A bit of Dutch courage goes a long way

Eleanor Mills, 08.06.2017
Museums in the Netherlands celebrate the art and design movement De Stijl
The Netherlands is a small country, but the Dutch have consistently had big ideas, whether that be inventing gin or breeding carrots to be orange. But the nation’s most formidable skill is its incredible penchant for engineering and design.
Art and architecture come hand in hand with the Netherlandish pursuit of simplifying systems to meet people’s needs, and, handily enough, 2017 marks the centenary of the Dutch art and design movement of De Stijl.
What becomes apparent when reading about this early 20th-century art style is that the artists involved intended it to not just dominate the art on their walls, but also infiltrate architecture, furniture design and every part of how people actually lived.
Founded in 1917, De Stijl (also known as Neo-Plasticism by it’s founders) was invented by Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck, Antony Kok and Jacob Oud when they published the first edition of the new magazine of the same name in October that year.
The publication and founding artists set out a vision for modern life in the background of the horrendous, chaotic events of the first world war (which the Dutch forces did not participate in, but nevertheless were landlocked by).
In the movement’s 1918 manifesto, Van Doesburg pronounced that: “The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual.”
In short, Van Doesburg, aimed to create an ideology for living, an art form that encompassed all aspects of life.
Almost unwittingly this year, museums and galleries across the whole of Holland have entirely embodied Van Doesburg’s manifesto principle by collaborating on more than 40 De Stijl themed events and exhibitions.
Deliberately excluding Amsterdam – on the grounds that it is overcrowded and there’s no point encouraging more tourists to go – the year-long festival Mondriaan to Dutch Design takes in museums from the very north of Holland in Leeuwarden, Drachten and Eelde, via Amersfoort, Leiden and the Hague all close to the capital, to Eindhoven and Bergeijk in the south.
It’s a bold move. Will people get sick of De Stijl? It appears not. The Dutch nation has embraced this festival wholeheartedly and has such confidence in what practically embodies a national style that entire towns are branded in the iconic primary colours of De Stijl.
It’s an impressive feat. It also takes courage to pull something like this off. Coordinated largely by regional tourism marketing teams across the country, Mondriaan to Dutch Design wouldn’t have taken off without the buy-in from some key players.
In the northern district of Friesland (where the cows originate from) lies the town of Drachten. Museum Dr8888 holds a superb collection of early Van Doesburg works alongside those of Thijs and Evert Rinsema. It’s an insightful show. The town has also dressed a traditional boat with De Stijl decorated sails, and they’re restoring an original Van Doesburg designed house in the “Papegaaienbuurt” (the imaginatively named “parrot district” after the primary coloured De Stijl window sills and door frames) to it’s original colour scheme after careful scientific analysis of the paint.
The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum is showcasing its over 300-strong world-class collection of beautifully restored Piet Mondrian works, displayed together for the first time ever. From early figurative paintings to his highly abstracted geometric form Neo-Plastic canvases, the exhibition presents the artist comprehensively. Frankly, it’s a joy.
The idyllic university town of Leiden celebrates the anniversary with an outdoor exhibition by contemporary artists inspired by De Stijl, commissioned by the Museum de Lakenhal, which is currently closed for renovation until 2019.
And the birthplace of Piet Mondrian has opened in Amersfoort with flashy new immersive audiovisual displays, as well as some of Mondrian’s early landscapes on display.
Wherever you look there’s De Stijl. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it in Britain or abroad. 14-18NOW comes close but it’s not the same.
Whether you love De Stijl or not, this year presents a brilliant opportunity to learn more about the origins of modern architecture, modern living and why we live how we do today. The artists of De Stijl attempted to rationalise everything, and judging from the legacy they created – the way we live, the way we brand things, how we “curate” every aspect of our lives – De Stijl has permeated every nook of our contemporary ideologies.
Those Dutch artists had courage, and the nation’s museums have been plucky putting on this festival. And I’m not talking about that delicious tipple genever.