey.

In short, I plan to write a quick overview of movements, artists, and works I am unfamiliar with as I come across them in Hopkins’ book. I often find the best way to master a subject is to write about it, and I hope readers might find something of worth in my amateurish ramblings.

De Stijl


Theo van Doesburg, 1923

De Stijl, or “The Syle” in Dutch, aslo known as “Neoplasticism,” is cited by Hopkins as an early manifestation of avant-garde art, and one of Dada and Surrealism’s forerunner movements. The movement was founded in Leiden in 1917.

What I’m not going to do is summarize Wikipedia. I have read the Wikipedia article myself, and advise you to do so if you want a historical overview. In these posts, I intend to formulate a response to these movements. Silent Motorist Media, after all, was never intended to offer readers mere data. Here we revel in the arts. To revel is to celebrate in a Bacchanalian spirit of intoxication. Nothing is further from us in spirit than Wikipedia (although Wikipedia is awesome for its own purposes).

Neoplasticism utilizes a stripped-down pallette of primary colors, non-colors, and basic geometrical shapes to reconnect the audience with the abstract forms of experience. In this way, it seems to imply an emphasis of a mathematical primacy, similarly articulated in Alain Badiou’s philosophy. As avant-garde art tends to do, Neoplasticism seeks to seize art from the bourgeoisie and return it to the realm of universal experience in a modern world. This may seem strange, since a highly abstracted style only counterintuitively relates to everyday life.

Composition No. 10

Piet Mondrian, 1942

I recognized Neoplasticism immediately as “the fucking squares,” as I called the movement before reading about it. I’ve seen Mondrians in museums dozens of times, and never really could connect with them. I’ve always felt that the style pushes the distance between viewer and painting to the furthest extremes. I can now appreciate the intention behind Neoplasticism, but am still unable to find it aesthetically moving.

I am no art critic by any means. I am much more at home with literature than with music or painting. I am, however, moved by art in my capacity as a viewer, and am able to identify elements that elevate encounters with works of art to something beyond interactions with everyday objects. Neoplasticism fails to capture the quality of this transcendence, in my opinion. It seems, however, to do something important: it challenges the interprative mandate traditionally centered around the arts.

Neoplasticist literature would be immensely boring. It would contain little content in favor of an excess of form. I suspect it would look something like the following paragraph:

A preceds B, and B preceds C. D follows C, and is followed by E, etc.

Here, the formal elements of grammar are emphasized by emptying these sentences of content. An argument could be made that the very concept of meaning in art is radically challenged by literature of this sort. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call this subversion interesting, whether it’s important or not.

Neoplasticism is the beginning of a movement towards artistic radicalization that would eventually birth Dada and Surrealism. Does that make it “weird?” My amateur response is that “weird” art must meet the audience half way. This does not mean that it must embrace popular conceptions of content and form. On the contrary, weird art rejects popular digestibility and challenges the culture of instant gratification. However, it also resists explanation. This does not mean that it rejects meaning; rather, it turns meaning into an interrogative, leaving it open to a certain mystery that is anything but meaningless. Weird art turns the apparatus of meaning against the audience and presents it as a gap. This gap is an invitation, the halfway point at which the audience meets the work in a moment of awakened curiosity.

Neoplasticism cannot inspire curiosity. It fails to communicate. This should not erase its historical importance as an idea. It is an initial, invaluable, but ultimately failed thrust at the weird.

Architectural Analysis

Theo van Doesburg, 1923

Disagree? Please let me know in the comments! Again, this is an initial reaction to a movement I’m unfamiliar with in a field far from my own comfort zone. I am always happy to learn from the opinions of others.

© 2018 Silent Motorist Media

2 thoughts on “Into the Avant-Garde: De Stijl

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.