From theosophy to utopia [Suprematism] will liberate all those engaged in creative activity and make the work into a true model of perfection. —El Lissitzky, 1920
Abstract art, I thought, creates new types of spatial relationships, new inventions of forms, new visual laws—basic and simple—as the visual counterpart to a more purposeful, cooperative human society. —László Moholy-Nagy, 1928
In the future, the realization of pure plastic expression in palpable reality will replace the work of art. But in order to achieve this, orientation toward a universal conception and detachment from the oppression of nature is necessary. Then we will no longer have the need of pictures and sculpture, for we will live in realized art. —Piet Mondrian, 1942
To construct a utopia is always an act of negation toward an existing reality, a desire to transform it. —Leszek Kolakowski, 1968
Abstract art—painting and sculpture that makes no direct, immediately discernible reference to recognizable objects—was born of an alliance of modernist aesthetics and the occult doctrines of theosophy in the second decade of the twentieth century. Its first masterworks were produced by Vasily Kandinsky in Germany, Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands, and Kazimir Malevich in Russia. Yet no sooner was this new artistic convention established as an influence on the European avant-garde than it was quickly appropriated by still another mode of thought—utopianism—which similarly rejected commonly held conceptions of “reality” in the name of a visionary ideal. This utopian ideal, while no less mystical in some respects than that of theosophy, nonetheless differed from it in locating the realm of future perfection in the material world. Toward the material world utopian ideology adopted an attitude as radical—and, in fact, as otherworldly—as any to be found in occult doctrine, but it did not question the existence of the material world. Its goal was to change it—to eliminate its imperfections in order to establish an ideal harmony, at once social and spiritual, in every sphere of earthly human endeavor.
Whereas theosophical belief is essentially religious in nature, utopian thought is fundamentally political, for it seeks to realize its model of human perfection by bringing about a radical transformation of society and its institutions. While both envision an ideal future, it is in the nature of utopian thought to imagine that the particular “heaven” it hypothesizes can be created on earth.
It should not be supposed, however, that an allegiance to mysticism precludes a commitment to utopian ideology. On the contrary, these apparently contradictory doctrines have proved to be highly compatible systems of belief. Both refuse to acknowledge either the limits of human nature or the legitimate conflicts of interest that characterize virtually every form of human society. Both are attempts to transcend the contingencies of history for the purpose of achieving an eternal order so perfect as to lie beyond the need of dissension or modification. Yet utopian ideology departs from occult belief in a fierce yearning to effect a sweeping transformation of material life by means of political action.
The political models to which the pioneers of abstract art attached their utopian dreams, though generally of a socialist character, were by no means uniform, however much they may have been thought to resemble each other in the eyes of their adversaries. The leading figures of the Russian avant-garde—Malevich, Tatlin, Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Popova, et al.—were fervent supporters of revolution, and welcomed the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 as the dawn of a new millennium. And it was in Russia, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution of 1917, that these champions of abstraction came to enjoy an unprecedented authority over the conduct of cultural life.
The utopian impulses of the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands, which also dates from 1917, were more restricted, and certainly less strident. While no less militant than the Russian avant-garde in its artistic objectives—and initially sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause—the De Stijl group remained aloof from any organized involvement in revolutionary politics. De Stijl was a movement confined to avant-garde artists, architects, designers, and art theorists. While in some respects an antiwar movement that took the horrors of the First World War to represent everything that was moribund in the European past, it never came under the jurisdiction of political commissars or party functionaries. Its primary influence—its primary achievement, too—would always be aesthetic. Its concept of utopia had more to do with ideas about painting and a redesign of the man-made environment than with programs of political action. It helped, of course, that the Netherlands itself remained neutral in the war.
In Germany, and in Central and Eastern Europe, where both Russian modernism and the De Stijl movement wielded immense influence in avant-garde circles, the relation that obtained between the aesthetics of abstraction and the utopian impulse varied from group to group—and sometimes from year to year—in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the termination of the First World War.
The most celebrated citadel of avant-garde design to be established in Europe in the period between the two world wars—the Bauhaus, founded by the German architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919—initially billed itself as the “Cathedral of Socialism,” and from the outset was imbued with a radical fervor that was believed, especially by its enemies on the political Right, to reflect revolutionary goals. Yet the radicalism of the Bauhaus, while generally socialist in its announced ideals, was in practice a more volatile and bizarre amalgam of artistic, mystical, and collectivist ideas than its socialist reputation suggests. Its ranks were rife with the followers of occult sects, bohemian lifestyles, food cults, and sundry other manifestations of a freewheeling counterculture.
It was in Russia that abstraction was first drawn into the orbit of utopian thought in ways that determined its fate.
At the same time, practical considerations required the Bauhaus to collaborate with industry and commerce, for its principal endeavors were addressed to the theory and practice of architectural, industrial, and graphic design, not to the production of fine art. In its early years, its contribution to abstraction was more theoretical than practical. It wasn’t until the late 1920s, when the Bauhaus had entered upon the crisis that preceded its shutdown in 1933, that the most distinguished artists on its teaching staff—Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee—were first permitted to offer studio instruction in abstract painting.
It was in Russia, far more decisively than elsewhere, that abstraction was first drawn into the orbit of utopian thought in ways that determined its fate. In no other country did its peculiar combination of aesthetic radicalism and metaphysical yearning so quickly impel abstraction in the direction of political revolution. And in no other country did a triumphant revolution go so far in embracing abstraction as an instrument of cultural and political change. It was therefore in Russia, in the decade following the Revolution of 1917, that a new alliance of abstract art and utopian ideology was put to its severest historical test.
The artistic momentum that set the Russian avant-garde on this radical course was already well established before the Revolution itself. The roots of Russian modernism—abstract art included—are to be found in the cosmopolitan culture of the pre-Soviet Russian liberal intelligentsia that was in close touch with the latest artistic and intellectual developments in France, Germany, and Italy. The ideas of the Expressionist movement in Germany, including Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group in Munich, and those of the Futurist movement in Italy were well-known in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but it was the art of the Paris avant-garde that dominated the thinking of the Russian modernists in their accelerating quest for the absolute.
Crucial to this development were the great collections of the modernist School of Paris that had been amassed by two remarkable Russian businessmen, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. With their immense holdings in the most advanced painting of the Paris school—especially the works of Matisse and Picasso—these collections played a central role in acquainting the artists of the burgeoning Russian avant-garde with splendid examples of the new Fauvist and Cubist art long before such objects were exhibited in significant numbers in the museums of the Western world. Then, too, a number of the artists who would shortly be counted among the early creators of abstract art in Russia made their personal pilgrimages to the French capital. Mikhail Larionov, who in 1913 issued a manifesto on behalf of Rayonist painting—a more or less abstract pictorial style claiming to be based on “forms chosen by the will of the artist”—had visited Paris as early as 1906 in connection with the Russian exhibition organized by Sergei Diaghilev for that year’s Salon d’automne. (It was in the Salon d’automne a year before that the Fauvist paintings of Matisse were first exhibited.) Liubov Popova, one of the stars of the early Soviet avant-garde, served an apprenticeship to Cubism in Paris in 1912–13. Around that time, too, Vladimir Tatlin, who would win lasting fame for his Monument to the Third International (1919), wangled his way into Picasso’s Paris studio, where he had his first glimpse of the artist’s constructed Cubist reliefs—a new mode of sculpture not yet known to the public. This led, in 1915–16, to the creation of Tatlin’s even more radical Corner Counter-Reliefs, abstract constructions made of metal and other materials that, unlike Picasso’s constructed sculpture, no longer made any discernible reference to recognizable objects. Similar pilgrimages to Paris were made by Naum Gabo, Ivan Puni, and others, and key documents of the Paris avant-garde, like the writings of Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger on Cubism, were promptly translated into Russian.
Russian modernists were by no means alone, of course, in submitting to the influence of the Paris avant-garde in this period, but what they made of that influence was nonetheless remarkable even in an era known for its artistic audacities. For it was in the nature of Russian modernism to seize upon every innovation imported from abroad and propel its development in an even more radical direction than its originators had envisioned. As a result, the pre-Soviet Russian avant-garde promptly created more extreme varieties of pure abstraction than could be found in the advanced art of any Western European or North American art capital.
In this headlong rush into pure abstraction, a volcanic mixture of occult doctrine, political fervor, futuristic fantasy, and incendiary dreams of cultural revolution acted as a powerful stimulus. However pure or simplified its forms, abstract art in Russia was seldom looked upon as art-for-art’s-sake even by pronounced aesthetes. Whatever its roots in mystical doctrine, abstraction was conceived to serve social, historical, and other purposes larger than itself. In the years leading up to the Revolution of 1917, cultural life in Russia acquired an increasingly apocalyptic character that favored extreme solutions to all the problems of art, life, and thought. In this circumstance, abstract art—precisely to the extent that it eliminated all trace of or reverence for the world as it was—had the advantage of addressing its public as, in Leszek Kolakowki’s words, “an act of negation toward an existing reality.” This in itself gave to the aesthetics of abstraction a utopian imperative.
Theo van Doesburg & De Stijl’s utopian aesthetic
The creation of a new world has commenced. —Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl, August 1921
To succeed in elevating its acts of negation to the level of a comprehensive and influential artistic program, every avant-garde movement requires, in addition to the achievement of a master talent to set its aesthetic course, the services of a robust animateur—an artist-activist capable of commanding attention, forging alliances, winning converts, and otherwise advancing the cause. Mondrian, while undoubtedly De Stijl’s master talent and the only major artist to be closely associated with the group, was temperamentally ill-equipped to perform such worldly tasks. The role of the movement’s animateur therefore fell to Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931), a determined avant-gardist painter, writer, and intellectual whose artistic ambitions often exceeded the scope of his talents but whose gifts as a cultural impresario and propagandist were irrepressible.
It was van Doesburg who organized De Stijl as a movement and established its presence in the European avant-garde in the 1920s. He wrote some of its key documents, he was the editor of its journal—called De Stijl—and he was its principal liaison with other avant-garde groups, particularly Dada and the Bauhaus. He became, in fact, something like the movement’s Apollinaire or Marinetti—a tireless proselytizer of its radical aesthetic who was himself “the prototype of the anti-bourgeois,” as the Dutch writer Joost Baljeu called him. As early as 1914, though he had yet to produce a significant work of art or anything like an artistic manifesto, van Doesburg imagined himself making, as he said, “a daring, spiritual crusade throughout artistic and intellectual Europe.” His opportunity came with the founding of De Stijl in 1917.
The ideas and aspirations that Mondrian and van Doesburg brought to De Stijl were anything but identical, however. For Mondrian, painting was a spiritual vocation. Once established, the principles of his Neo-Plasticism—the reduction of pictorial form to the square and the rectangle, with a palette limited to black, white, and the primary colors—remained inviolate. Anything that suggested a residual dependency on subjective expression was regarded as a failure to conform to the universal “reality” Mondrian believed he had achieved in his Neo-Plastic compositions. Hence the strict observance of a pictorial syntax based on the right angle. As Mondrian once observed to the American painter Carl Holty: “Curved lines are too emotional.” “Curved lines,” of course, was a reference to Nature. Even shades of gray had to be eliminated from the painter’s palette as an impermissible compromise.
Whatever may have been his interest in some possible equivalent of Neo-Plasticism in the fields of architecture and design—he seems to have been content to consign such endeavors to some hypothetical future—Mondrian himself remained exclusively occupied with the “reality” of his own painting and the synthesis of aesthetic and occult ideas governing its creation. Yet under van Doesburg’s leadership, De Stijl embraced a cultural agenda that went beyond painting to include not only architecture and design but literature, music, and indeed—at least in theory—all of cultural life. As a consequence, Mondrian’s relation to De Stijl was bound to be more problematic than anyone, least of all van Doesburg, was willing to acknowledge at the outset of their collaboration. Mondrian was nothing if not candid in underscoring for van Doesburg the exact nature of his own artistic interests. “You must remember,” he wrote to van Doesburg in February 1917, “that my things are still intended to be paintings, that is to say, not part of a building. Furthermore, they have been made in a small room.” Which, at the very least, placed his painting at a certain distance from the architectural ambitions van Doesburg envisioned for De Stijl.
The originality of Mondrian’s achievement as a pure abstractionist was fundamental to the founding of De Stijl.
Yet, the originality of Mondrian’s achievement as a pure abstractionist was fundamental to the founding of De Stijl. The aesthetic that Mondrian was perfecting during the early years of the war was understood to be essential to the movement’s success—so much so that van Doesburg agreed to postpone the publication of the journal that became De Stijl until Mondrian felt ready to participate. This proved to be a shrewd decision, for the treatise that Mondrian wrote for De Stijl at van Doesburg’s instigation on “Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art,” which was serialized in the issues of 1917–18, did much to define the radical aesthetic character of the entire movement. For the moment, moreover, van Doesburg’s own work as an abstract painter, though it still derived from the kind of representational subject matter that Mondrian had now permanently abandoned, showed every outward sign of conforming to the master’s prohibitions. So certain fundamental differences that separated their respective views not only of art but of the movement itself were left in abeyance.
Yet painting was never more than one of van Doesburg’s many avant-garde interests, and not always the dominant one. He certainly did not share Mondrian’s view of painting as a spiritual vocation. For the whole mystical element in New-Plasticism he seems to have felt little affinity. He was more interested in the social functions of abstract art than in its religious significance or its occult sources. He was thus just the animateur that was needed to bring De Stijl’s mystical conception of abstract art into alignment with the aspirations of utopian politics. It is no easy task, however, to establish the exact character of van Doesburg’s own political beliefs. He was anything but a stickler for ideological clarity or linguistic precision.
“Capitalists are deceivers,” he wrote in 1921, “and so are the Socialists.” And further: “The first, second and third Socialist Internationals constituted ridiculous nonsense,” and so on. What he then called for as an alternative to this “nonsense” was an “International of the Mind,” which he seems to have conceived of as something resembling De Stijl’s ambition to transcend what was stigmatized as Europe’s tradition of “intellectual and material individualism.” In the utopian “International of the Mind” that van Doesburg envisioned, individualism in society was—like lyricism in art—rejected in favor of something more “universal.” In practice, this might mean nothing more revolutionary than the effort of abstract artists like himself, who made an absolute of straight lines, geometric form, and unmixed color, to ally themselves with like-minded modernist architects in creating immaculate urban designs devoid of traditional decorative embellishments. Or it might signify something more political—the dream of a utopian collectivism in which the De Stijl aesthetic would inevitably be established as the final arbiter not only of art and design but of all cultural life. Van Doesburg’s writings on the subject, while unmistakably collectivist in spirit, are consistently vague about particulars.
Lecturing on “The Will to Style” in Germany in 1922, for example, he insisted that “Only collective solutions can be decisive in the realms of both politics and art,” which seemed to place his program squarely in the camp of the Bauhaus radicals and the Bolshevik loyalists in the Soviet avant-garde. Yet van Doesburg himself turned out to be too much of an unreconstructed, ego-driven modern individualist to conform even to the very limited “collective solutions” of his comrades in the De Stijl circle—Mondrian in particular—never mind the more sweeping solutions advocated by his counterparts in the Soviet avant-garde.
By 1926 van Doesburg had openly broken with the principles of Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism in order to advance his own mode of abstraction. This was grandly dubbed Counter-Plastic Elementarism, which amounted to little more than the introduction of the diagonal into Neo-Plasticism’s orthogonal orthodoxy. Then he compounded the heresy by ridiculing the concept of “spirit,” which he now ascribed to “witches, fortune-tellers and Theosophists”—in other words, charlatans. This was, of course, a calculated affront. Theosophy was the philosophical foundation on which Mondrian had based his entire abstract oeuvre. It was one of the core doctrines on which De Stijl had been founded. The very terms “De Stijl” and “Neo-Plasticism” were derived from the mystical writings of Mondrian’s philosophical mentor, M. H. J. Schoenmakers. This was heresy indeed. It was also a sign that van Doesburg, having established relations with Dada and the Bauhaus, now saw himself as the animateur of a much larger project—a Europe-wide, if not worldwide, avant-garde in the service of a utopian aesthetic.
In retrospect, van Doesburg can be seen to have been preparing himself for this larger role for some years.
In retrospect, van Doesburg can be seen to have been preparing himself for this larger role for some years. A man much given to adopting pseudonyms—even “Theo van Doesburg” was a pseudonym; his real name was Christiaan Emil Marie Küpper—van Doesburg had established a separate identity as a Dutch Dadaist poet, calling himself I. K. Bonset, as early as 1918 when he began a correspondence under that name with Tristan Tzara, one of the original instigators of Dada. (Mondrian, who was at first unaware of the deception, actually cautioned van Doesburg not to publish I. K. Bonset in De Stijl.) “There is little doubt,” writes Joost Baljeu, “that van Doesburg saw Dada’s revolutionary character and its engagement in the destruction of an old culture as a necessary preparation for the realization of De Stijl’s utopian aims.” Be that as it may, van Doesburg was clearly attracted to the anarchist-nihilist element in Dada even as he was promoting the principles of utopian order as the leader of De Stijl. Under still another pseudonym—Aldo Camini—van Doesburg also adopted the stance of a Dada anti-philosopher, drawing his inspiration from Tzara’s Manifesto of Mr. Aa the Anti-philosopher (1918), to attack Kant, Hegel, and the whole school of German idealist philosophy (for which other members of the De Stijl circle felt a close affinity), as well as Schoenmakers, De Stijl’s resident philosopher.
Meanwhile, van Doesburg was also busily at work establishing his bona fides with the leadership of the Bauhaus. He later claimed that Gropius had invited him to join the Bauhaus faculty, but this, like so many of van Doesburg’s boasts, turned out to be something of a fiction. According to Gropius,
I have never invited van Doesburg to the Bauhaus. He came there of his own initiative because he was attracted by our courses. He hoped to become a professor here at the Bauhaus, but I did not give him a position, since I judged him to be aggressive and fanatic and considered that he possessed such a narrow, theoretical view that he could not tolerate any diversity of opinion.
The latter point isn’t quite correct, however, for van Doesburg wasn’t at all averse to a “diversity of opinion” so long as he was free to claim every one of the diverse ideas he espoused as wholly his own.
In the end, it remains difficult to know what, if anything, van Doesburg really believed in beyond a vague, idealized utopian future from which the “old culture” of Europe had at last been expunged—a project in which the aesthetics of abstraction was seen to play a key role, and in which van Doesburg himself would be the intellectual leader. It was not to be, of course. By the end of the 1920s, the modernist avant-garde was already in retreat in the Soviet Union. In Western Europe, Dada was succumbing to the blandishments of Surrealism, which rejected the aesthetics of abstraction, and the Bauhaus was heading toward political disaster. As it was, van Doesburg was probably fortunate to die when he did—in 1931, at the age of fifty-eight—with his utopian dreams intact and his megalomania undiminished. Had he lived another decade, he would probably have ended up as a university professor in capitalist America, which, while not a fate worse than death, would not have borne much resemblance to that “daring, spiritual crusade throughout artistic and intellectual Europe” that he had imagined for himself in 1914. But then, the entire character of “artistic and intellectual Europe” was altered when Hitler came to power in 1933 in ways that van Doesburg had never imagined, and, in that altered Europe, De Stijl’s vision of a utopian future was one of the many avant-garde dreams that died of inanition.
Mondrian, however, proved to be a hardy survivor of De Stijl’s demise and illusions. Working in Paris in the heyday of Surrealism’s dominion in the 1930s, he went his own way, secure in his convictions, confident of his goals, never wavering in the faith that supported an art untouched by adverse circumstance; and in the end, in New York City of all places, found his final inspiration in the closest thing to the utopian future he had ever encountered. Part Two of “Abstraction and Utopia,” dealing with the Soviet avant-garde and the Bauhaus, will be published in the October issue of The New Criterion.
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