The Netherlands has always had a place on art lovers’ must-visit lists. There’s the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and works by the Dutch masters are sprinkled throughout the country. Yet there’s another art movement that’s just as important but often gets overlooked in the presence of so many other masterpieces. De Stijl (meaning “the style” in Dutch) is the minimalistic art movement that emerged in the 20th century when a pioneering group of Dutch artists and designers employed only the essentials in their work: vertical and horizontal lines and black, white, and primary colors.
De Stijl takes its name from a journal that was founded in 1917 by artist and writer Theo van Doesburg. Now the Netherlands is going all out for the movement’s 100th anniversary. Mondrian to Dutch Design is a collection of special events, celebrations, and exhibitions happening across the country through the end of 2017. Participants will quickly learn that De Stijl wasn’t all about painting either—the artists’ ultimate goal was to create a new society through additional work in interior design, furniture, and architecture.
Although Van Doesburg’s journal ultimately recruited only a handful of subscribers, De Stijl’s immeasurable influence still reverberates across the design world today. With its blocks of red, blue, and yellow separated by thick black lines, the work of Piet Mondrian is perhaps the most recognizable of all the De Stijl artists. But his influence isn’t limited to the visual arts. “His style and beliefs can be seen in architecture and design throughout the 20th and 21st centuries,” explains Paul Baltus, director of the Mondrian House in Amersfoort. “Mondrian was one of the most radical artists of the modern age.” His work famously influenced designer Yves Saint Laurent, who created Mondrian-inspired shift dresses for his Fall 1965 collection.
The events in the Netherlands also highlight other major artists from the movement like Van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, and renegade furniture-maker and architect Gerrit Rietveld. Even today, the principles of De Stijl can be spotted everywhere—shoes, album covers, coffee mugs, and even video games.
Dutch cultural institutions in 18 cities are participating in the yearlong celebration. Because the Netherlands spans only about 16,000 square miles (somewhat larger than the state of Maryland), it’s easy to stop in quite a few them by using the country’s outstanding train system. Here are some of the most important Dutch cities to visit before the festivities wrap up at the end of the year:
While strolling along the canals in Utrecht’s medieval center, you might not realize this city has a huge concentration of modern architecture. The imposing Dom Tower from the 14th century dominates the skyline, but this youthful town, located just 30 minutes from Amsterdam, is also home to the Rietveld Schröder House, an icon of modern architecture and the embodiment of De Stijl.
Commissioned by Truus Schröder-Schräder, the two-story house took a completely radical approach to design and use of space when it was built in 1924. “If you pass by the house now, it’s quite normal. It could’ve been built yesterday. But if you focus on how it was in the 1920s, it makes it very special,” explains house curator Natalie Dubois. “So it was something, really, built out of nothing.” The spacious living areas, reminiscent of the open floor plans popular nowadays, can be divided with sliding walls. The house makes no attempt to fit in with neighboring buildings, and both the interior and exterior rely only on the striking colors of the art movement.
Back in the center of town, Utrecht’s Centraal Museum is home to the world’s largest collection of Rietveld works, including the Red and Blue Chair.
One of the celebration’s most ambitious undertakings was the extensive renovation of the Mondrian House that reopened in March in Amersfoort. The picturesque town (about 15 minutes from Utrecht) of quiet canals lined with cobblestone streets and narrow brick buildings looks straight out of a Vermeer painting or perhaps another work by one of the Dutch masters. Yet it’s where modern artist Piet Mondriaan (later changed to Mondrian) began his life.
The exhibitions within the house where he was born in 1872 attempt to reach beyond the artist’s signature aggressive color blocks and stark black lines. “There is more to the man than just the usual image of a stiff and boring artist,” explains Baltus. “He enjoyed nothing more—except for painting, of course—than music, going out, and dancing.” Visitors learn about this other side of Mondrian through video installations (one, in particular, chronicles his life in New York in the 1940s), hands-on activities, and a life-size reconstruction of his studio in Paris.
Also happening in Amersfoort is “The Colors of De Stijl” at art organization Kunsthal Kade. The special exhibition, on view through September 3, focuses on the use of colors among the artists of De Stijl. Rietveld’s designs during the 1950s are also highlighted at the town’s Rietveld Pavilion.
This medieval Dutch city has also joined in with the modern art enthusiasm. The city hall (as well as a few other distinguished buildings around town) has received a makeover complete with Mondrian-inspired designs on its facade.
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, home to the world’s largest Mondrian collection (including his final work, Victory Boogie Woogie), is currently hosting an ambitious exhibition called “The Discovery of Mondrian.” On view until September 24, it gives an overview of the painter’s work during the different phases of this life while living in Amsterdam, Paris, London, and New York.
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