Abstract Design Style Invented by Van Doesburg.

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Cafe L'Aubette, Strasbourg (1928-9)
An example of fully integrated
architecture and painting, in the
Elementarist style, founded by the
Dutch designer Theo van Doesburg,
one of the most innovative of
20th century painters and designers.

Elementarism (1924-31)
Variant of De Stijl, Neo-Plasticism Style


Gesamtkunstwerk - Synthesis of the Arts
Relationship with Bauhaus
Art Theories
Synthesis of Elementarist Art and Architecture

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In modern art, "Elementarism" refers to a modification of Neo-Plasticism, itself a branch of the De Stijl style of geometric art. A type of art and design, Elementarism was invented by the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), who was also the founder of the De Stijl movement. Neo-Plasticism was a purist form of abstract art invented by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) towards the end of the First World War.


In keeping with the De Stijl philosophy of reducing art to its fundamentals of form, colour and line, Neo-Plasticism insisted on the application of strict rules of composition. For instance, only vertical or horizontal lines should be used; only primary colours of oil paint should be applied; and so on. Elementarism was Van Doesburg's attempt to moderate and modify the strictness of this Neo-Plastic dogma. It permitted, for instance, the use of diagonals, as well as the tilting of a composition in order to give it an element of dynamism which was lacking in the strictly horizontal-vertical paintings associated with Mondrian and his Neo-plasticist disciples. Not surprisingly, this calculated attack on Mondrian's purist form of concrete art led rapidly to a rift between him and Van Doesburg, and in fact Mondrian resigned from De Stijl with a matter of months.



As well as Van Doesburg, Elementarism's members included the abstract painters Bart van der Leck (1876-1958) and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart (1899-1962), the sculptor Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), and the architects Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) and J.J.P. Oud (1890–1963). Holland was the home of several abstract art movements, mostly conceived as a reaction to the carnage of World War I.

Gesamtkunstwerk - Synthesis of the Arts

Van Doesburg called his new paintings 'counter-compositions'. There is a superficial relationship with both Futurism and Vorticism, in that both movements utilized the diagonal in their paintings to represent the energy of modern life, but Van Doesburg - influenced by other modern art movements such as the Bauhaus Design School and also by Russian Constructivism - was more interested in architecture and interior design. Above all, like William Morris (1834-96) of the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as the followers of Jugendstil and the Vienna Secession, Van Doesburg was interested in the concept of gesamtkunstwerk - a complete synthesis of the arts, and its practical application in design schemes for daily life.


Relationship with Bauhaus

In 1920 and 1921 he had visited the Bauhaus at the invitation of its director Walter Gropius (1883-1969), and had criticized the expressionist and mystical approach being promoted by the influential Swiss teacher Johannes Itten (1888-1967). Furthermore, he had established a rival workshop next door and had written excitedly to a friend: "I have turned everything upside down in Weimar." He was much different with the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky (Eliezer Markowich) (1890-1941) - whom he met in 1921 - whose theories about how art and architecture might be combined, had a major influence on Doesburg's own thinking.

Art Theories

In parallel with his development of Elementarism, Van Doesburg charted his theories in a series of articles and manifestos. His 1924 essay Towards a Collective Construction, written in conjunction with Cor van Eesteren (1897-1988), stated "we have established the true place of colour in architecture and we declare that painting without architectural construction (that is, easel-painting) has no further reason for existence." The principles of Elementarism were set out in the Manifesto of Elementarism, published in De Stijl magazine from 1926 to 1928.

Synthesis of Elementarist Art and Architecture

Be this as it may, Van Doesburg's most innovative plan was to combine Elementarist painting and architecture, thus creating a tension between the diagonal designs of the pictures and the horizontal-vertical structure of the interior design. This approach was exemplified in the renovation of the Cafe L'Aubette, in Strasbourg - a collaboration between Van Doesburg, as well as the Dada artist Jean Arp (1887-1966) and Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943). Van Doesburg designed the overall scheme and each of them decorated a room. The interior surfaces were decorated with boldly coloured diagonal abstract reliefs, juxtaposed against the horizontal-vertical architectural structure, while a sense of movement was engendered by contrasting features, integration of colour and lighting. The Elementarist decoration of the Cafe L'Aubette proved to be Van Doesburg's last significant project. In the same year he was involved in further squabbles inside De Stijl. A new movement, Cercle et Carre (Circle and Square) appeared, but Van Doesburg launched his own rival group Concrete Art. Unfortunately, he died two years later in 1931, and with his death both De Stijl and Elementarism went into terminal decline, whereupon followers of non-objective art gravitated to the group known as Abstraction-Creation.


Elementarist and Neo-Plasticist works can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world, notably: the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; and the Tate Gallery, London.

• For a chronology of modern painting and design, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about early 20th century abstraction, see: Homepage.

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