Cesar Domela 1900 - 1992

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Painted in 1926, shortly after his encounter with the De Stijl group in 1924, Composition Néo-Plastique no. 5 O is one of César Domela's most significant works. 


Through his friend, the sculptor Henri Laurens, Domela first met Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian in Paris. The artist's own independent research into geometry and abstraction interested the De Stijl group, who welcomed the young artist as one of its members, reproducing his linocuts 10 Constructive Studies that year in their magazine. De Stijl had been founded in 1917, with the ambition of forging a new pictorial language, independent from figurative representation and centred on universal principles: straight lines and squared angles, the vertical and the horizontal, primary colours (red, blue and yellow) and the bare basis (white, grey and black).


In its elements, Composition néo-plastique no. 5 O conforms to the criteria defining De Stijl's idea of painting: Domela has divided the space of the canvas using black lines meeting at perpendicular angles, articulating on its surface a constructed asymmetry. He has also limited his palette to blue, red, yellow and grey, disrupting the binary system of black and white on which the picture is structured. Although perpendicular, however, the lines in Composition néo-plastique no. 5 O are diagonals, rooting this work within the theoretical debate which separated Van Doesburg and Mondrian in 1924, the very year Domela joined the group. While Mondrian firmly believed in the absolute harmonic value of horizontal and vertical lines, Van Doesburg argued that diagonals, crossing at right angles, brought a necessary dynamic element to the composition, counterbalancing the stability of perpendicular lines.


In 1926 - the year Composition néo-plastique no. 5 O was painted - Domela's works continued to be illustrated in De Stijl magazine. Works such as the present one, however, show how the artist was aligning himself towards Van Doesburg's position, who by that year had founded a new movement, Elementarism. Although embracing Van Doesburg's ideas, Composition néo-plastique no. 5 O also affirms Domela's determinedly independent approach. While, according to Van Doesburg, diagonals had to be introduced in the picture plane at forty-five degree, Domela resorted to a more instinctive compositional principle, which would eventually lead him to explore, in his later works, curved lines and the third-dimension. Cutting the sides of the canvas at different angles, the diagonals in Composition néo-plastique no. 5 O introduce a vertiginous effect to the composition, adding a vivid sense of movement to its rigorous geometric structure.


The path of abstraction was already clearly marked out for Domela when he left Berlin for Paris. He was aware of the universality of his art and would venture into his own pictorial research. Alain Clairet says about Domela's views diverging with those of Mondrian: 'He (Domela) was undoubtedly attracted to an art in search of universal principles, an art that had become universally legible, which expressed the balanced relationship between the individual and the universal and was but the 'sheer manifestation of what is unchangeable (...). Although there is no doubt that, for Domela, a work of art must be the plastic expression of balanced relationships based upon the opposition of colours and lines, it is very unlikely that he ever adhered to the idea that nature is the point of departure in a picture, the place where the discovery of the right angle -the intersection of the line of the horizon and that which connects the horizon and the moon- originates. Finally, although there is no doubt again that Domela was searching for an art permeated with some spirituality, in which the unity between the spirit and the matter would be attained, it is equally unlikely that he was ever close to the hazy, theosophical theories of the Neo-plasticists' (Clairet, op.cit. p. 20-21). It must be stressed though that Domela was not the only one of De Stijl persuing his own research. Most of the other members did too, taking little heed of the initial doctrines. But according to Clairet: '... such divergent opinions do not seem to have affected the adhesion of the group nor the relationships among individuals within it. In fact, they continued to enjoy meeting around Mondrian who inspired both respect and admiration. Besides, Domela writes: 'By stating personal views on Neo-plasticism in his writings, Mondrian was in no way trying to force a manifesto on his fellow artists.'' (quoted in Clairet, op.cit. p. 22).   

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