S4, E9: Life Lessons From a Dutch Art Movement

On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, AFAR contributing writer Chris Colin travels to the Netherlands in search of the art movement that sought to heal the world through geometry.

On the ninth episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, season four, AFAR contributing writer Chris Colin travels to Utrecht to explore the De Stijl movement, the early 20th century art movement that birthed artists like Mondrian—and thought the chaos of the world could be healed through geometric shapes.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. Plus, this season, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.

This week, we’re heading to the Netherlands with Chris Colin. Chris is an AFAR contributing writer, an editor, and the senior producer for chef José Andrés’s podcast, Longer Tables. He’s also the author of four books including his latest, called Off, a picture book about an analog world. It’s very fun. Chris has an eye, and an ear for, let’s say, unusual stories. If you’ve listened to Travel Tales since the beginning, you may have heard him talk about renting a friend in Tokyo, or grappling with the mystery of train travel on the Coast Starlight. This time, he’s chasing an obscure art movement in the city of Utrecht, which isn’t far from Amsterdam. An art movement that effectively died out decades ago and yet manages to feel relevant (and recognizable) even today.

Aislyn: Chris, welcome to Travel Tales.

Chris Colin, AFAR contributing writer: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Aislyn: So good to have you. I’ve worked with you for, I don’t know, how many years now? A billion?

Chris: Uh, 50 years.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yours is a little shorter. As listeners are going to hear, something so innocent, like going to the grocery store and seeing a tote bag with artwork, can inspire a story. Was this the first time something like this has happened for you?

Chris: I think this was probably my first tote bag–inspired story. But I don’t know, you know, story ideas come from all kinds of weird places.

Aislyn: Yeah, yeah. And we’ve been talking about this story since—I looked back in the email—since 2019.

Chris: Yes. Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I had always been sort of curious about this art movement. And I’d been curious about Utrecht, because I had heard, just sort of independent of De Stijl, that Utrecht was where I absolutely had to go.

And then, Aislyn, you might remember, we had this big pandemic happen. And, at first, I was like, “Oh, goddammit, now I can’t go to Utrecht.” And then, you know, gradually, over time, I realized—well, first there was a minute where nothing seemed to matter anymore. You know, like an obscure avant garde art movement from a hundred years ago definitely didn’t seem important. And then it dawned on me that it actually was weirdly, um, relevant to what we were all going through a century later.

And I started to have this sort of secondary interest in De Stijl, in this movement. Well, we can get into why, but it became clear to me that there is an interesting resonance between De Stijl and the chaos and loss that we all went through over the last few years.

Aislyn: Do you think the story for you was better because you went postpandemic than it would have been?

Chris: I think we all look at the world differently after the last few years. But yeah, I, I very much—I, I would say that abstract art has always been interesting to me and also a little challenging. It’s always been a little, a little too heady for me to always be able to really relate to it at a deep level.

I have an intellectual appreciation for it often. But I sometimes have missed a more sort of visceral connection to it. And that’s partly why I wanted to go to the city where at least a piece of its history took root. Being in Utrecht, where some key De Stijl events began to unfold, uh, it, it allowed me to see it in a slightly more human and relatable key, I guess you’d say.

Aislyn: One of my neighbors is an architect and painted her house in the Mondrian style, like it is like blocks of color. And I’ve never had any kind of emotional reaction to that style of art. Like, I think it’s interesting. But I’ve never felt kind of emotionally connected to it. But learning about what it emerged from helped create that for me. So, thank you.

Chris: Yeah, no, I had a very similar feeling. I think a lot of people do. It’s like you go to a modern art museum, you see modernism and it’s interesting and intellectually curious, but it’s hard to really see the feeling or know, or know how to interpret the feeling. So I think the story of De Stijl that I tell was my way of coming to understand the human feeling behind those stark lines and colors.

Aislyn: Not to get too in the weeds, but I still don’t understand why circles were so off limits, because to me, they, they seem like they would bring chaos together. It’s a circle. It’s connection. It’s—anyway, but you don’t have to go into it.

Chris: No, no, that’s a really good—that was part of what was so interesting and befuddling to me about the story from the outset was, yeah, circles were absolutely forbidden in De Stijl. And I, I have plenty of strong feelings about this and that, but I cannot imagine having such a strong feeling about a geometric shape.

So, um, yeah, you know, as a way, especially when you see those edicts as a response to, you know, to a war and everything associated with, it’s extra interesting in my mind. What in God’s name did a circle do to these people?

Aislyn: I know. Well, outside of art and all of this, why would you send people to Utrecht?

Chris: So if you close your eyes and you imagine the perfect city. Walkable, cozy, green, contemplative but lively, orderly but artsy. And with these damn canals going everywhere that are just so fun to look at and sit next to and float on, if you rent a boat. If you close your eyes and picture that place, that’s Utrecht.

It’s just, it’s beautiful, it’s just the right size. And you might be thinking, “Well, that’s also Amsterdam.” I know there’s a lot of Amsterdam lovers out there, I’m one of them. But if you’ve been to Amsterdam in recent years, you know that, it’s really crowded, it’s pretty packed. And, and all of those lovely aspects of it are, uh, often jammed with tourists.

So what I had been hearing for years was, you know, this sort of whispered rumor that if you want to enjoy the charms of Amsterdam, but without all the, all the crowds, go to Utrecht.

Aislyn: Were you able to make links between this city and that art movement? Were you able to say, like, “Ah, I see why De Stijl was invented here?”

Chris: Well, that’s, I was afraid you were going to ask me that question, Aislyn.

Aislyn: I can strike this from the record.

Chris: No, no, it’s an interesting question. I mean, it was—one of the challenges in doing this story was, you know, anytime you go walk in someone’s distant and, and rapidly vanishing footsteps, it’s always a little bit of a stretch to try and sort of squint and see what you can see from, from their world, you know, sort of mapped onto the current one. Part of the fun for me was, was imagining how that spirit from a hundred years ago sort of morphed into the spirit I felt today.

Aislyn: Why do you think this art has endured?

Chris: I think a lot of art historians wonder the same thing. As esoteric and often impenetrable as it is, it’s really popular. I mean, one art historian I spoke with said, “Mondrian, for example, is going to be the most well-known artist in, in the years to come. It’s going to sort of replace Picasso as the artist you think of when you think of an artist.”

I think it’s visually very striking. And I think, even if you just have a little sense of the philosophy, it gets stuck in your head. You start thinking about representational art the way they do, and you start to wonder if, if they’re right, that maybe representational art is built on systems of domination. And then, and once you start thinking about that, then you really do start to see the art that you grew up looking at in a different way.

Aislyn: Yeah. Interesting. Because it is so pervasive. It’s on tote bags at Safeways and neighbors’ houses. You know, what is it that links so many people?

Chris: I want you to go ask your neighbor why. I’m, I’m, I’d be curious to know what their rationale is.

Aislyn: I will. I mean, she’s an architect, and so I just assumed, you know, it’s orderly, it’s organized, and it makes sense. Her house is a big box, so why not paint a bunch of boxes on it.

Chris: Yeah, architects are, are bananas for De Stijl, that’s true. And also, I mean, one thing that you have to do when you go to Utrecht to sort of appreciate the roots of this movement is you have to remember what it used to be like, what the world was like.

Aislyn: Yeah.

Chris: I mean, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, it was very much, you know, anything that we think of as kind of a modernist look or sensibility just didn’t exist yet. You, you had these old, dark, ornate bourgeois homes and buildings and institutions, and mores, by extension. So you really, what now we might recognize, you know, we see in, in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, for example, as kind of part of the landscape these days. it was non-existent then.

Aislyn: Hmm. Yeah. So it would have felt revolutionary and refreshing and—

Chris: Yeah, and liberating.

Chris: The rain came frantically that first day, lashing windows and whipping my poncho around me maniacally. I felt like a maniac, biking around a new city on a dubious quest for lines and rectangles.

They say Utrecht is where you go for Amsterdam’s charms minus the Amsterdam part. I was seeing it now: the same tree-lined canals and cheerful old streets and orderly mellowness, but on a less-thronged scale. Utrecht is a university town that was once a major trading port a millennium ago. The old wharf cellars have since been converted into tiny waterfront cafés and restaurants and studios. Passing the Saturday flower market, I watched two scarf-wrapped, rain-oblivious women mount bikes, tuck tulips into their baskets and casually pedal off holding hands. You can live your whole life in America and never see tulip-bearing cyclists hold hands in the rain.

But it was an event a century ago that brought me here today: a tiny bloodless revolution, instigated by a group of painters, designers, architects, poets, and musicians with a strange vision. They called themselves De Stijl—that’s Dutch for “the style”—and between 1917 and 1931 they believed geometry would achieve global harmony.

We can debate the results. But as short-lived avant-garde art movements go, it’d be hard to overstate De Stijl’s influence. You wouldn’t have Bauhaus without De Stijl or the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. De Stijl’s most famous alumnus, Piet Mondrian, became one of the planet’s most recognizable artists. This was a tiny group of people in a pretty tiny country, but you can still see their impact in modern architecture, design, even typography.

I’d become fascinated with De Stijl in recent years, but part of that fascination was absolute befuddlement.

I found their ideas exotically baffling. They believed bold horizontal and vertical lines and primary colors and geometric order would resolve the chaos of the world. Circles were forbidden! At one point, artist Theo van Doesburg summarized Mondrian’s thinking by saying: “vertical = male = space = statics = harmony; horizontal = female = time = dynamics = melody, etc.”

Now, typically when someone says something like this in my vicinity, I smile politely and usher my family a little further on down the sidewalk. But the De Stijl crew wasn’t nuts. I got it in my head that if I spent a little time in the city where several of them had lived and worked, those ideas might start to feel a little less baffling. These had been real people living real, non-esoteric lives here. Walk around in their vanishing footsteps, I thought, and maybe something would click.

So there I am that first day, pedaling past stately canal houses and shaggy willows. In general I was absorbing the vibes of this ridiculously lovely city, but a little more pointedly I was also inhaling the sights and sounds that a woman named Truus Schröder had once inhaled. Schröder had been a pivotal figure in De Stijl history, in an adjacent kind of way, and her story had unfolded in refreshingly human terms, no art theory required.

Her story begins in 1911, years before De Stijl existed, with her marriage to an older lawyer. He was a traditional man in a traditional world. She was 22, creative, opinionated, modern, and soon miserable.

When they married, her husband offered her a liberated life—freedom, no children, the space to be herself. But it would not be so. “He promised me all sorts of things, but didn’t make good on them,” Schröder later said. “He basically tricked me into this.”

Pedaling down puddled roads, squinting through the rain, I saw the city as she would have: the heavy, dark, ornate old homes, the old looming churches, the old looming bourgeois traditions.

The gulf between Schröder and her husband was the generational kind, a version of the gulf De Stijl itself would attempt to cross on a broader scale. Just as her home and life felt stifling and excessive and inert, so did society to this loose collection of artists in Utrecht and beyond, from Mondrian to van Doesburg to Bart van der Leck. They were scratching at the same door, anxious for a future that hadn’t yet arrived.

My interest in De Stijl had kindled a few years back in a Safeway checkout line, watching a woman deposit broccoli into a Mondrian tote bag. Those familiar rectangles—I’d been struck by the ubiquity of an artist I knew so little about. I began immersing myself in Mondrian’s writings, and those of De Stijl, and the roots of their movement.

What I didn’t know was that De Stijl had largely been a response to the chaos and terror of World War I, starting in 1914. Twenty million deaths. A crumbling of all things solid. Whatever inchoate restlessness one possessed, it now scalded. The Netherlands remained neutral throughout the war, and to be marooned here was to see evidence in every direction that civilization had failed.

Those artists began to find each other. Letters here, conversations there. From these exchanges, a consensus began to emerge: a fundamentally broken world needs a fundamental overhaul.

I, too, think the world is broken and needs an overhaul. I think that’s at the heart of my interest in De Stijl. But for me, I have no solutions. But De Stijl? Within months of declaring its existence, the group had figured everything out and published a full-on utopian manifesto.

In their crosshairs was the very way we perceive reality. Representational art, for instance, was inherently built on a system of domination, as it centered the artist’s perspective. Imagine a still life of some fruit. Why is the background blurry? Whose perspective are we subject to when we look at this painting? They began honing a specific new style and language of abstraction, with collectivism and universality and simplicity at the center. A “reformation of art and culture” was coming, they wrote.

In Truus Schröder’s case, that reformation would be personal. When we last left off, she was trapped in her miserable house in her miserable marriage, longing for change. In 1923 change came, with the death of her husband. She and her kids left that gloomy house and decided to start anew—not just a new life but a new kind of life. Years earlier she’d crossed paths with a young designer named Gerrit Rietveld. He was making chairs and lamps according to the De Stijl principles. Now, Schröder asked him to make her an entire house.

“How do you want to live?” Rietveld had asked at the start of the project.

It seems like an obvious question for an architect to ask his client. But how one wanted to live had been a decided matter for so long, particularly for a woman. Schröder found herself with something she’d never had before: options.

Elsewhere in Holland, elsewhere in Utrecht, the other De Stijl folks were exploring their own options, too. Mondrian had started experimenting with simple, off-white grids—reducing art to a universally understandable, spiritually true essence. Van der Leck was covering figure studies with white paint, causing basic geometric shapes to shine through. Van Doesburg designed an all-new alphabet, each character mathematically determined—please don’t ask me to explain it. Schroder and Reitveld, meanwhile, were creating something even more dramatic.

A few days after arriving in Utrecht, I pedaled up to a small house on the outskirts of town. The eastern-facing facade comprised a series of white and gray rectangles, broken up by blue, black, red, and yellow lines, some horizontal, some vertical. A Mondrian painting in the form of a home, in other words. A handful of people had gathered, snapping discreet photos as you would a celebrity. At my appointed hour, I joined a small tour group and stepped inside.

The Rietveld Schröder House is Utrecht’s top De Stijl artifact, and the only inhabitable interpretation of De Stijl ideals in the world. Though Rietveld was officially the architect, they had created it together. To appreciate the total radicalness of the place, you first have to picture what it was rebelling against—those dark, ornate old homes, all that claustrophobic fussiness. Here, sun streamed in from everywhere, brightening a series of white and gray planes. Crisp lines belied a striking fluidity to the spaces. The difference between inside and outside would be hazy, Schröder had decreed. Walls would be moveable, rooms transformable. I climbed a short staircase. At night, Schröder would slide walls this way and that to create bedrooms for the kids. During the day the upper floor would be open. Schröder’s favorite place was the top floor, with its view of the surrounding landscape.

The Rietveld Schröder House would become a pioneering example of modernist architecture (and a UNESCO World Heritage site), and Rietveld would become one of De Stijl’s most celebrated figures Only in recent years would Schröder start to get her due publicly, for her contribution. But far more important to her was the liberation it brought to her life. De Stijl, for Truus Schröder, had given rise to a world that freed her rather than confined her. I get the sense that unlocked a deeper experience of life for her. Thirty-two years after she moved in, Rietveld joined her. They had fallen in love over the course of their collaboration. They lived there for the rest of their lives.

I was in Utrecht for the better part of a week, set up in a small hotel in the historic center, off on my bike every morning. Everything I saw, I saw through the lens of De Stijl. That’s a largely imaginative project, given the decades that have passed since its heyday. You stare at some moorhens bobbing mindlessly in the canal, imagine a less subjective, more universal way of depicting them. You behold a family enjoying a mobile picnic on a rowboat—how would van der Leck have captured this scene?

Utrecht is small enough that you find a favorite café or two after a few days and big enough that an entirely new section reveals itself to you periodically. On my fourth morning, I pedaled out beyond the outer canal to an industrial part of town dotted with anonymous warehouses.

I was supposed to be heading to the Centraal, Utrecht’s main museum, a stately brick building at the tip of the historic center. But its vast De Stijl collection had been temporarily removed during my visit, for a renovation. So I’d finagled a personal tour of the depot where the museum keeps whatever’s not on display. Arriving at the secret address scrawled on my hand, I hit a buzzer and an unmarked door opened.

The woman who admitted me was named Chantal, and after extracting a promise that I’d divulge no details about the location, she led me down a long hallway to a gray metal door. We stepped into a vast and quiet space where thousands of paintings hung cheek by jowl on massive sliding panels, in long rows. Next to this room was another equally vast, and another, and another. If you’ve ever snuck into the Louvre’s private storage unit, it was probably a lot like that.

For the next—what, two hours?—Chantal wheeled out one after another, Huzsárs and van der Lecks and van Doesburgs. By the time you read this, the collection will be back on display and you’ll see what I saw: Private sketchbooks chronicling van Doesburg’s evolution. César Domela Nieuwenhuis’s grid of squares and partial circles, subject unknown but somehow moody. Rietveld’s famous Red and Blue Chair.

I’d read piles and piles of De Stijl criticism by now, but seeing those brush strokes up close, my reaction was visceral. I thought about World War I, still fresh. In Huzsár’s Tangram-like scattering of shapes I saw a desperate reckoning with the chaos of the world.

When I had absorbed all the brush strokes I could, Chantal released me to a sunny Utrecht afternoon. I biked away, still feeling the absurdity of thinking you could remake a broken world with shapes and lines and colors and rules. But I also felt the irrational wonderfulness of trying and was delighted to have come to a city where that had happened.

My last day, a silver sky hung low over town. All week I’d been listening to the composer Jakob van Domselaer, one of the few or maybe only souls who’d interpreted De Stijl’s principles musically. His chords were stark and broken sounding and tense, the sound of a world having unraveled. I put my earbuds in again, bundled up, and biked toward the big metal arch bridge connecting the city to the western suburbs.

Radical and finicky art movements are mortal things. When in 1924 van Doesburg dared to introduce diagonal lines into one of his paintings, Mondrian went crazy. He left the group in protest. That was it—a years-long friendship undone by a diagonal. The movement began to take on a more international character, blending at times with Dadaism. And when a heart attack killed van Doesburg in 1931, De Stijl effectively died, too, 14 years after it began.

I reached the bridge, as a ragged crescendo was building in my earbuds. I pedaled faster. The water below was wide and slate colored; a barge heaped with rusty river detritus plowed solemnly north. A man sat by a lamppost on the far side of the river, sketching. A mom pushed a stroller in one hand and texted with another. Van Domselaer was going berserk, jamming strange notes together, no frills, just the spare essence of something unsettling.

Life has been unsettling lately, too. We don’t have a world war on our hands, but we could use some global harmony all the same. I’m going to go out on a limb and say De Stijl’s aims didn’t come to pass, exactly. But in lieu of remaking society, maybe they effected change at a micro level—a new way of perceiving that society, a woman sliding open walls each morning to live as she wished. Even if it didn’t reconfigure reality, maybe they found a crack in it, and with ink and paint and chords and blueprints widened it a bit.

That was Chris Colin. Chris hasn’t yet found his next tote bag story inspiration, but you can bet we’ll share it here when he does. We’ll link to all the good follow stuff, including his website, socials, and where to buy his books in our show notes. We’ll also link to Chris’s other travel tales. And if you’re wondering about the music of Jakob van Domselaer, the very last song we played in the episode, as Chris was wrapping up his story—it was one of his. Next week, we’ll be back with a trip to British Columbia to explore one of the world’s most inspirational rain forests.

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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.

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