Theo van Doesburg’s “On looking at New Painting” (1918)

Translated from the Dutch by Hans L.C. Jaffé.

In De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York:1971).

• • •

How often does one hear, when modern works of art are being, inspected, the remark: ‘They are just little blocks,’ or ‘Someone who cannot paint can do it just as well.’  That this is an unspiritual, newspaper criticism level of observation and not an aesthetic one will be clear to anyone who compares the two works illustrated.  In B a rectangular mass is divided into rectangular blocks of differing size and shade.  The blocks are placed coldly one against another, and one can everywhere trace the dividing lines with the ringer.  The primary rectangle has been so divided that the grey, white and black blocks form six vertical and five horizontal rows.  The blocks are often identical in position and dimensions, the whole is stiff, flat and lacking in any expression.

In A, too, a rectangular mass is divided into rectangular blocks of differing size and shade, but the blocks are arranged together differently from B.  The lines separating the blocks can be followed across the whole surface neither vertically nor horizontally.  The blocks are not placed in a regular sequence above and beside each other as in B.  Because of the constant changes of position and dimensions of the blocks it is not even possible to count how many rows there are vertically and horizontally.  Consequently, the whole does not give a flat, stiff impression.

By what means is this difference brought about? Although the same means of expression — i.e., blocks of differing size and shade — are employed in both works, the difference in the value of the two products arises from the fact that in A something finds expression through these blocks which is not the case in B.  While in B a few blocks have been set down haphazardly, in A each block has its own position and its particular shade, determined by the creative intuition of the maker.  This creative intuition, which determines the content of the work of art — balanced aesthetic relationship — is controlled during the process of painting by the mathematical consciousness by which the blocks are brought into a geometrical relationship with one another, and all the blocks combined with the whole, so that the relationship of the whole figure is repeated again in each individual block in the same relationship.  In this way unity is created in diversity.

The same holds for the color or shade.  Each shade is applied in an equal [128] relationship, in a regular sequence from light to dark in the relationship 1-2-4, which again has the closest connection with the dimensional relationship of the blocks.  Thus the geometrical subdivision of the blocks corresponds with the geometrical subdivision of the colors.  In this way a unity is created, a rational harmony through the geometrical relationship of block to color.  Consequently, each block and each shade is given a function to perform, the function being to contribute to the balanced relationship and harmony of the whole.  In A, therefore, there is harmony which is not natural harmony, but artistic harmony (in this instance painterly harmony), which is achieved by the consistently applied relationship of one block to another, of one shade to another.  It can be said of A, therefore, that it lives through relationship; of B, on the other hand, that it is dead because of lack of relationship.  Thus one sees immediately, for example, chat black dominates and obtrudes, while in A nothing dominates or obtrudes.  In A the blocks are determinately established instead of bordered by one another, as in B.  Although A appears flat, it docs not appear flat in the sense that B does, as a useless piece of paper.  In A, a certain looseness and movement in space and, hence, a certain relief it to be [129] observed, which is completely lacking in B.  B lacks space and therefore also relief.  B is empty, lacking in space and lacking in movement.  The relief in A is not natural relief, like that of a vase or a bowl, but a painterly relief.

That ‘something’ which finds expression in the blocks in A is that to which all art has wanted to give expression: namely, balanced relationship consistently applied to every part.  Harmony.  If ancient art did this naturalistically, that is to say, with the natural forms and colors of things, the new art does it artistically, i.e., with the plastic means itself (in painting: masses, colors and lines).  Indeed as long as one goes on seeing the masses in a modern painting as masses, one does not yet see what art is about and what it is that finds expression through the plastic means, namely, balanced relationship or harmony.  Art is concerned, not with a natural, but with aesthetic harmony, i.e., a harmony obtained through the mutual relationship of masses and colors, through the constant changing of position and dimension; and as ludicrous as it now appears to us that a painter should wish to give plastic expression to an aesthetic harmony in a painterly manner (i.e., with masses), so ludicrous will it appear to posterity that we should have wished to do this in another manner, for example, through the external appearance of things, symbolic or literary.  Every divergence from that external appearance which the visual artists of the past permitted themselves was a yielding to the creative need to transform a natural value into an artistic one.  No matter which artist one chooses as an example, all have tried to make the object they painted subservient to the surface upon which they painted.  All artists who were endowed with a creative faculty have felt the need to translate the subject into mass and relationship, but, because of tradition, this was not so easy.  A whole culture of plastic values had to be gone through before art could be freed from all superfluity, i.e., from everything which stood in the way of a purely plastic expression of the idea of art.  This liberation could not occur without a radical destruction of the external appearance of things, beginning with the tautening of natural forms and ending beyond Cubism in a reconstruction of form and color.

In this reconstruction according to the spirit, the new mode of plasticism finds its far-reaching cultural possibilities in every branch of art, industry and society.

The reason why the two works reproduced here differ so much from one another resides in this fact that A is preceded and permeated by the culture of painting, while B is only the material representation of the idea [130] which people have formed of the new mode of expression in painting: a few little blocks set beside each other, which anyone can do.

In spite of lack of contact of the mass of the people with the real spirit of the age and its modes of expression, those who have come, through work and understanding, into the possession of the true values of art will celebrate the festival of the new plasticism.

[From De Stijl, Vol. II, No. 4, pp. 42-44]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 17, 2010.

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