Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Almost everyone I know who lives in Manila is excited for the upcoming Van Gogh Alive multi-media immersive exhibit set to open later this month. Van Gogh is undoubtedly one of the most popularly known painters of all time and his body of work one of the most easily recognized. It is thus no surprise that this event has generated plenty of buzz.

But early last week one young lady expressed her disagreement with the exhibit in a social media post that went viral. She protested that digital technology does a disservice to the actual paintings of Van Gogh, and how such a format will only cater to those she felt do not, or could not, have a deep appreciation of the man and his art. It seems that she believes that both are symptoms of the “mainstreaming” of Van Gogh and his art, something that she does not look upon in a positive light.

Criticism of her statements came swiftly down. I agree with the more sensible comments that chided her stance, but this being social media it quickly became a morass. Because social media is such an individualized landscape there is an inescapable individual responsibility to try to correct it when a thread becomes a mob. This is my contribution to add meaningfully to the conversation that had been prompted by the young lady’s remarks – not to condemn, but to share something that may be worthwhile for people to know in the context of the issue at hand.

The Netherlands is the home of many extraordinary artists, like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. This was also the birthplace of an art movement called De Stijl. Even if this name sounds unfamiliar, I can almost guarantee the reader that if you grew up in any city in the Philippines you have already seen a copy of a De Stijl art work, or works that have been influenced by its style.

And that’s exactly what it means: De Stijl is simply “The Style”, one that began to fully emerge in the aftermath of the First World War in Europe. Seeking to regain balance and looking to move forward from the opulent, sometimes excessive, naturalism of the turn-of-the-century art world (think Art Noveau), the De Stijl movement espoused abstraction and stripping down subjects to their essential elements. This is where their distinctive use of straight lines, blocks, asymmetry, and primary colors comes from. The results are deceptively simple and thoroughly modern that one may have already seen works that draw from De Stijl without it ever even registering (to friends and readers around the UP Mindanao area, you can see how Piet Mondriaan’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow and Theo van Doesburg’s Composition VII, or The Three Graces, inspired this cozy little pub in Mintal).

Another distinctive feature of De Stijl was that women artists like Nelly van Doesburg, Truus Schröder-Schräder, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp played important roles, often in collaborative works where it was difficult to name just a single creator. These works were not confined to painting alone but included architecture, interior design, sculpture, and even typefaces. An important guiding principle of De Stijl was to blur, and even erase, the line between “fine” art and what we would now call its applications. They wanted their style to pervade the everyday, to not just be hung on the walls to simply be looked at, but to function and be used. That is why some of the movement’s landmark works are a dance hall, a house, a chair, and even a kitchen!

Though I have never heard this term used before to describe De Stijl, one could say that they espoused a certain way of democratizing art. Today we see the artistic principles of De Stijl blending seamlessly in mundane, everyday objects like modern condominium blocks, magazines and advertisements, even our computer desktop. An indicator of De Stijl’s lasting impact is that, we may not have heard of them, but we cannot now imagine our world without them. Being “mainstream” would have been a badge of honor for members of De Stijl because that is the role they saw for art in the kind of world they wanted to create.

I am reminded of a poem which, though it may been written almost a hundred years after the heyday of De Stijl, nevertheless carries a very similar spirit:

I wish to be taken for granted
Like the wind you breathe
Like the sunlight on your face
Like the ground at your feet
Like the water that you drink.

I wish to be taken for granted
Like the workers in the factories
Like the tillers in the farms
Like those who dwell in schools
Like those who recreate the world.

I wish to be taken for granted
But I shall smile with satisfaction
If some people sometimes remember
That I did what I could in my time
To add to what is now commonplace.

— Excerpt from “I wish to be taken for granted” by Jose Maria Sison (2013)

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