‘De Stijl’ movement: squares, lines… and barking like dogs

‘De Stijl’ movement: squares, lines… and barking like dogs

From furniture to typefaces, painting to poetry, the trailblazing ‘De Stijl’ movement set out to redesign the world. Its members bickered constantly, but agreed on one thing: no curves allowed.

By Martin Gayford
09 Feb 2010

Picture this. It is the second decade of a new century. The world is battered by terrible political conflict, social tension and economic failure. There is a deep and widespread feeling that the way human beings live their lives needs to change. This is a description not of the situation in 2010, but the zeitgeist almost a century ago, during the First World War.

It was then that a small group of Dutch artists and architects came together, united by an ambition to redesign the world on purer, better lines – and those lines would always be straight ones. They are the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern. The most celebrated figure among them was Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), one of the towering figures in 20th-century art: supreme master of coloured rectangles and straight lines. His paintings are included, but the exhibition centres around the less familiar figure of Theo van Doesburg, who gives his name to the show: Van Doesburg & The International Avant-Garde.

He was the founder and editor of a magazine, De Stijl, which gave name to the movement that formed around it. Like most such publications, De Stijl – founded in 1917 and appearing until 1928 – had a tiny circulation, but its ambitions were huge. The aim was to transform the world. Assuredly the abstract paintings, angular furniture and pared down buildings that De Stijl advocated did not make mankind less selfishly individualistic, but they did eventually alter the look of the modern environment.

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