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Neo-Plasticism Collage


Started: 1917
Ended: 1944
Neo-Plasticism Timeline
"Neo-Plasticism creates harmony through two extremes: the universal and the individual. The former by revelation, the latter by deduction. Art gives visible expression to the evolution of life: the evolution of spirit and - in the reverse direction - that of matter."
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Piet Mondrian Signature
"Painting today is architectural because in itself and by its own means it serves the same concept as architecture - space and and the plane - and thus expresses 'the same thing' but in a different way."
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Bart van der Leck
"To be white, red, yellow, or black is to be a painter. Today it is not sufficient for the painter to think of color; he should be color, feed on color and transform himself into painting. That is the essential thing."
3 of 10
Theo van Doesburg Signature
"Increasingly, the work of art speaks for itself. Personality is displaced; each work of art becomes a personality instead of each artist. Each work of art becomes another expression of the universal."
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Piet Mondrian Signature
"Art - although an end in and of itself, like religion - is the means through which we can know the universal and contemplate it in plastic form."
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Piet Mondrian Signature
"All relations are dominated by a single primordial relation, which is defined by the opposition of two extremes."
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Piet Mondrian Signature
"Neo-plasticism is pure painting; the means of expression still are form and color, though these are completely interiorized; the straight line and flat color remain purely pictorial means of expression..."
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Piet Mondrian Signature
"Plastic vision implies action...The pure plastic vision should set up a new society...a society composed of balanced relationships."
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Piet Mondrian Signature
"While the expressive possibilities of Neo-Plasticism are limited to two dimensions (the plane), Elementarism realizes the possibility of plasticism in four dimensions, in the field of time-space."
9 of 10
Theo van Doesburg Signature
"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."
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Piet Mondrian Signature

Summary of Neo-Plasticism

Neo-Plasticism, articulated most completely by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, relied on the most basic elements of painting - color, line, and form - to convey universal and absolute truths. Mondrian advocated for the use of austere geometry and color to create asymmetrical but balanced compositions that conveyed the harmony underlying reality. As with many avant-garde styles of the early-20th century, a utopian vision of society underlay Neo-Plastic theory. Embracing the elemental forms of composition and the merging of painting and architecture, Neo-Plasticism strove to transform society by changing the way people saw and experienced their environment.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Instead of representations of natural forms, Neo-Plasticism relied on the relationships between line and color to emulate the opposing forces that structured nature and reality. Neo-Plastic compositions juxtapose horizontal and vertical lines along with the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue against the non-colors of black, white, and grey to produce timeless balance.
  • Neo-Plasticism abolished the figure-ground dichotomy by using an irregular grid structure that resisted arranging the pictorial elements into a hierarchy. This all-over composition created a unity that Mondrian felt underscored the disharmony of the surrounding environment.
  • Mondrian and other Neo-Plastic artists thought that the merging of painting, architecture, and design would hasten the coming of an ordered and harmonious society. They intended that this utopic vision, coming from the "dynamic equilibrium" sought out in Neo-Plastic paintings, would spread to the interior of the studio, to the home, the street, and the city, and eventually to all of the world.

Overview of Neo-Plasticism

Neo-Plasticism Image

From 1909-1910 Mondrian painted in a Neo-Impressionist style and carefully studied Georges Seurat's scientific methodology and color theory that emphasized the use of contrasting primary colors. During this time, he also joined the Dutch Theosophical Society and remained a member all his life. The writings of the theosophists Madame Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner and M. H. J. Schoenmaekers's Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde (The Principles of Plastic Mathematics) both influenced and echoed the aesthetic theory that Mondrian was then developing. Particularly influential was Schoenmaeker's view that, "The two fundamental and absolute extremes that shape our planet are: on the one hand the line of the horizontal force, namely the trajectory of the Earth around the Sun, and on the other vertical and essentially spatial movement of the rays that issue from the center of the Sun...the three essential colors are yellow, blue, and red." The use of horizontal and vertical lines and primary colors became fundamental principles of Neo-Plasticism. Mondrian even borrowed one of Schoenmaeker's phrases, "de nieuwe beelding," which literally means "new image creation" or "new art," as the name for his new art style.

Key Artists

  • Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neo-plasticism.
  • Theo van Doesburg was a Dutch artist, who together with Piet Mondrian established the De Stijl movement. Van Doesburg's most famous work experimented with geometric abstraction and archetypal forms. He was also a prominent architect and writer.

Do Not Miss

  • Founded in the Netherlands in 1917, De Stijl was an avant-garde dedicated to isolating a single visual style that would be appropriate to all aspects of modern life, from art to design to architecture. Taking its name from a periodical, its most famous practitioners were Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, whose mature art employed geometric blocks of primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines.
  • Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
  • Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
  • The International Style was a style of modern architecture that emerged in the 1920s and '30s. It emphasized balance, the importance of function, and clean lines devoid of ornamentation. Glass and steel buildings, with less emphasis on conrete, is the most common and pure realization of structures in this style.

Important Art and Artists of Neo-Plasticism

Composition with Color Planes 5 (1917)

Artist: Piet Mondrian

By 1917, Mondrian had abandoned any allusions to representations of nature, and this work is among the first group of paintings to embody the ideas that he put forth in "Neo-Plasticism in Painting," published in the same year. In previous work, like Pier and Ocean (1915), Mondrian used only black and white lines on a white background to depict a very abstracted landscape. According to Mondrian, "Vertical and horizontal lines are the expression of two opposing forces; they exist everywhere and dominate everything; their reciprocal action constitutes 'life'."

The ochre, mauve, and grey rectangles cover the surface of the painting in an asymmetrical fashion, subverting the regular grid format. While the rectangles seem to float above the white background, close inspection reveals that the "background" itself consists of painted white rectangles. Without inscribing lines on the painting, these white rectangles of varying size hold the others in place. Mondrian wrote to a friend that paintings similar to this one "represent a development which I believe offers a better solution for color planes against a background. As I painted, it gradually became clear to me that for my work color planes set against a solid field do not form an entity." By setting the colored blocks amidst white ones, Mondrian created a tightly interlaced, united composition.

Composition (1918)

Artist: Bart Van der Leck

In this geometric abstract work, six rectangles in varying sizes are depicted in pairs of primary colors - red, blue, and yellow - against a white background. Two short horizontal lines float at the upper right and lower left corners, and three short lines create a broken diagonal from the lower right to upper left corners.

This work is one of Van der Leck's few completely abstract paintings. Prior to meeting Mondrian in 1916, his work included figurative elements, but in the following association with Mondrian, he began using line and geometric form to create abstract works. He was one of the co-founders of the magazine, De Stijl, and for a time collaborated with the group. Eventually, he came to disagree with Mondrian and the others about the representational aspects of art. Van der Leck used the geometrical elements of Neo-Plasticism to create recognizable images, as can be seen in his Man te paard (The horseman) of 1918.

It is possible that even this abstract composition could have begun as a vase of flowers on a table, but after deconstructing the image to its most elemental forms, we are left with a seemingly abstract configuration of shapes and lines. Notable is the use of the diagonal in the line segments dividing the canvas, and the placement of rectangles to resemble diamond shapes. As a result the overall effect is that the color rectangles create a kind of implicit shape on the canvas, the suggestion of an underlying reality, outlined with a minimalist vocabulary.

Composition With Grid VI (1919)

Artist: Piet Mondrian

Mondrian turned his usual square format on its edge to produce a diamond-shaped canvas, creating one of the first "lozenge paintings," as he called them. After a period of time when he abandoned line to work only with geometric shapes of color, Mondrian reintroduced line again in 1918 as he continued to develop Neo-Plastic ideas with his fellow artists Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck. Subsequently, he made a number of rhomboid paintings like this one, composed of a grid of rectangles, divided by black lines and painted in rose, grey, yellow, and white.

For Mondrian, the right-angle meeting of lines and planes was crucial for conveying the equilibrium of contrary forces, but he was willing to experiment with whether the same equilibrium could be found in the meeting of diagonals. Art historian Carel Blotkamp suggests that Mondrian painted the composition oriented as a square so that all of the lines would have been diagonal, but after further discussion and consideration with his colleagues, Mondrian reoriented the painting so the lines would be vertical and horizontal.

Heavy black lines divide some of the rectangles, but other lines are lighter, creating an impression of translucent color, and conveying a sense of shallow, not illusionistic, depth on the surface of the canvas. Mondrian said that the lozenge paintings were all about "cutting." The diagonal edge of the diamond-shaped canvas cuts through the vertical and horizontal lines, in effect cropping the composition. The viewer can imagine the grid continuing beyond the edges of the canvas onto the surrounding space, thus suggesting the underlying unity of the world.

Useful Resources on Neo-Plasticism

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Neo-Plasticism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 31 Jul 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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