In this essay I will explore two of the key European Avant-Garde movements that took place between 1910 and 1930, Futurism and De Stijl. It is important to understand how these relate to other Avant-Garde movements, so I will begin with explaining their context. Then, I will describe both movements in detail and analyse a few major projects from each movement. The name ‘Avant-Garde’ refers to the part of an army that was at the front, leading the rest, because Avant-Garde art and architecture challenged concepts and often strived to be different, in advance of generally accepted ideas.The European avant-garde period happened most notably from 1910-1930, but possibly began as early as the first half of the nineteenth century in France, led by influential thinker and early socialist Henri de Saint-Simon.
He believed that artists should act as the avant-garde, or be at the front of social change and progress. French painter Gustave Courbet initiated realism in the 1850’s following the 1848 revolution, and was also influenced by socialism. The first time the term avant-garde was used to describe the arts was in Paris in 1863, when artists whose work was rejected by critics began to organise exhibitions, attracting thousands of visitors and sparking a rebellion. Also in the 1860’s came Impressionism, originating in France, where artists painted quickly in front of their subjects rather than in a studio to capture light and colour more effectively. The movement was avant-garde because the colours used were sometimes unconventional due to the effect of sunlight, and this was shocking at the time. The main artists were Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne.
The start of the twentieth century was when avant-garde gained a much greater following. Fauvism (1905-8) used un-natural and striking colours. Analytical Cubism (1908-12) dismissed traditional perspective and attempted to depict what they saw from multiple points of view.At the same time, Italian Futurism and German Expressionism were taking holds on Milan, Dresden, Munich, and Berlin. Italian Futurism aimed to capture the power of machines and technology.
German Expressionism was made up of two groups – Die Brucke (The Bridge 1905-13) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider 1911-14). It is thought that the name ‘Expressionism’ was intended to be opposite to ‘Impressionism’ of the 1860s. However, the most radical movement of the art world could be Dada, which was started during the First World War in Zurich, Swizerland by poet and writer Tristan Tzara. It then spread to Paris, Berlin and New York. Dadaists often used readymade, everyday objects and practiced performance art, poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. They rejected bourgeois values of conventional art and challenged artistic norms. We are now accepting of its ideas, which were met with controversy when the movement was newly established.
The last major avant-garde movement was De Stijl, founded by painter Piet Mondrian.Futurism began when Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published a Manifesto of Futurism in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1909 as an opposition to the French avant-garde and classical antiquity of Rome. Futurists believed that war is cathartic and necessary for the progression of society, violence is art and that the weight of the past was oppressive. Also, they were influenced by cubism and neo-impressionism. Marinetti wrote, “Museums are absurd abattoirs for painters and sculptors who ferociously slaughter each other with colour-blows and line-blows along the disputed walls!” and, “we will free Italy from her innumerable museums which cover her like countless cemeteries” showing his passion for the movement.Umberto Boccioni was a futurist who specifically wanted to challenge “the blind and foolish imitation of formulas inherited from the past,”. One of his most famous works is a sculpture called Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). The shape of the head suggests a helmet, which is appropriate as the Futurists were highly supportive of war.
The reason why the sculpture is such a cubist, distorted shape is because Boccioni sculpted the air that the figure displaced by its movement as well as the figure itself. He suggested “Let us fling open the figure and let it incorporate within itself whatever may surround it.”He created a series of sculptures and paintings in 1913 which were a result of visiting Paris and seeing Braque’s cubist experiments which shared the theme of human movement. The sculptures were originally made of plaster and cast in bronze after the artist’s death in 1916. The painting Dynamism of a Soccer Player complements the sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space particularly well and is also from 1913.
Despite the Futurists hatred for museums and the past, many of their artworks are now displayed in museums, and Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space has even been compared to the Ancient Greek Nike of the Samothrace and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne of the 17th century.In 1914, Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia completed a series of drawings called La Citta Nuova, meaning The New City. They were designs for cities of the future so were highly technological and featured skyscrapers and multilevel traffic but had no trace of people or nature. His designs contradicted Futurist ideas of movement, light and interior life.
He also wrote a manifesto in 1914 called Futurist Architecture where he wrote, “We must invent and rebuild our Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, active, mobile, and everywhere dynamic, and the Futurist house like a gigantic machine.” and, “We feel that we are no longer the men of the cathedrals and ancient moot halls, but men of the Grand Hotels, railroad stations, giant roads, colossal harbours, covered markets, glittering arcades, reconstruction areas, and salutary slum clearances.” Although none of Sant’Elia’s designs were built, he has clearly influenced architecture of the late 20th century, such as the Marriott Marquis hotel in Georgia by John Portman, Helmut Jahn’s Thompson government centre in Chicago, and even science-fiction films and dense modern cities such as Hong Kong and New York. Sant’Elia was one of the many Futurists who volunteered for army duty in World War 1 and he died in battle in 1916, but his Citta Nuova designs still appear to be of the future.In Britain, the avant-garde trends were barely noticeable. It held a strong economic position in relation to Europe and therefore did not feel a need for bold, imaginative ideas.
However, in 1914 a small group called the Vorticists formed, who were a British equivalent to the futurists and founded by Wyndham Lewis. Like Futurism, Vorticism began with the manifesto being featured in a publication. Lewis proclaimed, ‘The New Vortex plunges to the heart of the Present – we produce a New Living Abstraction’. The poet Ezra Pound coined the name Vorticists, inspired by a vortex representing the creative energy of the group of artists. They only held a single group exhibition in 1915.
Despite the Futurist’s belief that war is necessary for progress, after the destruction and tragedies of World War One many artists adopted the ‘return to order’ approach, where they became more traditional rather than avant-garde. When Benito Mussolini came into power in Italy in 1922, Marinetti began to tighten the link between he movement and fascism, losing sight of the original ideals and rebelliousness in favour of politics. The war also brought British Vorticism to an end, and an attempt to revive it in 1920 by Lewis failed.
Shortly after the futurist period came a new movement, De Stijl (meaning The Style in Dutch), which was founded by painters Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg when they published a magazine in 1917, also called De Stijl. This movement is typified by the use of intersecting horizontals and verticals, abstraction and the considered use of primary colours, and shared ideas with Dadaism and Futurism.Mondrian’s paintings after he became involved with the De Stijl movement all share the theme of squares, rectangles, horizontal and verticals. Many of them are very similar, which means they are very easily recognisable. Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey, and Blue was painted in 1921.
The large red square is balanced by the colours around it and it has an asymmetrical composition, like all his paintings of this style. He experiments with different colour compositions and varied the thicknesses of the black lines within his paintings throughout his career.Neoplasticism became the name for the type of artwork the movement created to reform arts and culture. Mathematician and theosophist MHJ Schoenemaekers developed the philosophical and spiritual ideas that lie within De Stijl artwork. Van Doesburg had also studied theosophy before launching the De Stijl journal, which led him to believe that painting originated in the mind and had spiritual connections, causing him to begin working in a more abstract and personal style.
Van Doesburg also established a link with the Bauhaus and lectured there on the ideas of De Stijl, having been invited there by Walter Gropius in 1920 and 1921, but was never invited to become part of the school because his ideas were perceived as too dogmatic. However, he shared the Bauhaus’ goal of unifying art, architecture and design. Van Doesburg and Hans Vogel began to translate the movement’s aesthetics into architecture in their drawing Studies for Purely Architecture Sculpture 1921, and van Doesburg then developed these ideas with Cornelis van Eesteren in 1922 with their Axonometric drawing of Maison Particulier. This design was realised through Rietveld’s Schroder House of 1924, which displays functional space organised around rectangular, and interlocking planes. It was “an important precursor to the Bauhaus-inspired International Style, as well as the only building designed in complete accordance with the De Stijl aesthetic.” (Wolf, J., 2018).
The house is highly flexible as movable partitions rather than walls, partly due to the client’s request, separate the rooms, but Rietveld also used different paint colours to define areas. When it was built, locals called it the crazy house, but it has now become a UNESCO world heritage site.Mondrian left the movement in 1923 when van Doesburg introduced diagonals into his work. After splitting with Mondrian, van Doesburg painted Counter Composition V (1924), using dynamic elements influenced by Futurism and Vorticism and creating his own personal sub-category of De Stijl called Elementarism. In van Doesburg’s Counter Composition works he explored gesamtkunstwerk – a complete synthesis of the arts, which parallels the Werkbund’s aim when it was founded in 1907 to promote good quality design. Whilst developing Elementarism, van Doesburg wrote a series of articles and manifestos to explain his theories. In his 1924 essay Towards a Collective Construction he 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 Manifesto of Elementarism was published in the De Stijl magazine from 1926 to 1928. Both Futurist and De Stijl artists worked in a range of disciplines such as sculpture, painting, music, literature, design and architecture. Whilst the Futurists desperately wanted to break from the past, much of their work was more conservative than art of the De Stijl movement.
This is possibly because the Futurist period occurred before Modernism became popular. De Stijl happened alongside the Modernist movement and as stated above, even had links with the Bauhaus.The Avant-Garde period has clearly influenced much of the art that has followed it. During and after the 1940s, abstract art dominated, which was explored in both the Futurist and De Stijl movements. A good example of the influence of De Stijl is the Mondrian Dress, designed by Yves Saint Laurent in 1965, but features paintings made 30 years earlier. Mondrian’s work continues to be used by contemporary fashion designers, being featured on everything from socks to swimwear. Futurism’s influences are not as obvious, but it is possible to say that they are more universal.
We now live in a high technology and machine driven world, like the one the futurists envisioned, and much of contemporary architecture could have been lifted from Sant’Elias drawings.The fact that Avant-Garde art and architecture continues to make its mark on society a century after it began shows how revolutionary it’s ideas must have been at the time. It was and remains a very important moment for cultural progression. In the process of writing this essay I have enjoyed learning about the leaders of the Futurist and De Stijl movements, Marinetti, Mondrian and van Doesburg, the theories behind their works and how they related to that period of history and continue to influence contemporary society.
I would have liked to research lesser known projects and include more examples, but unfortunately it was only possible to find enough information about the most famous projects and the length of the essay was limited.