Neo-Plasticism (1917 onwards)
Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-4),
In fine art, the term "neo-plasticism" refers to the austere, geometrical style of concrete art developed by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) just after the First World War. The word is a meaningless translation of the complex Dutch phrase nieuwe beelding, first used by the writer Matthieu Schoenmaekers in his book Het Nieuwe Wereldbeeld (The New Image of the World), and re-used by Mondrian in his theoretical essay De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst, before he adopted the French translation Neo-Plasticisme from which the English term is taken. A better translation is simply "New Art" - mainly because it described Mondrian's vision of an ideal, pure form of art and design, which he felt the post-war circumstances demanded. It was to be a pure type of abstract art that adhered to strict rules of composition. To start with, it was promoted by De Stijl - the mouthpiece of the avant-garde art movement of the same name - edited by Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) and read by abstract painters, designers, abstract sculptors and architects in Holland, and across Europe. Although no more than a loose association, the De Stijl movement included such artists as the Dutch painter Bart van der Leck (1876-1958), the Hungarian-born graphic artist Vilmos Huszar (18841960), the Belgian sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), the furniture designer Gerrit Rieveld (1888-1964) and the German painter Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart (1899-1962), as well as the architects Robert van 't Hoff (18871979) and J.J.P. Oud (18901963).
A man whose art was closely tied to his personal beliefs - namely, Theosophy, a religious philosophical movement launched by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91) - Piet Mondrian sought to establish a universal art form, stripped of all naturalism and other inessentials, in order to attain the universal truths propounded by the Theosophical movement. In his essay De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst, he wrote that when painting he wanted to come as close as possible to the truth until he reached the foundation of things. Through the use of non-objective art, based on fundamental structural elements - in particular, horizontal and vertical lines - together with his own intuition, he intended to create a form of art, as strong as it was true.
In addition to his belief in Theosophy, Mondrian's invention of Neo-Plasticism was also influenced by his attraction to Cubism - notably the 1911 Moderne Kunstkring exhibition of Cubism in Amsterdam - his interest in Constructivism and Suprematism, as well as his wartime contact with the Utrecht painter Bart van der Leck at the Laren artist's colony. Van der Leck's insistence on using only primary colours was a major influence on Mondrian. Both these influences reflected a general dissatisfaction with pre-war artistic values - in particular, the decorative excesses of styles like Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Fauvism - and a growing faith in the power of science and its machines, which - it was felt - could best be represented by abstract paintings and sculptures. Indeed, one might regard Neo-Plasticism as the pro-art sister of Dada the anti-art movement. Both rejected the pre-war status quo and sought answers in new creative formulas.
Mondrian's new art was based upon fundamental principles, as follows:
Only geometric shapes may be used;
ignore natural form and colour.
In short, the rules of Neo-Plasticism were designed to produce pure, uncompromising, heavily structured abstraction, in accordance with Mondrian's view that vertical and horizontal patterns were inherently harmonious.
Mondrian launched his new art in his long essay Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art (De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst), which was published in twelve instalments in De Stijl magazine (1917-18). Thereafter, all members of the De Stijl movement who signed the movement's manifesto were committed to the theory of Neo-Plasticism. However, tensions soon emerged between the dogmatic Mondrian and other members of the group, including Van Doesburg. From 1921 onwards, the latter began to react against Mondrian's absolutism and about 1924 he launched his own watered-down form of Neo-Plasticism, known as Elementarism. This abandoned the insistence on strict horizontals and verticals, introduced diagonals and acute angles as well as inclined lines. However, Van Doesburg's heretical stand greatly offended Mondrian who made no more contributions to De Stijl after 1924 and eventually left the group altogether.
Mondrian continued to develop his new art idiom throughout the 1920s and 30s. For example, he started to paint his lines right up to the edges of the canvas, and he also began replacing coloured forms with more areas of white. These tendencies are especially noticeable in his "lozenge" works of the mid-1920s. These are regular square-shaped canvases tilted 45-degrees, to give them a diamond shape. Gradually, lines began to supercede forms: in the 1930s, for instance, he started using thinner lines, and also began to introduce more double lines - a tactic which he believed endowed his works with greater dynamism.
In September 1938 Mondrian left Paris and moved to London. After Paris was occupied in June 1940, he left London for New York, where he continued to innovate. His paintings became more detailed - verging on the cartographical - with more overlapping lines than ever before. He introduced a new, more decorative style of abstraction, exemplified by New York City I (1942), an intricate lattice of primary coloured lines, interlaced for extra depth. His influential work Broadway Boogie-Woogie (194243) takes matters even further, and comprises a mass of shimmering squares of colour, like neon lights, that positively leap from the canvas. In Broadway Boogie-Woogie, instead of his usual solid lines, Mondrian uses lines made from small adjoining rectangles of colour. Larger rimless rectangles are also included, some filled with smaller concentric rectangles. Compared to the austere Neo-Plasticism of the 1920s and 30s, these final paintings have a confident, colourful vitality - no doubt reflecting the confident architecture and urban environment of Manhattan, where he lived until his death from pneumonia in 1944. For other European modernist designers who emigrated to the United States, see: Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Josef Albers (1888-1976), all of whom were former faculty members of the Bauhaus Design School in Germany.
Neo-plasticism was the ultimate style of modern art. As well as abstract painting, it influenced many different types of design and architecture. It also had a specific impact on certain variants of Abstract Expressionism (such as hard edge painting), and proved to be an important precursor to Minimalism. Neo-Plasticism's minimalist idiom also lends itself to replication by computer graphics software, which suggests that its influence will continue well into the 21st century.
In addition to numerous articles and essays, Mondrian wrote Neo-Plasticisme (published Paris, 1920), which later appeared in the German translation as Neue Gestaltung (published by the Bauhaus Design School, 1924). Three other important publications include Piet Mondrian: Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937, and Other Essays, 1941-43 (published New York, 1945); and The New Art: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian (published London, 1987).
Theo van Doesburg
Neo-Plasticist paintings can be seen in many of the best art museums in Europe and America. Notable collections are housed in the following venues.
For information about abstraction in painting, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY