June 24: paradox in red, blue and yellow

2016/06/24 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1888 Gerrit Rietveld was born.

It seems to so often be true that as artists mature, they rejecting everything that was precious to their fathers.  So it was for Rietveld (d. 1964), born in Utrecht as Art Nouveau was slithering across northern Europe (it finally got to the Netherlands in the 1890s; you can see some pretty things on this otherwise unattractive website).  By the time that Rietveld was figuring himself out, the Great War had swept away the beauty, luxury and optimism of Art Nouveau.  Designers looked to hard, universal forms with neither national references nor personal artistic statements.  Dutch De Stijl designers (artists no more) arranged planes and lines of pure primary colors.  The general compositional approach, which works well enough in the flatlands of painting, was challenged by structural realities of furniture design as the basic idea was extruded into three dimensions.  This is where Rietveld stepped on to the scene with his famous Red Blue Chair of 1917.  Seven years later he became an architect with his first and most famous building, the house for Truus Schröder-Schräder, the singular monument of De Stijl architecture.  Although De Stijl was short-lived (“floating planes” not being highly conducive to keeping out bugs and rain, nor obeying the laws of physics like architecture generally strives to do) it was also largely influential in its achievement of a personality-free, industrially produced abstracted langauge.  It is also the epitome of Modernism’s contradictions: requiring significant handicraft to achieve the machine image, sacrificing functionality while striving to express pragmatism, trumpeting the death of art while actually, ultimately, at the end of day, it is just one more style.

Most of Rietveld’s follow-up work represents the kind of garden variety Modernism of those nameless “others” who contributed to the Weissenhofsiedlung–except for his late, last work, the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, which is just a horror, and one more proof that a person needs to know when to exit the party to avoid embarrassing himself and his hosts.

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