Like any good art movement, movie, film or music, the history of De Stijl is steeped in political upheaval from the earliest portion of the twentieth century.
Prior to World War I there was an open exchange in Europe that allowed for artists to move between countries, take in whatever was happening, stay a while and then perhaps head home and spread around new ideas.
With the onset of the first World War, boarder crossing became more problematic. Specifically for the Dutch, as it remained aloof and apolitical during the entire affair, its citizenry weren’t allowed to travel abroad. So while the first decade of the twentieth century granted the Netherlands and its artist’s entrance into new concepts gracing the art world, subsequent to the outbreak of war, painters, designers and others were left to simmer in their own juices as it were.
Of course, earlier attempts at abstraction, specifically, Impressionism and Cubism had already made their collective marks on the Dutch art cognoscenti. Armed with these ideas as well as a near Germanic appreciation for order, Theo Van Doesberg began publishing a journal called De Stijl espousing his beliefs on art and design. His publication pushed past the end of the war and wasn’t quite dead until 1931, just before another problem on the continent.
Related in Van Doesberg’s writings was an a sort of appreciation of abstraction, but a reductive one which found any image or concept pared down to geometric shapes – squares, rectangles – and primary colors – with black and white always serving as a base. And while there wasn’t anything particularly representational about these works, De Stijl embraced a sort of functionality that was easily transferable to design and architecture. Because of this, Van Doesberg served as faculty at the Bahaus for a short period.
What’s interesting about all of this is the fact that the basis of this conception of art doesn’t seem artistic as much as mathematical, an anti-art. That could be as a response to the ornate excesses of Art Nouveau with this movement acting as a counter-balance, a reaction to it.
Either way, Piet Mondrian probably counts as the movement’s most famous adherent, although his best known works come from a period after the dissolution of the proper De Stilj magazine. One can still find his designs being used for clothing, decorative arts and basically anything given over to simplicity of design. Whether or not these works still seem as radical as they once were perceived to be isn’t the point. But if you like ordered objects, you’ll dig this.