Bitmap Sprite Animation, Circa 1917

De Stijl cover art

I am increasingly fascinated with cultural forms which, though obviously unrelated to actual game technology, can tell us something about the aesthetics or textuality of videogames. This is a recurring theme in my dissertation work, and it leads to interesting finds like the one I present to you today. De Stijl was a Dutch artistic movement founded in 1917 and organized around its eponymous publication, De Stijl. Also known as "neoplasticism," the group was more or less guided by Theo van Doesburg and his philosophical concepts of aesthetics, which was to some extent based on the theosophy of M. H. J. Schoenmaekers. (Here's an interesting article by Jessica Helfand on the subject ).

Many De Stijl works are recognizable for their geometric precision and simple color pallets. Piet Mondrian's compositions in primary colors and right-angles are an example of this. I don't claim to be an art history expert, but as I understand it, van Doesburg's goal (articulated in a series of manifestos) was to find universal principles of aesthetics or a universal language of form that could be used in any context toward the same ends. While this often resulted in pure abstraction, this generally means stripping form down to its essential or minimal components so that any representational quality remaining is ambiguous.

Often, the resulting aesthetic properties remind me of the artwork created for early 80s videogames -- bright colors, grids, and simple representations. I'm not alone in noticing this, of course. The art group Prize Budget for Boys created a series of games based on Piet Mondrians "Broadway Boogie-Woogie." Essentially, they created a playable version of the painting that turns the maze-like structure of the painting into a Pac-Man level. Appropriately, they call it Pac-Mondrian.

One artist whose work I am particularly drawn to is Vilmos Huszár (1884 - 1960). He is perhaps most well known for his packaging design for Miss Bianche Virginia Cigarettes, and he collaborated with Van Doesburg on the cover for the first De Stijl issue (top right). Many of his compositions have a grid-based or bitmapped look, including the following the following clock design (below) which includes representations of zodiac figures, and the column (right) which may or may not have a figural orgin.

Huszar Clock Design totem pole?

In these works, representation is pushed to or perhaps beyond its logical limit, and the result resembles the bitmap graphics stored in Atari 2600 ROMs. One work of Huszár demonstrates this relationship particularly well.

Compositie II (De shaatsenrijders) [Composition II (The Skaters)] depicts a group of skaters in various action poses. Each skater's body is composed of an arrangement of rectanges. The scan I have here is in grayscale, and I have so far not located a color photography, but based on his other works from this period, I think it's probable that these rectangles are red, green and black.

On closer examination, however, another interpretation of the composition presents itself. The figures are actually all arranged in one of 3 poses, each of which is repeated and flipped bilaterally. Because of this, I think it's possible that this depiction is of a single skater in different poses that have been captured over the course of executing a series of maneuvers. In other words, this is a frame-by-frame animation which moves across the skating surface, much like the simple 2 or 3 frame sprite animations found in early videogames.

To illustrate this, I constructed the following animation based on these figures. I isolated each pose, filled in the rectangles with the appropriate color (I think), and animated it in Flash.

Now, to be clear, I'm not arguing that Huszár magically prophesied the technology behind sprite animation, but the ease with which I could create an animation based on it suggests a logical affinity between the two. What I'm getting at is that there's an aesthetic similarity which may tell us something about the lasting influence and popularity of early videogame aesthetics. If we agree that they have something in common visually, then perhaps van Doesburg was on to something with his aesthetic philosophy. Alternatively, maybe the fact that De Stijl has had a lasting influence in modern art and design means that early videogames had a pre-existing aesthetic category to tap into.

At the very least, it's interesting to me that the enforced constraints faced by game programmers produced work that bears some resemblance to the work of artists who chose their own constraints for philosophical reasons.

What do you think? Am I seeing things, or is there something going on here?

Looks good.. theres been a

Looks good.. theres been a couple of art games about Mondrian (Mondrian Provoked) so if nothing else there is something provocative about the formalism of it all.

Pac-Mondrian et al.?

Thanks for letting me know about Mondrian Provoked. I'll check it out.

Are you aware of any others?

I think one could easily argue that Red Square (aka Escape / Escapa!) bears a De Stijl influence, but that's probably accidental in this case (though no less interesting).

Mondrian Provoked

I created Mondrian Provoked. Hope you like it!
Note: It's Windows PC Only


Ha, cool! Mondrian was also an influence on elements of my game. Between Gamma and Blip I had some time in New York to check out MoMA, and I took some pictures.

If anyone has a chance, it's a great museum, and free on Fridays!

Recent comments