Theo van Doesburg’s “Elemental Formation” (1923)
Translated from the Dutch by Richard Taylor.
From The Tradition of Constructivism.
(Da Capo Press. New York, NY: 1974).
• • •
Two opposing modes of expression must be sharply distinguished: the decorative (which adorns) and the monumental (or formative). These two modes of expression define two completely diverse conceptions of art: that of the past and that of the present. The decorative principle aims at centralization; decentralization characterizes the principle of the monumental. Hitherto the evolution of art has run through all the stages from individualism to the most extreme generalization.
Individualism — Generalization
Decoration — The Monumental
Past — Present
Centralization — Decentralization
Within this tension lies the problem of the new style, of shaping the new art.
According to the decorative conception, creative activity was dependent on personal taste, discretion, or intuitive assessment of the elements of the work of art. This capricious practice, however, was not adequate to the requisite of our time:
Those who have understood this demand intellectually, for example, believe they overcome the contradiction by labeling both fanciful and speculative procedure a “problem.” They maintain that plastic art must be a question not of “artistic composition” but rather of “problematic construction.” I assume that the difference between composition (assembling) and construction (synopsis, concentration) is an aspect of our time that cannot be underestimated. Yet neither can lead to a fruitful monumental art production if we do not agree to the elemental means of forming it.
What we demand of art is EXPLICITNESS, and this demand can never be fulfilled if artists make use of individualized means. Explicitness can result only from discipline of means, and this discipline leads to the generalization of means. Generalization of means leads to elemental, monumental formation.
It would be absurd to assume that all this does not belong to the sphere of creative activity. Art is subject to no logical discipline. It grows rather out of spontaneous, impulsive precedents within the individual. The precision, the explicitness, that we require of a work of art has the same roots as the scientific or technological perfection apparent in the nonartistic practical objects around us. In these objects, which derive from the needs of daily life, the contemporary artist sees that an end has come to impulsive and speculative procedures. The age of decorative taste is past, the contemporary artist has entirely closed out the past. Scientific and technological consistency force him to draw conclusions for his own domain. Creative consistency forces him into a revision of his means, into a systematic making of rules, that is, to conscious control of his elemental means of expression.
Secondary (auxiliary) means ———— Primary (elemental) means
Painting: illusion of form ——————— Painting: form-time-color
(object) anecdote, etc. .
Sculpture: illusion of form ——————— Sculpture: space-time-line,
anecdote, etc. surface, volume
Architecture: closed-form type, —— Architecture: space-time-line, surface
decoration, symbol, etc. .
As early as 1916 we set the first and most important requisite: separation of the different realms of formation. In contrast to a still-rampant baroque (even in modern art), we have held that the formative arts must be separated from each other. Without this sharp division (sculpture from painting; painting from architecture, etc.) it is impossible to create order out of the chaos or to become acquainted with the elemental means of formation. Until now the means of formation have been so intermixed that people finally believed they were indivisible. This indefiniteness of means is a remnant of the baroque, in which the various arts destroy each other (by spreading over and against each other), instead of strengthening themselves through a clear relationship to each other.
Out of the elemental means grows the new formation. In it the various arts will relate to each other in such a way as to be able to develop a maximum of (elemental) expressive force.
[From G (Berlin), No. 1, July 1923.]