Theo van Doesburg “De Stijl, Jubilee Number” (1927)

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

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

• • •

General Introduction

It is now ten years since, in pursuit of an idea which my friend Antony Kok and I first worked out at the time of the general mobilization of 1914, I founded a journal which had the exclusive aim of publicizing and defending a new form of plasticism in which we believed with total conviction.

To this journal I gave the name De Stijl. For me this tide summarized everything I hoped for in the international evolution of art in the immediate [219] future.  The title was the inspiration of a moment; but the line which I followed was the product of other, and more carefully considered, factors.

I cannot speak of these factors, which promoted and governed the process of growth of the De Stijl idea and the De Stijl movement, without allowing this article to take an autobiographical turn.  To remain absolutely objective is only partly possible in this case [sic]. My enthusiasm for the new kind of plasticism, which had in my view been rendered inevitable by the new tendencies in art, led me to neglect my own interests, and to suffer at the hands of others who were only half-convinced or even entirely unconvinced.  Although they lived by my enthusiasm, their aim was to maximize their own artistic modernity and social success.  They are very welcome to both; but they have no call to be surprised if my initial objectivity is now replaced by a deliberate subjectivity.  In regard to De Stijl, and everything connected with it, a reversion to subjectivity on my part is inevitable for two important reasons:

1.  Since the De Stijl idea so intimately concerns the development of my own innermost consciousness, anything that is said about its growth and development must involuntarily take on the character of a confession.  Only that which issues from the personality itself can (I am convinced) be of general importance.

2.  The analysis of the inner and outer motive forces, which in the last resort determine the value of any action, must lead to a certain amount of spiritual self-surgery and self-castigation.

An element of quite legitimate ambition is a mainspring of our activity.  In connection with De Stijl (as idea, movement and journal), this ambition existed rather as a survival than as a new phenomenon.  In my case it was fed by my defensive reaction against the outside world rather than by a struggle with myself.  Taken all in all, the only thing that counts is the proportional strength of the motive force of the idea, which on the one hand determines the degree of responsibility which one has towards it, and on the other hand overrides the petty slanders and suspicions which gather to oppose any noble idea.

If the De Stijl idea had remained tied to a closed, dogmatic and completely static experience (as with Mondrian), it would not only have barred the way to any possible further development but it would also have become arid and introverted; it would have lost so much vitality that it would come to be regarded as the barren offspring of human error.  The De Stijl idea, as I understand it, is creative power in perpetual motion; it has an unlimited [220] relevance.  But if it is regarded as a limited and dogmatic system of thought and creativity, the De Stijl idea is without any relevance, present or future.

To interpret it in a paradoxical way: the De Stijl idea as the idea of a new style, as an addition to the multitude of existing evolutionary possibilities, is meaningless and anachronistic.  The De Stijl idea as the dissolution of all styles within one elementary plasticism is significant, spiritually alive, and in advance of its time.

The former attitude is rooted in pessimistic self-imposed limitations, in conservatism, in inner poverty and in narrowness of outlook; the latter is based on optimism, gradual progress towards perfection, acceptance of life, spiritual omnipotence, revolt.

Within these two antithetical attitudes the ten-year evolution of the De Stijl idea is contained.

There can be no advance towards perfection, cultural or personal, without the destruction (first) of the self and (second) of one’s existing attitudes towards life.

The De Stijl discipline, as it was maintained over the years, exerted its unifying influence in every respect and in every direction, and thus made possible the further evolution of a real form of creative figuration (plasticism) using unambiguous means.

The requirement that the means used should in themselves be pure was stated by De Stijl for probably the first time; the result was that, in the new phase of pure creative figuration (plasticism) which began in 1924, the development of pure means of expression was no longer a goal but a point of departure.  The fact that so few people found it possible to come close to the essence of the De Stijl idea is largely due to the inaccessibility of the language (Dutch) in which the work of the De Stijl movement was expressed.  My own activities, as well as Mondrian’s pamphlet Le Neoplasticisme and my book Classique — baroque — moderne, made some difference to the situation, but in general the far-reaching influence of the movement, which was beyond anyone’s control, was a product of the works of art themselves.

I know very well that the idea underlying De Stijl (both movement and publication) is no one’s private property; as with a revolution, the right intellectual atmosphere must be there before any movement can be a success.  However, the sentence which I spoke in 1912 — “Disengage form from nature, and what is left is style’ — contains in embryo all the elements [221] which five years later took shape as De Stijl.  The need for a more abstract, more immediate manner of expression was felt by others as well; and they, not being hampered by years of military service, as I was, were able to put their idea into practice sooner than I.  This fortunate circumstance is one of the factors which set De Stijl, as a movement, on its feet.  The experience of these first concrete products of the idea strengthened my own conviction that a unity of style was in the making.  In 1913-14 I had sought to find this style in an abstract, purified form of Expressionism (rather along the lines of today’s Surrealism); but it is these first products of the new style, created by others, that confirm the correctness of the assertion which I made in 1912 in an article in the journal Eenheid: “When the criterion was beauty, the undulating line came to the fore; but when the criterion was truth, the line simplified itself; this new criterion will lead it to end in a straight line.’  In the use of the straight line I saw the consciousness of a new culture.  ‘The Straight Line’ was the title I wanted to use before I hit upon ‘De Stijl.’

From the De Stijl idea, there gradually developed the De Stijl movement.  This movement spread rapidly, year by year.  Initially it was sustained only by a small, cliquish, diffident group which eventually partly dispersed and was strengthened by an infusion of new blood; now, De Stijl as a set of demands stands firmly in the international spotlight.  No one can any longer deny that the whole evolution of modern art, especially in Northern Europe and most obviously in architecture, is De Stijl-orientated, i.e. directly or indirectly based on the work of De Stijl.  As a result of the De Stijl movement other parallel movements came into being (in Germany, Belgium, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Japan, England, America, Russia, etc.).  This would not have been possible if the work of De Stijl had been limited to painting.

It is only because De Stijl as a group consistently presented the image of an idea which belonged to its time — a collective idea — that the movement bore fruit.  Although the internationalization of the De Stijl idea was entirely due to the editorial policy of the journal De Stijl, it was obviously only as a group phenomenon that De Stijl could give expression to a general collective aspiration towards style.

It is demonstrably true that this so-called group contained, from the outset, major inequalities, both of talent and of speed of evolution, which made conflicts inevitable.  Nevertheless, in spite of all the mental incompatibilities which were concealed under the common motto ‘De Stijl,’ the [222] opportunity existed, in the context of a general reaction against the tensions of the war, accompanied by a craving for spiritual nourishment, to fulfill a mission which will prove to have been unique in the history of art and of civilization.  Whereas all movements in art used to be confined to their country of origin, the De Stijl movement spread in a short time all over Europe.  This was true even in a literary sense — a remarkable fact in view of the language barrier.

Never had an idea been the object of such vigorous propaganda, in so receptive a period.  This receptivity was not confined to Europe alone.

One is automatically reminded of the case of Futurism; but Marinetti’s propaganda was on an altogether smaller scale, and his objectives were chauvinistic, and consequently influential only in a southerly and neutral cultural zone.  He also had unlimited funds.  De Stijl had nothing but dedication and hard work.

It is necessary that the living word should demolish, once and for all the ossified clichés which are the products of jealousy, prejudice and calumny.

As I write these words in the cool air of the Vosges, and look back over what happened ten years ago in Leiden, it seems to me that I was very naive to fail to realize that my ideal — the development of a maximum of creative power through collective effort — was an impossibility; faith in ‘the straight line’ was restricted to a few.  De Stijl, as a publication, made my error only too plain.  Van der Leck was jealous of the amount of space that Mondrian took for his theoretical statements, and demanded more space for his own work and ideas.  The architect Oud, a very hesitant recruit to the group, held public office as a city architect and condemned the publication in De Stijl of what he claimed were Dadaistic articles; he cautiously refrained from signing any of the manifestos, which plainly set out the views of the De Stijl (not those of Dadaism!).  He did, however, later contribute to certain second-rate publications which appeared under the title Overzicht or 1-10, and which contained articles which had been printed in De Stijl or even rejected by it.

For the sake of contrast, the simultaneous publication of good and inferior ideas is often as inevitable as the coexistence of superior and mediocre human beings; but what was called ‘independence’ often led to backsliding — as was the case with Huszár’s stylized naturalistic poster art, Vantongerloo’s cups and plates, which were inferior to those in the shops, and Oud’s continuation of the architecture of Van de Velde.  For want of a [223] guideline the orientation was lost; a high value was placed on works which were based only on imitation and theft.  Not to speak of the fact that men who had formerly been deadly political foes, the pseudo-anarchists and the communists, who, along with all wearers of beard and sandals, were excluded from De Stijl, now came to be regarded as comrades-in-arms in the cause of a new world of the spirit.

Dutch stubbornness, complacency and prejudice, together with the fatal dread of a leap in the dark (no, not sober, just stodgy and vulgar) helped to ensure that this collective intellectual movement would be a short-lived thing.  Although no one made any sacrifices (except, of course, Mondrian, Rietveld, Rohl and many of the younger contributors), and although only a few understood what it was all about, everyone wanted to be a leader of De Stijl.  Everyone, even though he could do nothing except repeat what had been better said elsewhere, wanted to give propaganda lectures (propaganda for himself?), even to set up a dictatorship.  But not one of these miniature dictators contributed one spark of new inspiration, one new idea; what they did do, admittedly, was to swell the ranks of De Stijl as a collective reality.

De Stijl as a product of logical evolution draws its strength from a growing understanding of the principle of Elementarism.  As the original basic tenets of De Stijl are now generally known and largely put into practice, the further extension and exploration of the De Stijl idea now has a totally new dimension.

On a higher plane, as a movement whose role is ‘world-renewal,’ it is unimportant whether each individual act of expression is justifiable in Elementarist terms.  The work itself, the product of an intellectual revolution, must first exist; only then can a purifying and eliminatory process of criticism and verification be of any use.

In my manifesto ‘Elementarism’ (parts of which have appeared in De Stijl), I have already sketched out the line of future evolution.  De Stijl as a publication must forever remain the pioneer of an intellectual revolt, and must be based upon a maximum of creative power, at once purifying and aggressive, tolerant and exclusive, constructive and destructive.

De Stijl as an idea has been spreading further and further afield; today it has reached Japan, tomorrow it could reach North and South America.  Futurism is dead.  Expressionism is dead.  Cubism is dead.  Dadaism is dead.  Dead, dead, dead, all the isms which arose from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, and which were still arising at the time when [224] an object of use, and that is all.  What is more, an advertisement, like a frying pan, will never be art.  A line of poetry, a painting, a sculpture, are products of a creative process freed from ulterior motives; as such, they are products of a spiritualized intellectual culture, signposts to a new and de-naturalized reality.

[From De Stijl, Jubilee Number, pp. 2-9]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 19, 2010.

2 Responses to “Theo van Doesburg “De Stijl, Jubilee Number” (1927)”

  1. […] is significant, spiritually alive, and in advance of its time.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “De Stijl, Jubilee Number.”  Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Originally […]

  2. […] is significant, spiritually alive, and in advance of its time.”  Doesburg, Theo van.  “De Stijl, Jubilee Number.”  Translated by Hans L.C. Jaffé.  De Stijl.  (H.N. Abrams.  New York: 1971).  Originally […]

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