Theo van Doesburg “Painting and Sculpture: About Counter-composition and Counter-Sculpture. Elementarism (Fragment of a Manifesto)” (1926)

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

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

• • •

Terminology. According to Marinetti, the term counter-composition might better be replaced by peinture anti-statique (anti-static painting).  This concept, however, can also be applied to architecture.  Through new materials and the application of new constructional methods (stressed structure, etc.), architecture may also assume an anti-static character, optically at least.  What is real in painting is only apparent in architecture.  No matter how it is combined, matter is always subject to gravity.  It makes no essential difference whether architecture employs load and support, tension and compression construction, or no construction at all (consider the potentialities of light-weight frames of cast concrete, and the modern hardening systems which are preparing the way for chemical architecture).

Our age lies under the constellation of contrast and has a consequent need to determine the correct relationship of man to the universe.  In the bending, pressing, wringing, welding and flattening of material, in mechanical methods of production, he overcomes the natural character of material.  Through modern technique material is transformed, [207] denaturalized. The forms which thereby arise lack the rustic character of antique forms.  Upon this denaturalization or, better, transnaturalization, the style of our age is largely based.

The expression neo-plasticisme (new plasticism) gives rise to the unintended misunderstanding that what is being referred to is a new plasticity, in the sense of corporeality, of three-dimensional relief.  ‘Beeldend’ (plastic), in the sense which has been attached to it since I first used the expression in my essays, ‘The New Movement in Painting’ (in the Journal De Beweging, 1916), as a contrast to picturesque’ and representational, and which expression was later used in De Stijl to denote the immediate, elementary expression of aesthetic relationship, is not covered by the Latin concept ‘plastic.’  Consequently, I have replaced this term by the more comprehensive, more universal, expression: elementarism.

Elementarism, moreover, is real instead of abstract.  The expression ‘abstract’ has also given rise to much misunderstanding.  The reason for this will become clear from the standpoint I shall develop in this article.

In relation to visual forms of expression such as painting and sculpture, the concept of abstract is highly relative.  Abstraction belongs to one of those spiritual operations in which (in contrast to the spontaneity of the emotions) certain (aesthetic) values were isolated from real things.  Nevertheless, when these values became visual and were applied as a pure constructional means, they became real.  Thus the abstract was associated with the real, thereby demonstrating the relative nature of the concept.

The expression abstract-real’ (Mondrian) was, therefore, a happy invention.  But, for a new orientation, we can rest content with real.

The age of abstraction is past.

Is not an elementary painting, i.e., a determinate, self-contained, organic combination of flat colors, more concrete than the same combination concealed by the illusion of a natural organic form? Indeed, this momentarily static, frozen manifestation, isolated within the four sides of the plane, is more abstract than the organism of an ‘abstract’ painting composed of real colors.  In fact, only that which goes on within the isolation of our thoughts is really abstract.  An opened newspaper is the physical embodiment of an enormous abstraction, whose importance is determined by the man who bends over it to absorb, in the abstract, cinematographically and at great speed, the diversity of current events.  The newspaper is real only as a pattern of black and white.  For the printer the newspaper has a reality quite different from its reality for the reader.


Abstract and real are relative, if not changeable concepts.

It is certain, however, that the increasing need for visual reality has led to the enormous expansion of cinema and illustrated journalism (consider the flood of magazines), photography, etc.  This need for visual reality forms an integral part of the style of our age.  The poster is a modern means of communication, no less real than the train.  We already possess a visual conquest of time and space in the film and we are no longer far from a chemical and radio-mechanical abolition of our remaining dependence upon nature.

IV.  It is absolutely necessary for a new orientation that we recognize this increasing need for reality in its development from an isolated abstract-religious culture that is no longer suited to our nerves.

The separation of church and state, art and church, architecture and the art jungle of politics and economics, are important stages in this development.

Both in the development of art and in that of architecture, this need for reality has also made itself felt for many decades.

For architecture, the separation of pure construction and pure art brought a strong possibility of realization.  On the one hand, architecture had to free its characteristic elements from the art jungle of the past, and in so doing become ‘abstract,’ independent.  On the other hand, painting wrested itself free from architecture, the anecdotal illusion and the Classical concept of composition.  Orthogonal1 composition, in which extreme tension, horizontal-vertical, was neutralized, retained — as a relic of Classical composition — a certain homogeneity with the static nature (load and support) of architecture.

Counter- (or anti-static) composition has freed itself completely from this homogeneity.  Its contrasting relationship with architecture is to be compared (but at another level) with the contrasting relationship between white, flat architecture and grey, curved nature.

Elementarism was the first truly to free painting from all convention.

A rapid review of the historical development of composition from purest Classicism will help to convince us of this.

I. Classical symmetrical composition

Equal division and placing on both sides of the picture plane, the sides being divided by a fixed centre into two equal halves (example: The Three [209] Graces), The painters who lived before the Christian era often departed from the method of symmetrical composition, but, in the Christian era, when the ‘figurative’ centre, Isis, Apollo, etc., was replaced by Mary, Christ, etc., the symmetrical ‘central’ method of composition acquired a formal methodical importance, which lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century.

II.  Cubist, concentrical composition

Symmetrical composition has, during the course of the ages, ‘pressed’ itself increasingly towards the centre, towards the axis of the picture plane, to such an extent even that the composition has taken on a completely spindle-like structure, leaving the outer parts of the canvas unoccupied; Christ, Mary, Cross, etc., have been replaced by Guitar, Bottle, Newspaper, etc.

III. Neoplastic, peripheral composition

Very important, fundamental renewal of the methods of composition.  Gradual abolition of the centre and all passive emptiness.  Composition develops in opposite direction: instead of towards the centre, towards the outermost edge of the canvas, and even appears to continue beyond it.  In this latter tendency lay also the possibility of compositional development in three dimensions.

IV.  Elementary (anti-static) counter-composition

Adds to orthogonal, peripheral composition a new diagonal dimension.  Thereby dissolving in a real manner horizontal-vertical tension.  Introduction of sloping planes, dissonant planes in opposition to gravity and static architectural structure.

In counter-composition, equilibrium in the plane plays a less important role.  Each plane forms part of the peripheral space and the construction is to be conceived as a phenomenon of tension rather than of plane relationships.

Greater variety of new plastic possibilities.  For example, in addition to orthogonal, also diagonal, combined and simultaneous constructions.  Introduction of color as independent energy.

V.  Elementarism has recognized Time as a modern element of plasticism.  In so doing, it has given new creative possibilities to film, sculpture and [210] theater.  In consequence, synoptical2 effects also acquired a fundamental importance.  Elementarism is an exclusively universal method of plasticism and production.  It is opposed to all compromise as well as to all dogmatic one-sidedness.  It is to be conceived as the most vital means of expression of the modern spirit.  It is the product both of Neoplasticism and of a new orientation in the modern scientific and technical spheres.

Elementarism comprises every expression in the most essential, elementary manner.  It requires everything to be determinate and confines itself to the pure elementary state of each thing separately.

Nature as nature, culture as culture, art as art and architecture as a serviceable, practical method of construction.  All earlier systems have claimed to be able to neutralize the hostility between organic nature and human intelligence, whether by means of an interval or through a balanced relationship.

Elementarism rejects these systems and finds in spiritual and social chaos the confirmation of its basic principle relating to the total structural differentiation of nature-society and human spirit-individual.  It lends support to every destructive force that contributes to the true liberation of the human spirit and to raising it to a higher level.

As a result of a new orientation relative to the earlier attempts at renewal in life and art (including Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Neoplasticism, etc.), Elementarism has assimilated all truly modern elements (often ignored through one-sidedness).

Elementarism is to be regarded, therefore, as the synthesis of the new plastic consciousness of the age.  The ‘isms’ of the last decades have mostly perished, either because of their one-sided, dogmatic limitations, or because of compromise or chauvinistic tendencies.  They no longer have any force or value for renewal.

Elementarism finds its equivalent in Relativism, in the latest researches into matter and in the phenomenological propositions relating to the unlimited, yet latent, power of human intelligence.  Opposed to all religious dogmatism, the Elementarist sees in life only a transformation perpetuelle and, in the creative subject, a contrasting phenomenon.

VI.  The matter of counter-composition. The increasing need for reality, expressing itself in the gradual suppression of all illusionist aids and transitions, brings the independence of matter increasingly to the fore.

This is also the case in relation to color.


Elementarism rejects the modulation of color, that had its origins in illusionism.

Each color possesses, as pigment, as matter, an independent energy, an elementary force.  This applies both to the three most positive colors, yellow, blue, and red, and to the negative equivalents: white, black and grey.  Neither Cubism nor Neoplasticism were able to manage without color ‘value.’

Nevertheless, it should be recognized that an attempt was made in Cubism (Picasso), in Futurism (Carra), and in Merz (Schwitters), through the use of other materials (such as newspaper, colored materials, sheet steel, tin, glass, etc.), to establish color value determinately or, more precisely, to bring it to material independence.  The post-Cubist means of expression ignored this, albeit instinctive, tendency.  In Neoplasticism it was only the tendencies towards relationship and abstraction that were consistently pursued.  Besides making use of other materials, Cubism had, while retaining color values obtained through modulation, also made use of letters, numerals and areas of uniform stipple.

Elementarism rejects these equivalents, but recognizes their great value.  It opposes the positive colors with the negative colors white, black, and grey, and adds, if these are not adequate, elementary variants of color or line (see, for example, the compartments in my Counter-Composition XV 1925, De Stijl 73/74).  The very elementary earth colors and ochres may also serve as ‘variants.’

In my now completed Beeldende Kleurenleer (plastic color theory), I have discussed, in the simplest manner, color as energy, and also as dissonance, contrast and variant.

VII.  Counter-sculpture. In sculpture as an independent plastic expression it is difficult to construct elementarily, at least in the sense of painting, poetry, etc Orthogonal sculpture, for example, may, on the one hand, already be purer and more consistent than Cubist or Orphistic sculpture, but on the other hand, it gives a greater emphasis to the natural force of gravity than did its predecessors (and in this perhaps resides its tragedy).  In the light of this, the need for dynamism becomes explicable, whether by means of moving figures or through more elementary volumes, i.e., from the desire to create contrast on the axis at right angles to the static one.

Elementarism prepares for the possibility of an elementary counter-sculpture and the first thing to be done is to destroy, out of contempt for [212] the Euclidean view of the world (from a fixed point), this axis.  This is not difficult as sculpture, but the sculpture itself has too much of the Schmuckteller (ornamental dish) about it and, so, of Russian influence.3

On the figurative side, there are already very important documents available (cf. several good sculptures by Archipenko, Dance, reproduced in De Stiff, Year 1, and Gondolier; also many works by Boccioni, Brancusi, Laurens), yet there is almost nothing on the elementarist side that might serve as an example of counter-sculpture.  Optical illusion plays a perilous role in this problem and appears unavoidable.

Rome July 1926 [From De Stijl, Vol. VII. No. 75/76, pp. 35-42]


1.  Orthogonal: Vertical

2.  Synoptical: Simultaneous visual summation of the different parts belonging to a whole.

3.  A Russian sculptor by the name of Tatlin called his sculptures of bent sheet steel Counter-relief. These, however, had nothing to do with counter-sculpture, since Tatlin, as a romanticist, understood neither the modem problem of sculpture nor that of architecture.  This is proved sufficiently by the spiral, baroque monument which, in addition to its illogical combination of parts and spaces, is symbolic! Russian muddle-headedness and snobbish bravado to impress the flappers!


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 19, 2010.

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